John Banville's 'Dr Copernicus' dramatises the mystery surrounding the life and work of this epoch-making scientist: why did he not publish his demolition of Ptolomey's theory of an Earth-centred cosmos in his own lifetime? Did he hesitate to place the Sun in the centre from fear of the Inquisition or from a realization that he was overturning a view of the world which his civilisation had held dear for 1,500 years? This novel doesn't give any easy answers; it dramatises the conflicts within Copernicus: priest or scientist, Pole or German (or neither), Catholic or Reformist, hetero- or bi-sexual, Medieval or Modern. There are no answers because Copernicus is a man who, in this imaginative reconstruction, stands on the border between all these conditions and is and remains ambiguous and mysterious. John Banville began writing about science and the scientific life in the '70s before the recent avalanche of popular science books. Readers who enjoyed 'Longitude' or its imitators might seek out this more biographic and dramatic approach to the question, 'what is it like to make a major scientific discovery?' But why not forget about all that and plunge into Banville's beautiful and astringent prose. I cannot remember how many times I have read this book, perhaps four or five? In any case, whenever I pick it up again, I appreciate once more the subtleties of its vortex-like plot, the superb characterisation not only of the misanthropic Doctor but also of his awe-struck and envious colleagues, the beauty of its descriptions of the Baltic and Italy. Read it and then read Banville's follow-up 'Kepler' which carries forward the bizarre story of the birth of modern astronomy.
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