The novelist and all-rounder Arthur Koestler wrote a bestselling popular history of astronomy `The Sleepwalkers' (1959), in which he rated one of astronomy's key historic texts as a dull, unread technical treatise that failed to have the impact in the sixteenth century that might be supposed for all its subsequent fame. The book is `De revolutionibus orbium coelestium' (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) by the Polish Catholic Nicolas Copernicus. A good first or second edition now might fetch up to half a million dollars at auction. This book is the autobiographical account of Owen Gingerich, a Smithsonian professor of astronomy and history of science at Harvard, who determined to find out if this panning of a great work could be true, or at least, how true it was. His method was to locate and examine every known accessible copy of the great book, both first edition of 1543, and second edition of 1566. The annotations, marginalia, provenances, and surrounding documents would reveal the true story. Not too surprisingly, Koestler was radically wrong. But the main interest of the story is the sheer time and persistence over three decades and two continents, and the array of skills and resources required to complete a very good but still partial review of the individual volumes in libraries and collections both public and private.
As history of science and history of ideas this is a very interesting book, although it focuses on just one book. As it turns out, it also happens to be a very effective illustration of how real science is done, how the scientific community worked then, and how hard it is to overturn a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense, even when the minds engaged are the most brilliant and most informed available. How little did they imagine how closely their marginal notes would be checked and cross-checked over four hundred years later. And again, although this is far from the intention of the book, it reveals a great deal about the much-supposed conflict between science and religion from the time of Copernicus and Galileo onwards. The revealing of the political and religious aspects of the progress of science is often at variance with the commonly told biased versions in the public domain. The actual behaviour of the Catholic church in very belatedly censoring the book only amounted to the crossing out of a few lines of the book, and then only lightly if the censor so desired (as was often the case), and this occurred only in Italy, not in Catholic France or Spain, and only two-thirds of the copies in Italy were actually censored! Just as interestingly, the actual production of the book, virtually the summation of the life work of the Copernicus, Catholic canon of the Frauenburg Cathedral, only happened with the skilful persuasion of his one and only student, the Protestant Georg Rheticus. Although his is not a well known name now, he had a large part to play in the production of the great book. It should be noted that the Protestant Reformation was not yet fully hardened into battle lines at this time though - the Council of Trent had not yet happened.
Some of the harder aspects of the book are apparent in that it assumes a fair amount of background knowledge (but luckily no real maths), in astronomy. I suppose the fact that it makes me inclined to work backwards and read Koestler's `Sleepwalkers' is a good thing! There are lots of observations on the fall of communism in the USSR and the removal of the Berlin wall - as history wrote itself, while Professor Gingerich followed his historical passion. An interesting companion view of the science-religion nexus of supposed conflict is found in the chapter on Galileo in `Six Modern Myths', by Philip Samson (2000), published by IVP. This takes the conflict myth as its starting point, so forming a very pertinent contrast and confirmation of the Copernican story. One of the unexpected bonuses of the book is the liberal sprinkling of interesting accounts of FBI interventions in chasing book thieves, and the good professor's court appearances and general services as a world authority on the book. An American Protestant professor of the 21st century, defending the property rights of the world's libraries in an astronomical text by a Catholic canon of the 16th century - now that's ecumenicism!