Book Review: And The Sun Stood Still

And The Sun Stood Still, by Dava Sobel

This play belongs to a somewhat obscure genre, and that is the attempt to dramatize the incidents of science for a larger and popular audience [1].  Given the fact that the author is a well-known writer in the history of science of the early modern period, which makes sense given the setting of this particular play.  It may be said that the play is the author’s attempt to dramatize a particular theory of how something came to be.  History presents us with a mystery in that Copernicus had written about the heliocentric theory for some time but the publishing of his writing occurred just before his death, while also presenting some of the classic religious conflicts of the time in a way that presents the Catholic hierarchy in a generally negative fashion while also demonstrating some of the moral corruption of priests in a way that shows more sympathy towards them than towards any desire for religious uniformity.  In short, while I am not sure that I can buy the author’s perspective, at least she is able to present a reasonable theory for how it was that Copernicus was able to publish, and how it was that his work was able to avoid trouble for him in the way that it caused trouble for others.

Including some material at the beginning and end of the play, the book as a whole is around 100 pages, and the drama itself is divided into two acts, in common with a great deal of contemporary drama.  The drama itself is limited to a few concerns.  Copernicus is an aging cleric who has a common-law hausfrau who serves as his housekeeper who is devoted to him and aware of her vulnerability, with the implication that they have had a long sexual relationship.  Meanwhile, his boss, the bishop of Varmia, thinks himself to have been poisoned and turns against the Protestants of the area, seeking to ban them from his diocese altogether in the northern part of Poland.  On top of this, another bishop, that of Kulm, seeks to inveigle himself into being the successor of the Bishop of Varmia, who does not appreciate this politicking on behalf of Copernicus’ housekeeper and toleration towards Protestants.  While all of this drama is going on, a Protestant mathematician with some recommendations finds himself at Copernicus’ home, gets sick, and tries to convince Copernicus to give him the manuscript so that it can be published.

Again, this is a play with some compelling action, but where the framing is problematic.  The author relies too much on sentimentalism (her portrayal of the housekeeper Anna is particularly unfortunate) and spectacle (like the creation of a machine that portrays the movement of the earth and how it can account for the apparent motion of the stars) and the way she portrays the Bishop of Varmia is particularly unfortunate and even bigoted.  Admittedly, making fun of early modern Catholic religious leaders and the religious hypocrisy of Catholicism is low-hanging fruit as far as material is concerned.  Nevertheless, despite the plot’s issues and its sometimes flat characterization, the basic premise of the play, that the chance appearance of a German Protestant who more or less understood Copernicus’ writings but was willing to make some compromises to get it published with a preface that downplayed his commitment to his theory, is plausible enough.  This play demonstrates the complexity of how ideas get published in an adverse scientific and cultural climate, and make an interesting comparison with the rise of Intelligent Design theory in how to address the problem of mistaken hegemonic scientific paradigms.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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