Book Review: A More Perfect Heaven

Dava Sobel. A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. New York: Walker and Company, 2011. 288 pages.

We take much of our worldview for granted. Most of us, if asked to relate where the Earth is, would without blinking respond that it’s the third planet from the sun. Its daily rotation is responsible for sunrises and sunsets, and it revolves around the sun, more or less, in a year. It’s almost impossible to conceive of any other cosmology. A sun-centered model seems to answer every question we have about the relationship between the earth and its skies, and we’ve sent spacecraft to several planets in our solar system. The heliocentric hypothesis seems almost absurdly self-evident.

Yet it wasn’t always so. As science writer Dava Sobel reminds us in A MORE PERFECT HEAVEN, when Copernicus developed the heliocentric hypothesis in the 16th century (yes, Aristarchus had suggested it long before, but neither Copernicus nor most of the world knew this at the time), the idea that the earth moved seemed utterly ridiculous. After all, the sun rose and the sun set every day; the stars wheeled above the earth at night; and the planets, though no one could quite pin down their motions, definitely seemed to circle the stationary earth. Standing still, one had no sense of motion in any direction. Every shred of accepted evidence, every learned treatise–and the official doctrine of the Church–agreed: the fixed Earth was the center of the cosmos, and everything else wheeled around it.

Those of us who know Copernicus merely as a name in a textbook really can’t appreciate his incredible intellectual courage until we re-immerse ourselves in the world he inhabited–something that Sobel does masterfully. Using original source documents, she painstakingly recreates his life, as best can be done. She does a fine job of placing Copernicus at the center of a group of friends, rivals, and superiors, each of whom influenced his work. She also reminds us that, in addition to making his nocturnal observations, Copernicus had a regular day job as a church canon. In talking about his daily work she introduces what might be the crux of the Copernican story: the struggle between science and faith which for many intelligent scholars, Copernicus included, wasn’t much of a struggle. He himself reminded readers that “mathematics belong to mathematicians,” and that his heliocentric findings were wholly consonant with religious faith. As a man who lived his entire adult life in the Church, this is no small point.

The book is divided into three parts–and here is where it gets a bit revolutionary itself. The first third is a straight-forward scholar-writing-for-the-popular-market biography of Copernicus taking us up to the moment that young mathematician Rheticus traveled to Copernicus’s home in Frauenberg in search of the genius, reports of whose insights had been circulating for years. Rheticus and Copernicus’s former fellow canon Tiedemann Geise, now bishop of Kulm, were instrumental in convincing Copernicus to finish and publish his masterwork, “On the Revolutions,” which, using observed data as a guide, laid out the case for the heliocentric hypothesis.

Then, things take a sharp turn: the second third of the book is a two-act play Sobel wrote that dramatizes the weeks that Rheticus and Copernicus spent preparing “On the Revolutions.” It’s interesting to see the primary source material so faithfully reported in the first third brought to life as a drama, though some readers might find it difficult to become as immersed in the dialog as they had in the narrative. Having told that story, Sobel shifts back to straight historical narrative for the final third of the book, which discusses the publication of “On the Revolutions” and its centuries-long aftermath.

Sobel’s produced a work that brings to mind the cosmology of Tycho Brahe. Brahe knew the geocentric model did jibe with observational data but didn’t quite accept the leap to a sun-centered universe. Instead he created a mash-up of both systems, where the sun orbits the earth and everything else revolves around the run. In the same way, Sobel hasn’t completely abandoned traditional historical narrative here, but instead anchors her dramatic recasting of the life of Copernicus with that kind of narrative.

Even if reading a two-act play on the page isn’t your favored reading experience, the rich detail and meticulous attention to source material makes the other two-thirds of the book a joy to read. A MORE PERFECT HEAVEN is an excellent reminder of how science works (not by consensus and often in the face of what seems obviously true) and of the life of a truly revolutionary historical figure. Highly recommended.

Spread the love