May 29, 2020

Review: A More Perfect Heaven by Dava Sobel.

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Behind every great scientific mind is a good publicist. This week, we look at one of the greatest, Nicholas Copernicus and the revolution in heliocentric thinking that sparked the Renaissance movement that became modern astronomy. The life and turbulent times of Copernicus is elegantly laid out in Dava Sobel’s new book, A More Perfect Heaven, How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos out from Walker & Company Books. Mrs. Sobel has been a noted chronicler of astronomical history, penning such noted works as Longitude, The Planets, and Galileo’s Daughter. In A More Perfect Heaven, we see how a “perfect storm” of political and religious events laid a backdrop for Copernicus and his revolutionary idea; that the Sun, and not the Earth lay at the center of the cosmos. Paradoxically, this vaunted position was also considered “the pit of the universe,” a secular place not fit for celestial beings to inhabit. Copernicus was also the contemporary of religious reformer Martin Luther (who also rejected heliocentrism) and only preceeded Tycho Brahe by a generation, who would spend most of his life trying to establish a working hybrid of the geocentric and heliocentric system. Precious little of Copernicus’s correspondence and notes beyond his landmark De Revolutionibus exists. It was through his sole student and ardent fan-boy, German mathematician Georg Rheticus that we may know of the works of the reclusive Copernicus at all. Sobel devotes a two-act play in the book to a dramatization of the meeting of these two renaissance minds, as well as insight into the daily life of Copernicus, the local administrator via such levies as the Bread Tariff. Copernicus was also a brilliant administrator of things terrestrial, and advised the local Duke against flooding the market with new (and ultimately worthless) currency, a message many traders could heed today.

But it was ultimately the motions of the heavens that fascinated Copernicus and his obsession with the predictions and tables of the ancient Greeks. Upon witnessing several eclipses, Copernicus became convinced that the tables that had been devised thousands of years prior were now in error, and that larger and more subtle effects had to be accounted for. But rather than simply dismissing Ptolemy in error, Copernicus used these ancient observations as a spring-board for his new concepts. The new Copernican heliocentric theory gained a slow but steady acceptance for one sole feature; it worked. While some may have dismissed heliocentrism as an academic abstraction that had no literal basis (and many did just that) it began to be acknowledged for its predictive power as the best model of the universe yet; you could say that the Moon is going to occult Venus next Wednesday night, for example, and viola! Copernicus was right, again… And while the Church saw it fit to put De Revolutionibus on its list of heretical texts, its accurate predictions for the length of the tropical year and the synodic month were crucial to the reform of the calendar, giving us the Gregorian calendar we enjoy today. And of course, allowing for prediction of that all important moveable feast, Easter…

Dava Sobel’s A More Perfect Heaven is a great read of a fascinating man and his impact on astronomy. The indentified remains of Copernicus were finally interred in 2010 at Frombork Cathedral in Poland amid much fanfare. One minor mystery about Copernicus was never truly addressed in the book; the legend that he never saw the planet Mercury (I find this a bit apocryphal and perhaps hard to believe, but have always wondered… where did this bit of lore come from?)  I’d also love to see Sobel take on probably one of the greatest characters in historical astronomy; Tycho Brahe. Mentioned in A More Perfect Heaven, tales of the hard-partying Dane could serve as a worthy book in their own right!


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