I had planned to begin my year of reading science books by women with Natalie Angier’s The Canon but it didn’t work out that way. When I finished reading My Brilliant Career on my Kindle I was away from home and needed something else to read. I had A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel on my Kindle so it ended up being the first science book. I liked it with reservations.
Part of the difficulty of the book is that we don’t have many details about the life of Copernicus. We know the big stuff and we know some of the details (like his long time affair with his housekeeper), but his day to day, how he worked, what he thought about, how he came to the realization that the earth both spun and moved around the sun, things like this we don’t know. Writing a biography about such a person is not easy which might explain why Sobel decided to put a “play” in the long middle section of the book.
Wait, did I say play? Yup. The play goes over the time when Rheticus, who become Copernicus’s only student, arrived until Copernicus’s death. Much of it is fiction and speculation mixed in with a few facts. When the book returns to nonfiction it rehashes the same time period but with the known information. The play section is really weird and out of place. It is pointless and not even that well written so it just ends up being filler.
The actual biography and history parts are good though and really interesting. Copernicus was a canon in the Catholic Church in Poland. Along with being a Canon, he was also a medical doctor and took care of the health of the other Canons in the region as well as the Bishop. He seems to have been a pretty good doctor for the time. Between his Church and doctoring duties he watched the stars and took extremely precise measurements.
Somehow he had the ability to observe carefully and not try to fit his observations into the pre-existing box of astronomy that said the earth was the center of the universe. Astrologers at the time took great pains and used great imagination in order to make their observations fit into the dogma of an earth-centered universe. But Copernicus came to understand the heavens differently. He wrote to a few mathematicians about his discovery and the letter was shared and copied and passed around to others. He was encouraged to publish a book and indeed, he spent years working on On the Revolutions but never intended to publish it because he was afraid of being laughed at and or persecuted.
The appearance of Rheticus changed that. He helped Copernicus finish the book and took it to a well-respected printer in Nuremberg. Rheticus shepherded the book through a large part of the publishing process but got a professorship in Leipzig so handed over the reins to Andreas Osiander. Osiander was very religious and added an introduction to the book that said Copernicus’s theory wasn’t necessarily true, it was just how he managed to work out all the math, fix the calendar, and create all those tables with the calculations of the movements of the various stars and planets. Copernicus didn’t know this because he had a stroke and was slowly dying. He saw the final printed pages of his book just before he died.
He therefore didn’t have to suffer the ignominy of nobody believing his theory and just using his tables for their astronomical predictions. Weird as it seems, it was within Church doctrine to cast horoscopes since they believed that the heavens held God’s answers to everything, but it was not okay to say the earth moved around the sun.
Then along came Galileo with his spyglass and Galileo was finally able to offer some proof that Copernicus was right. He published, was denounced by the Church and put on trial and made to recant. If I am understanding it correctly, the issue wasn’t so much that Galileo said the earth revolved around the sun, it was more about the proof he provided and the bit of Biblical interpretation he included in his argument to try to refute those who used the Bible to say the earth was the center of the universe. Catholic law forbade laymen from interpreting the Bible. The Catholic Church came down hard on him for daring to contradict their interpretation of scripture.
Eventually, of course, the truth won out. There are 277 copies of the first edition of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions known to exist and 324 copies of the second edition. in June 2008, an unannotated first edition sold at Christie’s for $2,210,500.00.
What Copernicus did is truly amazing especially given the, what we would consider crude, tools he had. Sobel sums it all up nicely:
Copernicus strove to restore astronomy to a prior, purer simplicity—a geometric Garden of Eden. He sacrificed the Earth’s stability to that vision, and pushed the stars out of his way. To contemporaries who doubted the grandiose dimensions of the heliocentric design, Copernicus replied, “So vast, without any question, is the divine handiwork of the most excellent Almighty.”
If you want to learn about Copernicus do read this book. You can confidently skip the second section with the play in it. You won’t miss anything. The first section and the third section are good and interesting and enjoyable reading both about Copernicus and the history of an idea that no one wanted to believe.