The author of Longitude, which told of John Harrison's struggle to perfect the chronometer and claim the Board of Navigation prize, now turns her attention to 'How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos'"
Sobel is a brilliantly readable writer of Science history. She makes her subject come alive. Copernicus was a Catholic Pole in Minor Orders (never an ordained priest, only a canon or trustee of his cathedral) who did a lot of good work administering the cathedral lands (in effect a self-governing state of the Holy Roman Empire) at about the time the Lutheranism was infecting large parts of Germany. Against this backdrop he pursued his interest in Astronomy. He became well known in astronomical circles and contributed to a papal committee investigating calendar reform. He clearly realised early that he could better calculate astronomical tables if he put the sun at the centre of the universe rather than the earth; it probably took him longer to decide that this reflected physical reality. There were two objections. In the Bible Joshua commands the sun to stand still; why would he have said this unless the sun was moving? Copernicus seems to have decided quite early that this should be interpreted differently. The second problem was that the earth does not seem to move. It may have taken Copernicus a little longer to accept that the appearance belied the reality.
Nevertheless he delayed publishing his book because he was fearful of the inevitable backlash, both ridicule and angry charges of heresy. Finally a Lutheran mathematician, Rheticus, travelled to Copernicus to convince him to publish; this seems to have been the catalyst that bred De Revolutionibus.
Having written plain history, Sobel turns to play-writing to dramatise the moment when Copernicus met Rheticus. There were other pressures at the time. The Bishop was trying to persuade Copernicus to give up his housekeeper because of the scandal of a once-married woman living with a canon. Rheticus seems to have been gay (later he was accused and convicted in absentia of sodomy). It is an interesting device to insert fiction into history but Sobel seems to carry this off perfectly.
A wonderful little book. July 2012; 236 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57