To put it all in context: “At the same time Copernicus listed these financial concerns, the priest and theology professor Martin Luther in Wittenberg also drew up a list.”
As an amateur astronomer, member of the Planetary Society, astronomy columnist, and self-professed chaser of solar eclipses, Dava Sobel has written several books on individuals who have transformed the world (or the universe) as we understand it by looking up to the sky. Besides “A More Perfect Heaven,” Sobel also wrote the well-known “Galileo’s Daughter,” “The Glass Universe” and “Longitude.”
In this half-fiction, half-nonfiction book, Sobel tackles the life of Copernicus and the events leading up to and following the publication of his famous work “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” or “On the Revolutions” in 1543. Unfortunately, not much remains from the original Copernicus: only 17 letters written by him have survived. Sobel pieces together what may have happened based on church archives and records, and the broader context of Copernicus’s activities in the political and religious upheavals occurring at the time.
Copernicus’s actions that have been passed down through church records, are given color by small details from his dealing with peasants on church lands and his role in the wars with the Teutonic Knights. For example: “In May 1521 he oversaw the reassignment of land parcels made vacant ‘by the death of Michel the one-eyed’ […] Both the peasants and the land had suffered war losses.” To put it all in context: “At the same time Copernicus listed these financial concerns, the priest and theology professor Martin Luther in Wittenberg also drew up a list.”
I liked this back and forth between Copernicus, politics, business and the Protestant Revolution, and found it very effective. I got lost a couple times though, probably because I was reading a soft copy and not a hard copy of the book. King Sigismund – of Poland or of Prussia – or Lithuania!? Such details were not always available within a couple paragraphs of a name or date, and I had to investigate and clarify as I was reading. Sometimes the year of a new or following event was mentioned, but I had forgotten which year I was “currently” in. Sobel is a very prolific writer – this was published in 2011; she also published books in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2013… Her writing style is fast paced and engaging; maybe she just didn’t mull over each word.
To cover the pretty significant gaps in knowledge about Copernicus as a person, Sobel makes a decision to include a completely fictional play in the center of this biography, describing the period of time around publication of On the Revolutions. It is an interesting and unique choice that allows her to breathe new life into Copernicus as a human – with a voice, personality, fears, and desires. To me, the other characters in the play fit very (too?) nicely into stereotypes that represent the challenges of the day: the suspicious and hostile Catholic Church establishment, the young and eager Lutheran pupil, a personal relationship with the live-in housekeeper (here given a role in helping Copernicus with his work), and a Catholic peer voicing encouragement. In the face of the Protestant Revolution and political borders/allegiances constantly in flux, these different characters represent some of the many pressures circling the central figure Copernicus (like the Sun of the play!) as he debated whether to publish his controversial new theory or not.
Personally, I have always had a hard time reading plays in my head – the recording was necessary for me to really get into it – so I found the inclusion of the play interesting but didn’t really like it. I preferred the preceding and following sections that blended Copernicus’s biography with political events.
Sobel gives the reader hints at the unknown, and makes an effort to present a clear distinction between fact and imagination. For example, as Copernicus’s older brother Andreas the leper wandered around dying but moderately wealthy, she speculates, “More than likely, his funds would see him through to the end.” The reader is left to imagine what life might have felt like.
As for Rheticus’ possible motivations, we go back to the horoscopes and astrology, which pervade this book despite Copernicus’s own disbelief, which Rheticus apparently believed very strongly in: “Surely Rheticus had found exactly what he had come for: Copernicus’s carefully developed mathematical treatise offered a firm new footing for the most momentous predictions of astrology. Nothing could extend Rheticus’s own longevity, of course, but in his short life he believed he might yet shape a destiny, and maybe even achieve glory, by bringing Copernicus out of the shadows.” I did think Sobel somewhat brushed over Rheticus’s conviction for raping a young boy, but I suppose there simply isn’t any factual information to add and it’s too sensitive a subject for the speculative treatment she gave other events in this book. In any case, she mentions it and then moves on.
After the play, Sobel goes on to follow the continuation and development of Copernicus’s ideas through Rheticus, Tycho, Kepler, and Galileo, and how they survived condemnation by both the Protestants and the Catholics. Sobel shows that “On the Revolutions” was treasured, shared, and studied by contemporaries and throughout the centuries, until the present day.
Questions for readers
A lot of this book relies on “perhaps” and “what if.” For example, we know that Copernicus didn’t publish his ‘great work’ on the heliocentric theory until the young Lutheran Georg Joachim Rheticus came to stay with him, but we can only imagine how or why Rheticus succeeded in convincing him to publish when other voices failed.
- How do you think Dava Sobel balances fact with speculation?
- Does including the fictional play at the center of a nonfiction biography work for you? Does it lend more credibility or less credibility to Sobel’s imagining of events?
- “Sobel, Dava 1947-.” Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series.
- Encyclopedia.com. 17 Sep. 2019 https://www.encyclopedia.com.