First published: 2011
Published by Walker Publishing Company
First published in 2011, “A More Perfect Heaven” is a biography about Nicolaus Copernicus, who developed the heliocentric theory which placed the sun, rather than the Earth, at the centre of our universe. Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543, and was a Polish astronomer and cleric. He trained as a doctor and was a canon in a bishopric in Poland. He worked at tasks such as collecting rents, managing finances, and medical care for other canons. His astronomy work was done in his spare time.
Sobel’s book is both informative and entertaining. I will confess to knowing little about Copernicus beyond his name and discovery, so I found it very interesting to read about his life and work. Given that his ‘day job’ was a highly responsible one, it is hard to understand how he found the time for the work for which he is known. Did he ever sleep?
It would appear that a writer in the third century BC, Aristarchus of Samos, had proposed a heliocentric theory. Did Copernicus know of this? The author thinks not, which feels even more impressive, that he had absolutely no precedent on which to base his work.
Copernicus had no idea that Aristarchus of Samos had proposed much the same thing in the third century BC. The only work known by Aristarchus to Copernicus – a treatise called ‘On the sizes and distances of the Sun and the Moon’ – made no mention of a heliocentric plan. Copernicus stood alone, for the time being, on his moving earth.
Copernicus lived during a time of religious upheaval in Europe. While it is believed he had come to his conclusions about astronomy earlier in his life, he never moved to publish the work until shortly before his death. Copernicus’ initial conclusion was based purely on mathematics, but he spent the rest of his life making astronomical observations to confirm his theory. Sobel suggests he was afraid of being ridiculed, as is suggested in some of his surviving letters.
By his own admission, he did not feel so confident of his own work as to care nothing for others’ opinions of it. He agreed with Giese that readers ignorant of astronomy might easily attack his ideas by twisting chapter and verse to their purposes. Others might laugh at the absurdity of the basic premise.
Given the atmosphere and attitudes of the time he may well have been just as afraid of accusations of heresy. It seems interesting that Copernicus wasn’t overtly committed to disseminating his ideas, which were known during his life mostly from communications with other scholars. Much of what is known about him comes from personal letters and church records, so any interpretation of his motives can only be speculative. He may even simply not found the time to put it all together. Many contemporary scholars encouraged him to publish, but he delayed doing so until late in his life.
A Lutheran scholar called Rheticus visited Copernicus, and it is he who finally convinced Copernicus to put together his work for publication, titled ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’. Little is known about their relationship other than the fact of it and the resulting manuscript. Sobel gets around this by a rather creative device – part two of this book is in a play format, dramatising their encounter and completion of the manuscript. It is an oddity in the middle of a non-fiction book, and I am honestly not sure how to take it. It is well written and brings the characters to life, as well as expressing their possible concerns. For example, Rheticus as a Lutheran, coming to see Copernicus, a Catholic, could have ended in trouble for both of them. Lutherans had previously been exiled from Copernicus’ home Varmia, and they could both have ended up in jail. It is important to remember, however, that this part of the book cannot be taken as factual.
What is known is that Rheticus worked hard to ensure the publication of ‘On the Revolutions’, dealing with the publisher and writing to others to explain the work. He wrote a summary of Copernicus’ theory as a way of introducing it to other scholars. He had a huge enthusiasm and devotion to Copernicus, which appeared in his writings.
He found it almost inconceivable to contemplate the burden of effort that had allowed his teacher to take all the disparate phenomena of astronomy and link them ‘most nobly together, as by a golden chain.’
While this book has some of the more technical aspects of Copernicus’ discovery, its real strength lies in illustrating the difficulties of the time surrounding new knowledge. In the third section of the book, Sobel discusses the history of ‘On the Revolutions’, including its banning by the Catholic Church after its ideas began to be more widespread. Copernicus himself wrote in the preface tp ‘On the Revolutions’ about his concerns that his work would not be interpreted correctly.
If perchance there should be foolish speakers who, together with those ignorant of all mathematics, will take it upon themselves to decide concerning these things, and because of some place in the Scriptures wickedly distorted to their purpose, should dare to assail this my work, they are of no importance to me, to such an extent do I despise their judgment as rash.
It’s not as different as we might think to read about knowledge being suppressed, though these days such pressure might come more from accepted knowledge, the so-called establishment, or the government, rather than the church. New ideas and information are always a struggle for people to accept, and there is often a knee-jerk reaction to reject that knowledge out of hand. Has anything really changed?
“A more Perfect Heaven” is a good read for general understanding about the life and work of Copernicus. You won’t find much in the way of technical detail, but you will learn what he accomplished and what impact his work had on subsequent history.