Monday, December 5, 2011

Review: A MORE PERFECT HEAVEN: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel

Printing and publishing spurred the revival of learning known as the European Renaissance to such a degree that the Renaissance can, without exaggeration, be called "The Age of the Book." Often lost in this emphasis on The Book as a revolutionary cultural construct, however, are the particular details of the history and genesis of individual books themselves. In A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (Walker & Co., October 2011), Dava Sobel recounts the fascinating story surrounding the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium [On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres]. With the charm and erudition that readers have come to expect from this writer of narrative nonfiction, Ms. Sobel (Longitude [1995], Galileo's Daughter [1999]) dramatizes how a "book-that almost-wasn't" changed mankind's understanding of his place in the universe.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was hardly the heroic iconoclast history loves to celebrate. A physician and the busy administrator of a remote diocese of the Catholic Church in Poland, Copernicus devoted himself to astronomy as a private passion. Determined to correct weaknesses in Ptolemy's astronomical system, Copernicus observed, recorded and calculated in solitude, ultimately reaching the astounding conclusion that the sun, not the earth, sits at the center of our universe. Wary of ridicule from theologians and mathematicians alike, he summed up his thesis in a Brief Sketch, which he sent to a few correspondents around 1510. Word spread, and eager scholars pressed for particulars. He set to work compiling a book-length manuscript; years passed as he wrote and refined his calculations. Yet, despite his own confidence in his claims, Copernicus continued to shy from sending his manuscript to a publisher.

It took the arrival of a young German mathematician, Georg Rheticus, to spur Copernicus to action. At great risk to himself (the Catholic diocese of Varmia prohibited Lutherans from entering its territory), Rheticus sought out Copernicus in 1539, lured by rumors of his theory. Rheticus won Copernicus's trust and studied with him for two years. Recognizing the theory's great import, Rheticus wrote up a First Account, which he sent to Danzig to be printed. As the Account was received with much enthusiasm and interest, Rheticus stayed on to help Copernicus reorganize and revise sections of On the Revolutions. He finally convinced the elderly canon to release the manuscript for publication and personally carried the thick stack of pages to Nuremberg, where the noted scientific printer, Petreius, began production in May 1542. Rheticus served as proofreader and sent sections of the book back to Copernicus as they were printed. In November of the same year, Copernicus suffered a stroke that left him incapacitated. Bedridden, he held on until May 1543, when he died with the final pages of the book in hand. Without the encouragement of his unlikely collaborator, Copernicus might have died without ever having submitted his work to the public.

As much as A More Perfect Heaven will delight lovers of narrative nonfiction, it will appeal to readers of historical fiction even more, for its very structure dramatizes the interplay between fact and fiction that informs the latter genre. Following Copernicus's lead, Ms. Sobel challenges the norms of narrative nonfiction by placing a two-act play of her devising, And the Sun Stood Still, at the center of her book. As she explains in the foreword, she surrounds these "imagined scenes" with "a fully documented factual narrative." An engaging recreation of the events spanning Rheticus's arrival in Varmia to Copernicus's death four years later, the play breathes life into personalities sketched in only the broadest terms in the historical record.

Particularly interesting is the apportionment of information between the narrative and dramatic sections of the book. The reader encounters the play after having read six factual chapters and forming impressions of Copernicus and the other characters based on information presented therein. While the play supports these initial impressions, it presents additional information that often qualifies and redirects them. Much of this newer information will be elaborated upon in the factual chapters that follow. However, certain details exist only within the play itself, leading the reader to suspect--although never know for certain--whether these details arose solely from the author's imagination.

For example, in Act I, scene v, Copernicus spins Rheticus
in a "World Machine," a "globe-like nest of intersecting rings, about the size of a manned spacecraft capsule, perched on a pedestal" that recreates the motion of the stars crossing the heavens as the earth rotates on its axis. Did Copernicus actually build such a machine? No reference to it appears in the factual chapters. Whether the machine truly existed is beside the point, however, for within the economy of the play, the ride in the World Machine convinces Rheticus of the validity of the heliocentric theory and allows him to experience its abstract implications in a profoundly physical way. Rheticus's giddy dizziness becomes a potent metaphor for the momentous, intellectually traumatic effect Copernicus's theory has on the conceptual landscape of his time. The scene illustrates how fiction, by appealing to emotion and experience in a visceral way, can portray truth with a force nonfiction often lacks.

A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos is a thought-provoking read, satisfying on many levels. The book presents a thorough history of the development and reception of Copernicus's theory, explaining the intricacies of astronomical discourse in an accessible way. It evokes the intellectual milieu of the time with compelling detail as it follows the treatise's arduous path to publication. It experiments with form and the expectations of genre to inspire contemplation of the nature of historical narrative. Above all, the book humanizes a key moment in intellectual history by uncovering the fears, faults and friendship that motivated its principal players.

Learn more about Dava Sobel and her books at her website.


Anthony J Funari said...

Thanks for the recommendation. Just purchased a copy based on your review.

Julianne Douglas said...

I hope you enjoy it! Let us know what you think after you finish reading.