What Copernicus Saw in the Revolutions

Fact: The book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in which Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 laid out his blueprint for the “marvelous symmetry of the universe,” was not banned outright by the Catholic Church, but rather listed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1616 as “suspended until corrected” – and remained there for more than 200 years.

This was one of many fascinating tidbits that Dava Sobel discussed last night at Politics & Prose here in Washington, where she gave an inspiring reading of her new book A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. Although nobody brought it up directly, the parallels between Inquisition-era censorship of science and today’s politicized anti-scientific rhetoric are impossible to ignore. I wonder how long An Inconvenient Truth would linger on the Index.

Sobel’s book began as a play, an exercise the theater-history-major-turned-journalist found to be “one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever done – all this making things up!” Her publisher suggested that she add on a nonfiction narrative to provide context and all the delicious background nuggets that can bog down the action on stage. The result is a play within a book, an unusual construct that could so easily fall flat but instead holds its own and allows the reader to get inside the head of the great man in a way that his skimpy trove of personal correspondence – only 17 letters survive — does not.

When asked by an audience member what she would ask Copernicus is she could meet him, Sobel had a ready answer: “What made you do it?” Meaning, while it’s easy to see why he kept his theory a secret for 30 years (fear of being burned at the stake), nobody really knows what led him to take that leap and posit that the Sun, rather than the Earth, is the hub of the cosmos. Was it that he was bugged by having to fudge calculations to account for the accumulating inaccuracy of the Julian calendar? Or did he happen to notice that if you lined up the order of the planets, the fastest ones were closer to the sun?

We can never truly know, and the closest Sobel came was when she went to Poland and was permitted a brief, thrilling glimpse of the original manuscript of the Revolutions. A gloved curator removed the priceless magnum opus from a vault and turned the pages. Suddenly, Sobel saw something that made Copernicus come alive for her. There, in the center of the actual diagram where the master himself had planted his compass and spun it to draw his heliocentric universe, was … a small hole.




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