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Friday, June 19, 2015

A More Perfect Heaven. How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos. Dava Sobel. Bloomsbury ( 2011)

A very engaging and informative history of Copernicus who proposed and  largely demonstrated that the Earth revolves the sun and not the other way around. This was just the wrong idea at the wrong time from the wrong person. What Dava Sobel shows with clarity, telling detail and a very easy style to read is that the political and social context made the work that Copernicus did too uncomfortable to accept. Scientific accuracy was never the problem, the broader historical forces that were breaking forth were demanding allegiance that required obedience not proof .
Nicolaus Copernicus was a Polish cleric in the Catholic Church who had a strong talent for mathematics and a fascination for astronomy. This was deeply rooted in his faith, the cosmos was the work of God and to study it was to study the glory of God. There was a strongly practical aspect also, the need to establish a reliable calendar to ensure that religious festivals, in particular Easter, were celebrated on the correct days was very important. The problem was that the work to establish a correct calendar lead someone with the scientific  integrity of Copernicus to the conclusion that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the reverse.
This was a problem as episode in the bible had been taken as the proof that the the Sun revolved around the earth, an idea supported by the previous giant of astronomy, Ptolmey of Egypt. Copernicus's idea was directly contradicting both a faith based interpretation and the weight of historical tradition. At any time both of these would have been formidable obstacles to the acceptance of a new idea, unfortunately this was also the time when the Protestant Reformation, spearheaded by Martin Luther challenged the spiritual legitimacy of the Catholic Church and upended the political context in Europe. New ideas in this volatile atmosphere were always going to be threats or weapons to be used in ways far removed from their actual content.
Copernicus spent his life trying to balance the increasing polarised demands of the church with his own  observations and deductions. It took the,slightly unintended, intervention of a German mathematician to finally bring the work Copernicus into general circulation. Others, including Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei used the insights that Copernicus published to develop the modern understanding of the Universe and the place of the Earth in it.
Dava Sobel solves a very significant problem with flair and strong control of the relevant and telling details. The balance between Copernicus the man and his astonishing work is tricky to establish, tilt too far in either direction and you loose both. The focus of the book is very much on the man, the explanations of the work are lucid and informative without being so concentrated as to be barrier to a non-specialist. Dava Sobel gives the history of the work after Copernicus' death which gives her the space to give due weigh to both idea and man.
Dava Sobel takes a very considerable risk in the book, which is a history, by including a work of fiction in it. It is a bold and entirely successful choice, it uses a different form to make the context for a crucial event much clearer without ever undermining the integrity of the historical study.
This is a fascinating book about a fascinating man, a pleasure to read.

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