A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized The Cosmos, by Dava Sobel
My feelings about this book and the author’s approach are somewhat complicated and ambivalent. On the one hand, the book does a good job at presenting the known facts of the life of Copernicus and the way in which he was able to thrive in the morally lax and somewhat corrupt world of pre-Tridentine Roman Catholicism. On the other hand, this book is an uncomfortable mix of fact and fiction, as the author includes an early version of her play “And The Sun Stood Still” in the middle of this book as her way of bridging the gap between what is known to have happened from documentary evidence and what may have accounted for what happened. Likewise, the adulation given to Copernicus for his idea of the earth moving around the sun doesn’t account for the fact that the sun moves around the Milky Way at high speeds and the Milky Way itself moves around a center of gravity in the complex relationship of galaxies within the local group, and the author does not discuss any of these matters of astrophysics. This is, in other words, a generally good book with genuinely interesting content, but also a book that has a definite and not necessarily benign agenda and an uncomfortable place between fact and fiction.
The contents of this book take up a bit more than 200 pages and are divided between three parts. The first of the book is a prelude to Copernicus’ revolution in astronomy (II), with a discussion about his early life and family background and his first published work, a translation of various amorous writings (1), his brief sketch of his ideas (2), his work in dealing with the leases of abandoned farmlands in the area under the control of the diocese for whom he was a minor religious official (3), his writings on the methods minting money (4), his letter against another astronomy named Werner (5), and his efforts to deal with supply and demand for bread in the area (6). After this comes the rough draft of the two acts of the author’s play “And The Sun Stood Still (II). The rest of the book consists of six chapters that deal with the aftermath of the publication of Copernicus’ views (III) including chapters on the first account by Rheticus (who was a somewhat itinerant soul and one accused of pederasty during his teaching career) (7), the first edition of Copernicus’ work and its prologue by Osiander (8), the publication of the Basel edition (9), various epitomes and tables that were used even as the main idea of the book was rejected by most (10), Galileo’s writings on the two systems (11), and an annotated census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (12).
When reading this book, though, it is easy for the writer to be filled with a strong sense of mixed emotions about the work. On the one hand, it is easy to celebrate Copernicus’ achievement in conceiving the heliocentric theory, but it is less easy to celebrate the immorality and corruption of his life even as one appreciates his obvious intellect and his interest in a variety of problems relating to economics and science. The same is true of his disciple Rheticus, whose persistence in seeking out Copernicus at some risk to himself is noble and worthwhile, but whose (likely) moral failings are impossible to justify in terms of his abuse of wealth and power to gratify his own selfish and abominable lusts. If the author appears to indicate that Copernicus’ developments were to lead to a more perfect heaven, the fact that his more accurate planetary charts were mainly used by astrologers and the moral failings of most of the people involved demonstrate that no such moral improvement was happening on earth. Perhaps the author does not think that the moral aspects matter when compared to the advances in scientific understanding, but that is not a view I am willing to endorse.