Sobel (The Planets, 2005, etc.) offers another meaty-while-mellifluous story of science.
The author elegantly fashions the life of Copernicus as a two-act play bracketed by historically documented narratives that cover the periods before and after the arrival of Georg Joachim Rheticus at Copernicus’s Polish doorstep in 1539. Some 30 years earlier, Copernicus had roughed out a heliocentric theory of the universe and quietly distributed it to a number of mathematicians. Word of it reached the ears of Rheticus, a 25-year-old professor of mathematics at the university in Wittenberg. He arrived at Copernicus’s house as an “unexpected guest” and an altogether problematical one: a Lutheran during a time of anti-heretical fervor. Sobel draws Copernicus as a devout Catholic, but not unsympathetic to the Lutherans; he reluctantly agreed to Rheticus staying on when the youth awakened in him the desire to finish his great work and get it published. Sobel presents an illuminating piece of work, bringing to life the old man and the young man’s days spent together and in particular Rheticus’ coming to terms, the bending of his mind, around Copernicus’s theory, which was more radical than he understood. Readers are fit squarely in Rheticus’ shoes via Sobel’s neat act of transport, there to share his bafflement and resistance. The book closes with the tale of the fate of On the Revolutions; just as Copernicus had worried, it dismayed the hidebound and the “babblers, who claim to be judges of astronomy, although completely ignorant of the subject…such men are not above twisting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, to censure me.”
A liquid entertainment of choice passages on the thoughts and deeds of Copernicus.