Please note that three stars means that I thought that the book was OK, not that I disliked it, and the following explains why I was not more enthusiastic about it.
I must apologize for the length of this review, but I find that it requires more space for detailed criticisms than simple praise. I have read two of the author's previous books and was looking forward to this one, but found that it did not meet with my high expectations. My major complaint was that the book was very superficial and I was hoping for more. The aim of this review is to tell a prospective reader about this book and why they might, or might not, like it. My overall review is mixed, but this is because the book is likely to be embraced by some readers, but many others will be turned off by its format and style. The format of this book is somewhat unorthodox as the middle third of the book consists of a short two-act play about Copernicus's life and how his book, "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres", came to be published. At the beginning of Dava Sobel's book she explains that it was her original intention to have the play stand alone, but was then convinced by her editor to ".... plant it in the broad context of history by surrounding the imagined scenes with a fully documented factual narrative of Copernicus's life story ...". Thus, first and foremost this book was meant to be of literary interest - a play, but one surrounded by a factually historical narrative. I will thus review the book in terms of its literary merit and then in terms of its historical and scientific merit.
AS A WORK OF LITERATURE - Dava Sobel is a gifted writer whose prose is always quite interesting. She utilizes this skill to bring historical subjects of a scientific nature to life. The prose of this book is no exception. The play, which occupies the middle third of the book, is historical fiction concerning interactions of Copernicus and his Bishop, and with George Joachim Rheticus a Protestant scholar who came to a Catholic land, at some personal risk, to see and learn from Copernicus. The first act of the play is mostly concerned with the conflict between Catholics and Protestants and to a discussion of Copernicus's model of the heavens. The second act also deals Copernicus's model for the heavens and with Rheticus's successful attempt at convincing Copernicus to allow him to assist in getting the manuscript that Copernicus had been working on for 30 years ready for publication, and finally to be allowed to take it away for publication. I found the play to be mildly interesting and for the most part the action was based on the historical record. It did add some to the presentation of Copernicus's ideas and the conflicts surrounding his life, but much of the play was low farce, with a considerable amount of the action concerning Copernicus's relationship with his housekeeper and Rheticus's relationship with a 14-year-old boy. While there is some historical justification for both (but not as depicted in the play), they did not add to my scientific or historical understanding of Copernicus. I also found that Sobel took some liberties with the science portrayed in the play. She has Copernicus explaining the motion of the earth using the ideas proposed by Galileo about one hundred years later. The idea that Copernicus did not want to publish his ideas because he was afraid of the Church's reaction is also more suited to Galileo's time than that of Copernicus. Copernicus's early presentation of his ideas brought ridicule rather than condemnation. In fact, "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres" did not attract the censure of the Catholic Church until more than 70 years after its first publication. I would give Sobel's book 3 stars for the play and 4 for the rest of the text.
AS A WORK OF HISTORICAL NARATIVE - The first third of the book is concerned with Copernicus's and the historical events that he was party to. However, I found that there was little in-depth discussion of these events and their impact on Copernicus's scientific contributions. There is a lot of material regarding the conflicts with the Teutonic Knights that I found of historical interest, and quite a bit of the book is taken up with descriptions of Copernicus's duties as a civil administrator (he was a church canon). However, several pages consist of sentences such as "Stenzel Zupky took possession of a parcel which Matz Slander with my permission sold to him for 33 marks." While interesting at first, I found that the amount of space devoted to this sort of material eventually became distracting. This part of the book is somewhat interesting, but superficial and I found that it presented a far from complete historical picture and that very important facts were omitted. For instance: 1) One gets the impression from her text that being a church canon was a completely secular office, which is not the case. As a canon, in addition to his numerous secular administrative duties, Copernicus also assisted the priest with the Mass, and more importantly was required to be celibate. This is important because it explains the conflict that he had with his bishop over his live-in housekeeper, who was also accused of being his mistress. The letters regarding his housekeepers are quoted from, yet the critical fact of Copernicus's required celibacy is not mentioned. This omitted fact explains the several references to concerns about canons and housekeepers and explains why Copernicus never married. The requirement for a canon to be celibate is also important because several other canons left to become Protestants, so that they could marry and the accusation that Copernicus was not celibate left him open to the suspicion that he would likewise flee to marry. According to other books, this conflict over his personal behavior weighed heavily on Copernicus and was an important aspect of his life. 2) His first brief communication regarding the idea of a sun-centered universe is discussed. A few pages later, a book called Commentariolus is mentioned, but it is not explained that this is the name given to his brief communication, but many years after Copernicus's death. It was not known by this title during his lifetime. Another, more important feature of this communication that is not mentioned is that in it he promised to subsequently publish a fuller account of his idea. In fact, it was this promise that led to the events depicted in the play. 3) The book contains some discussion of astrology, including the fact that this was part of Copernicus's medical studies. However, there is almost no discussion of the importance of astrology and the fact astrology was the main, and for most people the only, reason why they studied the positions of the planets against the background of the stars. Astrology was not an just a sort of "elective" that Copernicus took while studying medicine. Rather it was central to it, as astrology was required to determine the most propitious times for treatment. Sobel states that Copernicus did not cast horoscopes, a statement that is at variance with the other books that I have read, especially since astrology would have been an important part of his medical work. The question of astrology is central to the scientific aspects of Copernicus's work, which is mentioned below. 4) There is little or no discussion as to why Copernicus's writings were not suppressed during his lifetime and how the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Catholic Counter Reformation influenced this.
These examples point to omissions and a lack of the in-depth analysis that I was hoping for, particularly why Copernicus buried his manuscript for more than 30 years. In terms of history, I rate this book 3.5 stars. If your want a clear, straightforward, description of Copernicus's life and times I recommend Jack Repcheck's "Copernicus' Secret". It is not written is quite as literary a manner, but I think that it does present a clearer picture.
The last third of the book discusses the final publication of Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and some of the history of the science that followed it. I liked this final third of the book and it was this portion that raised impression of the history in the book to 3.5 stars. This part of the book describes the publication of "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres" in some detail and added to my knowledge of this subject. It was followed by two chapters that discuss the work of Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei. The final chapter, which I found to be perhaps the most interesting in the book, was a discussion of an annotated census of the extant copies of "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres". It contains a discussion of Johannes Kepler's copy of the book and the fact that a previous owner had added the word ellipse in Greek in a section concerning a correction to the a circular orbit that Copernicus had to make. It is tempting to think that when Kepler was struggling to explain the orbit of Mars, that this might have been the clue that led him to conclude that it was elliptical, along with that of the other planets.
AS A WORK THAT DESCTIBES WHAT COPERNICUS DID SCIENTIFICALLY - This is the weakest aspect of the book, and I feel that the book is highly deficient in this area. A few paragraphs are devoted to the Ptolemaic theory that Copernicus was trying to overturn, but I felt that the presentation was very unclear. A few simple diagrams would have been very helpful in explaining epicycles, eccentrics and equants. Of even more concern is the fact that Copernicus did not develop the theory that we recognize today. Because he assumed that the orbits were circular he was forced to still require epicycles and eccentrics in his theory, although he was able to eliminate the need for equants. The fact is that his theory did not allow for any more accurate calculations of the positions of the plants, required for the casting of horoscopes, than the Ptolemaic calculations did, nor was it appreciably simpler to use. Sobel's book does not actually say much about the exact nature of "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres", most specifically that only one section provided a simple picture of a sun-centered heaven, with the rest of the book being a complex mathematical text, which only the best mathematicians of his age could understand. Indeed, this was one reasons why the book escaped censure for more than 70 years. In terms of the scientific content of the book, I would rate it overall at 2 stars, although the aforementioned discussion of how Kepler might have decided that the planets moved in elliptical orbits was a five star revelation to me, but unfortunately this was the only one. If one really wants to understand what Copernicus did and did not do, then there is no better source than Thomas Kuhn's classic work "the Copernican Revolution", which is referenced in Sobel's book.
The book contains numerous illustrations, interspersed in the text. They are very well reproduced. There is also a useful Copernican chronology. As has been noted, my view of the book is varied, depending upon how it is viewed (as literature, history or science). Those who want a literate, but superficial presentation of Copernicus's work will like this book, but those who seek a deeper understanding of it will be disappointed. On average I could only give the book 3 stars.
59 of 65 people found the following review helpful
Creative and Readable History of Copernicus and the Sun-Centered World3 Sept. 2011
Dava Sobels' "A More Perfect Heaven" is a biography of Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, a history of the development of his theory of a sun-centric solar system, and an engaging look into a Europe on the cusp of transitioning from a dark and paranoid medieval society to an enlightened and brighter renaissance future.
While the focus of Sobels' work is her history of Copernicus the man, his science and mathematics, Sobels' biggest victory is her fictionalized drama of how Copernicus' only student, Rheticus, eventually convinced Copernicus to complete his work and share his theory and proofs of a sun-centric universe with the world.
I was reticent when I read that Sobel had included a dramatic play smack in the middle of her history. First, I've found plays difficult to read and couldn't imagine how it could seamlessly integrate into Sobels' work. Second...what? A play? In the middle of a history?
But it worked. It worked very well as a matter of fact. Sobels' play imagines the interactions between Rheticus, a young mathematics professor from Wittenberg, home of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and Copernicus in Poland. There's not a lot of action in the drama, so the dialogue-focused interplay successfully blends the historical characterizations into a very believable situation. Sobel peppers the preceding chapters with enough background on medieval Europe of the time as well as the participating characters that the 75 pages or so of the play work extremely well.
Surrounding the drama, Sobel serves heaping spoonfuls of a heavily religious dark ages Poland, and medieval astronomy.
She best summarizes the dramatic events surrounding Copernicus' work: "The bold plan for astronomical reform that Copernicus conceived and then nurtured over decades in his spare time struck him as the blueprint for the 'marvelous symmetry of the universe'...He proceeded cautiously, first leaking the idea to a few fellow mathematicians, never trying to proselytize. All the while real and bloody revolutions -- the Protestant Reformation, the Peasant Rebellion, warfare with the Teutonic Knights and the Ottoman Turks -- churned around him."
There are two elements of Copernicus' being that particularly impressed me. First, he was an extraordinarily literate man. Some of the quotes that Sobel includes in her book paint him in a uniquely poetic light. He wrote, for example, "Among the many various literary and artistic pursuits upon which the natural talents of man are nourished, I think the ones above all to be embraced and pursued with the most loving care concern the most beautiful and worthy objects, most deserving to be known. This is the nature of the discipline that deal with the god-like circular movement of the world and the course of the stars."
Second, Copernicus was an extremely detail-oriented individual. If the devil is in the details, then Copernicus, who was schooled in religion and lived in a very religiously oriented society, took that term to heart. Documentation still exists with the exhaustive notations he made while tracking and diagnosing the heavens, as well as his more earth-bound pursuits as an administrator for the Polish government/church. I've read about Galileo before and have always been utterly amazed at the patience and discipline it requires to track the course of the stars and heavenly bodies over the course of years. To remain doggedly at watch every single day, through wars, illness and weather, to gather such a wealth of detailed data reflects tremendous patience, focus and perhaps more than a little obsession.
The following was written in an 1878 publication of `Popular Astronomy', "The great merit of Copernicus, and the basis of his claim to the discovery in question, is that he was not satisfied with a mere statement of his views, but devoted a large part of the labor of a life to the demonstration, and thus laced them in such a light as to render their ultimate acceptance inevitable."
Copernicus first wrote on his concept of a sun-centered universe in 1510, over 30 years before he would finally find the courage and confidence to publish his full "On the Revolutions." His initial conclusions, Sobel writes, were reached through "intuition and mathematics. No astronomical observations were required." Copernicus wrote, "All spheres surround the Sun as though it were in the middle of all of them, and therefore the center of the universe is near the Sun. What appear to us as motions of the Sun arise not from its motion but from the motion of the Earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the Sun like any other planet." Sobel writes that "with a wave of his hand, (Copernicus) had made the Earth a planet and set it spinning."
So what was Copernicus doing between 1510 and the publishing of his great work (and his death) in 1543, and why was he unable to be part of his work's impact on the world?
The spread of Lutheranism had great impact by creating a wide religious schism, spreading fear and limiting Copernicus' comfort in publishing his work. He was a very practical man and very attuned to the tone of church and politics, and how closely connected they were. Sobel writes, "With his book virtually complete by 1535, Copernicus lost courage. He worried that his labored calculations and tables would not yield the perfect match with planetary positions that he had aimed to achieve. He feared the public reaction. He empathized with the ancient sage Pythagoras, who had communicated his most beautiful ideas only to kinsmen and friends, and only by word of mouth. Despite the decade of effort invested in the text, Copernicus eschewed publication. If his theory appeared in print, he said, he would be laughed off the stage."
So during this time, he took a whole lot of astronomical measurements. There was not an eclipse, full moon, or shift in the position of the stars that Copernicus missed and documented. He was building his case that the Earth spun, and it and the other planets revolved around the Sun.
Copernicus was also a relatively highly placed administrator in the Polish government/church. Sobel points to extant documents that show his judgements in various cases regarding local law and commerce. Naturally, everything he touched was exhaustively detailed.
He was also a well-known and respected mathematician. Pope Leo X called on theologians and astronomers to help correct the flaws in the Julian calendar that were pushing Christian holidays further and further from their traditional timeframes. Historical documents confirm Copernicus' role in helping to correct the calendar, but there exists nothing more specific.
Sobel concludes that, "He held off publishing his theory for so long that when his great book, 'On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres', finally appeared in print, its author breathed his last. Copernicus never heard any of the criticism, or acclaim, that attended 'On the Revolutions.' Decades after his death, when the first telescopic discoveries lent credence to his intuitions, the Holy Office of the Inquisition condemned his efforts...The philosophical conflict and change in perception that his ideas engendered are sometimes referred to as the Copernican Revolution."
Sobels' book is enjoyable. Her narrative approach to writing history addresses the nuanced details important in a serious work, while maintaining readability throughout. There are stretches of dry writing where Copernicus orbits the political, religious and military intrigue of Middle Ages Poland. This is a relatively minor complaint of Sobels' tightly written history. And don't fear the authors' fiction. It reads terrifically well while incorporating humor, history and believability.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
A most curious (though excellent) biography1 Sept. 2011
The name of Nicholas Copernicus is widely recognized, even among those with only a passing familiarity with the sciences, as the author of the first influential heliocentric theory of the solar system. (Aristarchus of Samos had proposed a heliocentric theory ca. 300 BC, but it was not accepted among his contemporaries). Those with a bit more interest in the history of science may also know that it was not widely circulated during his lifetime, and that he was a Catholic cleric. But that's where the story generally ends. Even though the name of Copernicus is invoked in just about every popular introduction to astronomy, the main remains largely a cipher.
Dava Sobel is a well known writer who has specialized in what are best described as historical scientific biographies who is as interested in the lives of great scientists and the worlds they lived in as much as she is in their accomplishments. Certainly it's only possible to truly appreciate the work of a Galileo, or a William Harrison when you understand how their ideas may have clashed with the orthodoxies of the day, or what social factors may have influenced their development. As the author of several books and essays on great figures in the history of astronomy, it is no surprise that Sobel has turned her attention to this most seminal of figures.
The education of Copernicus followed a pattern that was not unusual for scholars in his day, studying, in turn, theology, astronomy, medicine, and law, as part of his training to serve the Church. At the age of thirty seven he was appointed a canon, and thereafter spent most of his career in the Church dealing with civil matters, such as the defense of the city and the apportionment of lands and rents. As part of his responsibilities in those early days he kept very detailed records and left a good paper trail that allow Sobel to reconstruct his everyday life in some detail. He also became very interested in matters of coinage, arguing for minting standards at a time when every prince or ruler of a city might issue their own coins, debasing the metallic content when gold was in short supply.
It was around the time of his appointment that he came to the conclusion, based on his readings, that a heliocentric model of the solar system (which at that time was essentially the same as the Universe) was the obvious solution to the complex problems of cycles and epicycles that characterized the then-accepted Ptolemaic model. He discussed this idea with a few close friends, and continued to work on refining his model for the next thirty years or more.
Why he did not publish is a matter of debate. Under his (relatively) liberal Prussian rulers Copernicus did not run the same risks that Galileo did nearly a century later, owing to Galileo's proximity to Rome (and his abrasive personality, according to many.) Copernicus was nevertheless concerned with the reaction his contemporaries might have to such revolutionary ideas, and it was not until shortly before his death, at the urging of many of his friends and supporters, that he acquiesced to publication. By then, his ideas had already begun to circulate throughout Europe and were influencing philosophers across the continent.
In A More Perfect Heaven, Sobel has chosen to present Copernicus' story in an unusual way. The book is divided into three parts: In part 1, we learn the story of Copernicus' life from his birth until around the age of sixty seven; at the end of this section we are introduced to a young mathematician by the name of Joachim Rheticus, who would later figure largely in Copernicus decision to publish. In Part 3, we take up the story of Rheticus again, and his work as Copernicus' proofreader, advocate and student, through the publication of the theory and it influence on those who followed him.
It's Part 2 that gives me pause. Between the two narratives Sobel has inserted a two-act play entitled "And the Sun Stood Still" in which she imagines the dialogues between Copernicus and Rheticus (and a few other important players) leading up to Copernicus' decision to publish. As drama, it reads very well, but I was somewhat put off finding an extended work of fiction in the middle of a biography. I'm still undecided on that point.
Regardless, this is an excellent book- as good as (or better than) any of Sobel's previous works, and- if the reader can accept the unusual structure- a very enjoyable read.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
`The motions of the planets captured Copernicus's interest from the start of his university studies.'18 Nov. 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
Nicolaus Copernicus (19 February 1473 - 24 May 1543), a Polish mathematician and astronomer, was the first person to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric astronomical model of our solar system. In this book, Ms Sobel provides a biography of Copernicus together with a history of the development of his heliocentric astronomical model. Copernicus was working during a period of change in Europe: the relatively gradual move from the medieval period to the renaissance was accompanied by the more dramatic (and bloody) events of the Protestant Reformation and the Peasant Rebellion, as well as warfare with the Teutonic Knights and the Ottoman Turks.
There are three parts to this book: in Part One Ms Sobel presents how Copernicus came to his view of the cosmos; Part Two is a two act play dramatizing the few months of collaboration between Copernicus and his student Georg Joachim von Lauchen (16 February 1514 - 4 December 1574) (known as Rheticus); and Part Three presents the publication of Copernicus's work just before his death.
`With his book virtually complete by 1535, Copernicus lost courage. He worried that his laboured calculations and tables would not yield the perfect match with planetary positions that he had aimed to achieve.'
Understanding the times in which Copernicus lived goes a long way towards explaining why he hesitated to publish his work. Copernicus occupied a privileged but relatively precarious position as a canon at Frauenberg cathedral: privileged because of the income it afforded him but precarious because of marauding Teutonic knights and the rapidly spreading Lutheran `heresy'. Ms Sobel brings aspects of this hesitation to life, in the form of a play - an imagined dialogue between Copernicus and Rheticus, who met Copernicus just four years before Copernicus died.
`No one knows what the brilliant, fervent young Rheticus said when he accosted the elderly, beleaguered Copernicus in Frauenberg. It is safe to assume he did not laugh at the idea of the earth in motion.'
Ms Sobel's play builds on the history and background established in the earlier chapters of the work and breathes life into Copernicus and Rheticus by allowing both Copernicus and Rheticus to express their views and concerns directly. I admit that I did not expect this technique to be as effective as it was. While reading the play isn't essential to appreciate Copernicus's life and work, it's interesting to speculate on the content of the conversations between the two men.
Those who want more detailed information about Copernicus's scientific work will not find it here. Readers primarily interested in Copernicus's life, and the period in which he lived, should find this book interesting reading. Ms Sobel includes some quotes from Copernicus's writings which share his thoughts directly with us. We know that Copernicus documented his work extensively; I wonder how much of this documentation still exists, and where?
To me, this is 3rd in the incredible trilogy of books by Dava Sobel. First, Longitude, second, Galileo's Daughter, and then this at a distant third.
Let me start with the strengths.
Part II is a perfectly executed attempt to capture the moment Copernicus finally shared his vision of a heliocentric universe. Sobel tells the story via a play with 6 characters. Nobody knows what really happened but that will not stop you from enjoying this fictional recreation. Superb narration and playfulness. I suspect this will be an off broadway production in the years to come.
Part III is a historical account of how the world responded to Copernicus' scientific advances. This section was riveting. Sobel moves from the difficulties in getting the book published to the varied Church responses over decades and centuries to the influences on Kepler, Galileo, etc.
Unfortunately, I was not as keen on Part I, which dealt with social and political minutiae surrounding young Copernicus. In fact, I didn't even recognize Sobel's writing style. History buffs might find this section enjoyable. In contrast, I found myself skipping pages, fidgeting, and almost giving up on the book. Thankfully I didn't as the book changes for the better in Parts II and III.
I do wish there were more details on the following: When did Copernicus know that the prevailing view of the universe was wrong? How did he handle this tension? How did he stifle and compartmentalize such a profound passion as well as such a profound discovery? Why did he wait 30 years to publish his ideas? Much is made of his fear of being scrutinized and there is an assumption that his work with Church made his disclosure even more difficult. However, this is hard to reconcile with the perseverance and passion he devoted to his discoveries. A more nuanced psychological analysis would have been a useful supplement to the historical and cultural lens offered in this book.
In the end, I cannot speak more highly of Sobel as a writer and will read every one of her books to come. Perhaps it is a compliment to say that after finishing, I craved another book on Copernicus to fill the gaps.