"It is decidedly not profitable to study most of the scientific classics." Such a statement might be dismissed as a shocker from an upstart cynic, but coming as it did from the late George Sarton, dean of historians of science, it demands respectful attention. Sarton meant that the scientific "classics" are poor textbooks for today's student. They are difficult to read and from the viewpoint of present-day knowledge often inaccurate. How many of us have plunged diligently, even enthusiastically into Newton's Principia, only to bog down within a few pages without learning much of mechanics or of the author's genius?
Exceptions do exist, however. Sarton names Euclid's Elements; Gilbert's On the Magnet is another—one of the great books of science, both "profitable" and enjoyable to read.
Gilbert (1544-1603) was a prominent physician in Elizabethan London. He hid his magnetic light under a bushel, as he was elected President of the