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A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos

A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos - Dava Sobel This is the story of Nicolaus Copernicus and how his book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) revolutionized astronomy. There are two facts about Copernicus that I found astounding. First, astronomy was his hobby not his occupation. Second, his book was almost NOT published.

His job as church canon meant that he worked full time with responsibilities that included tasks such as administering church farm rental lands, negotiating peace terms with the Teutonic Knights and responding to unreasonable demands from his Bishop while acting in the role of physician. Somehow he found time to observe and record locations of the stars, planets, moon and sun. (He apparently didn't need much sleep.) He also combed through early Greek and Roman astronomical records and compared them with observations of his day. Then he applied his math skills to discover that they followed patterns that coordinated with a hypothetical model of the planets, including the earth, orbiting the sun while the earth rotated on a tilted axis and the moon rotated around the earth.

He apparently experienced his epiphany regarding heliocentrism in about 1510 and shared his idea with others by way of letters and distributing a sketchy outline. Over the next three decades he continued to collect astronomical observations and perfected his calculations, but refused of publish his theory in a book.

This biography of Copernicus seems to suggest the reason for his reticence to publish was his fear of objections from the church and critical scrutiny from other astronomers. I personally picked up an impression of an alternative reason; that he was simply busy with other responsibilities and procrastinated on writing his book.

Then, in 1539, a young enigmatic mathematician and aspiring astrologer hamed Rheticus showed up at Copernicus’s door and begged him to publish a book about his heliocentric theory. Apparently Rheticus refused to take no for an answer. For the next couple years Rheticus somehow cajoled Copernicus to collect together his astronomical data and calculations and write his book about the movements of the "Celestial Spheres." In 1542 Rheticus delivered the manuscript to a printer of scientific books.

Copernicus suffered a stroke soon after finishing the manuscript and was in a partial coma for a number of months. Copernicus died on the same day that the first printed copy of the book was delivered and placed in his hands. One can't help but wonder if he had any idea what a significant contribution he had made to the advancement of science.

I found it interesting how the author, Dava Sobel, managed to turn the available information about Copernicus into a book length story. The problem is that most of the surviving documentation regarding Copernicus’ life are business and accounting types of documents which frankly aren’t very interesting and have nothing to do with astronomy. He left no diary describing the details of his epiphany when he first thought of the heliocentric model. And there is no detailed descriptions of how Rheticus managed to talk Copernicus into writing his book.

Dava Sobel’s clever solution was to imagine a fictional rendering of the Copernicus/Rheticus encounter and inserted it as Part Two into this book. Her dramatization was written in play/drama format which makes it quite distinctive from the prose of the nonfiction narrative contained in parts one and three of the book. This approach helps the reader to distinguish the fictional part from the nonfiction. I think this approach was well done and managed to convey emotion and setting more clearly than if the book had been all nonfiction narrative.

Part One of the book describes Copernicus’ life. Part Three describes the reactions to his book, includes a description of Rheticus’ life, and tells of the later actions of Galileo and Kepler to advance and improve on the details of the heliocentric model.

There were contemporaries of Copernicus who agreed that the heliocentric model correctly described the movement of planets and earth. But only Copernicus could published a book that carried convincing credibility because he was the only one who had combined his lifetime of astronomical observations with mathematical calculations to develop tables and formulas that could be used to predict future movements based on the heliocentric model.