A fine biography of the obscure cleric who demonstrated that the earth was not the center of the universe.
Copernicus (1473–1543) led a humdrum life, but science writer Repcheck (The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth’s Antiquity, 2003) does an exceptional job bringing to life his character, his era and the astronomical problem he solved. Aristotle’s notion that heavenly bodies orbited the earth in perfect circles seemed reasonable to everyone except astronomers, whose calculations didn’t work if they assumed he was right. Two centuries later, Ptolemy described a universe in which the earth sat slightly off-center and heavenly bodies orbited in one perfect circle inside a second perfect circle at varying speeds. Although absurdly complicated, this model enabled astronomers to calculate with reasonable accuracy; 1,500 years later, it was still in use. Born into a family of prosperous Germans who settled in Poland, Copernicus passed a leisurely youth, spending 12 years at four separate universities. He finally received a doctorate from the University of Ferrara in 1503. Despite his fascination with astronomy, he took the customary degree in canon law and returned to his local diocese in Poland, where he remained until his death 40 years later, observing the sky in his spare time. His On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, packed with equations and diagrams, was incomprehensible except to astronomers, who appreciated the mathematics that improved their predictions of eclipses, solstices and planetary movements. Upon its publication in 1543, few paid attention to its heretical picture of a universe in which the earth circles the sun. Only after the flamboyant Galileo began spreading the news some 70 years later did the Catholic Church add the book to its Index in 1616.
Repcheck emphasizes that Copernicus was one of the first thinkers who looked at the world without preconceptions and set down what he observed. He deserves his place among the founders of modern science, and this lively, lucid account does him justice.