Nicolas Copernicus was a cautious man in an era when darkness shadowed brilliant flashes of insight and discovery. His painstaking calculations that showed the sun is fixed and the earth revolves around it directly contradicted religious dogma. The Church was furiously trying to stamp out the Lutheran heretics and Copernicus was himself a canon of the Church, dependent on it for his livelihood and position. He was also something of a perfectionist about presenting his revolutionary findings to the world.
Dava Sobel dramatizes the discoveries and the eventual publication of Copernicus’ work in A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. It is, like her other recreations of the scientific breakthroughs that changed how we see things, deeply researched and imaginatively rendered. Copernicus seems to have been a pretty nice guy—smart, brave, responsible, diplomatic, humble, socially savvy, addicted to eclipses and stargazing, and possessed of unshakeable integrity.
The late 15th-early 16th century world he lived in was full of intrigue, power grabs, treachery and hardship but it also contained dazzling scholars, clear night skies, a predisposition to inquiry and a useful hunger for fame and glory that Copernicus could turn to his own advantage. When a young scholar shows up at his door, looking to persuade him to publish his massive heliocentric opus, the aging astronomer’s reluctance to stir up a hornet’s nest of ridicule and protest has met its match.
Sobel inserts a two-act play in the center of this book. Based on the real correspondence of Copernicus and his peers, the play portrays what might have happened between the two men and among the clergy and political forces in Poland at the time. Copernicus’ mistress, his bishop, canonical colleagues and the German mathematics professor, Georg Joachim Rheticus, are vivid characters. Sobel creates a believable scenario of how the younger man overcame Copernicus’ objections and eventually helped him to publish the ideas and proofs that would send the world spinning in space.
Dava Sobel delivers another good read about an important scientist who most people know as a name and a theory, if at all. Science is fascinating when it is located in its real narrative, even if the gaps in the story are necessarily filled in by intelligent invention.
A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos Dava Sobel | Walker & Company 2011