Mix Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon, add dashes of Liu Cixin and Isaac Asimov, and you’ll approach this lively novel of early science.
Being an astronomer in the days before high-powered telescopes were developed was not an easy job, especially for the sightless but productive astronomer at the center of Sachs’ (Inherited Disorders, 2016) literate, quietly humorous historical novel. The astronomer in question, who, notes protagonist Gottfried Leibniz—yes, that Leibniz, polymathic philosopher and inventor of calculus—is “in fact entirely without eyes,” has predicted, to the very moment, that at noon on the last day of June 1666 a profound solar eclipse will plunge all Europe into temporary darkness. Given that no other astronomer has arrived at this forecast, Leibniz is intrigued, and off he goes to find the astronomer and gauge whether he is truly blind and truly not off his rocker: “So, if he is sane, and he has not detected me, then this is not a performance, and either he really sees, or he thinks he really sees.” Given that the year 1666 has been an ugly one of plague and war and anti-scientific purges, there’s plenty of reason not to want to see. The astronomer has much to say about such things, spinning intricate tales, some of them increasingly improbable. There’s a gentle goofiness at work in Sachs’ pages, as when he constructs a syllogism about the relative movements of thinkers and nonthinkers, concluding that “if you look very closely at a nonthinker and a true thinker you’ll notice that they’re actually standing still in completely different ways,” and when a prince reasons that in order to call a dog a dog, the thing has to love us, whereas “before that point we call it a wolf.” Yet there’s an elegant meditation at play, too, on how science is done, how political power can subvert it (in the astronomer’s case, in the form of onerous taxes), and how we know the world around us, all impeccably written.
A pleasure to read, especially for the scientifically inclined.