A science historian tracks down all known copies of a pioneering astronomy book.
Gingerich (Astrophysics/Harvard) spent 30 years on a census of the first and second editions of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, which postulated that Earth revolves around the Sun. Spurred by Arthur Koestler's claim that the book was largely unread in its own time (the 16th century), Gingerich examined the marginal notes of early owners, including many important scientists. The chronicle of his search makes for an intricate detective story as fascinating as any in science. The author shows Copernicus receiving copies of the first edition on his deathbed in 1543 and describes the response of scientific and ecclesiastical authorities to the astronomer’s revision of long-accepted doctrine that the Earth stood still and the Sun revolved around it. He also tells the story of how Erasmus Reinhold, a younger astronomer, convinced Copernicus to submit the book for publication, sent out copies to other important astronomers, and annotated them to highlight the text’s new ideas. Other astronomers made their own annotations, notably Johannes Kepler, who refined Copernicus’s argument by demonstrating that the planetary orbits are ellipses, not circles. Among the 601 copies Gingerich found and describes are those belonging to Kepler, to Giordiano Bruno (burned at the stake for heresies, including his proselytizing for the Copernican system), and to Kepler’s teacher Michael Maestlin, whose marginalia show a particularly acute understanding of the book’s achievement. The author, who grew so expert that he was called as a witness in cases involving stolen copies of De revolutionibus, also intersperses material on Renaissance printing and publishing, his trips to libraries around the world, and the modern rare-book trade. For readers who’d like to get their own glimpse, an appendix lists the locations of most of the copies.