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A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus…
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A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (2011)

by Dava Sobel

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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I remember when I was a kid, and we first learned in school about Copernicus and how he discovered that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, and how he was vilified for it by pretty much everyone. At the time, it seemed incredible that anyone could ever have doubted what now seems obvious to us, but of course the status quo seemed equally obvious to people in the 15th and 16th centuries when he first proposed his wacky idea.

I wanted to know more about how Copernicus' discovery came about, so I picked up this book in a Kindle daily deal some time ago. I did learn a lot, including that Copernicus was actually not the first person to espouse the heliocentric theory — some Greek dude named Aristarchus back in the 3rd century B.C. had that honor, which people promptly forgot once Ptolemy (another Greek dude, natch) started writing and promoting his geocentric viewpoint that the Earth was the center of the universe. Despite some obvious flaws in Ptolemy's calculations his writings were considered settled science before Copernicus came along.

So why was Copernicus' pronouncement so controversial? As Sobel tells it, it all comes down to the Bible, specifically a verse in which Joshua commands the sun to stay still in the sky, and it does. So clearly the sun must revolve around the earth, right? Complicating the whole situation was the schism in the Catholic Church when Martin Luther made a revolutionary pronouncement of his own, although the idea that Copernicus was full of horse manure was actually one of the few things that the Pope and Luther still agreed on. Fortunately for Copernicus, he shuffled off this mortal coil about 10 minutes after his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres came off the printing press in 1543, so he never had to face the scorn and condemnation that he feared.

But those who came after him did, including most famously Galileo Galilei, who didn't get fully rehabilitated within the Catholic Church until 1992 when Pope John Paul II issued a mea culpa about that whole "persecuted and imprisoned by the Inquisition" thing. Mistakes were made, as an American president once famously said.

All in all, I learned a lot from this book. In particular, I have a much clearer sense of the religious and political scene in Poland specifically and Europe generally during the 15th and 16th centuries. Copernicus was a canon in the Catholic Church, appointed by his uncle the bishop, but he wasn't a priest and didn't celebrate Mass or any other religious ceremonies. He mostly traveled around and settled land disputes and collected rent money, along with conducting a torrid affair with his housekeeper (that last one is probably the most priest-like thing he did, I suspect).

I still don't really understand exactly how old Copernicus made his revolutionary discovery or indeed any of the specific implications that follow the basic fact of a heliocentric cosmos, but we could as easily chalk that up to my scientific illiteracy as to any fault in Sobel's writing.

I could have done without the two-act play embedded within the book in which Sobel imagines the young Lutheran mathematician Rheticus visiting Copernicus in Poland and convincing him that he must publish his theory and damn the consequences (oh, and also seducing the boy sent by the bishop to spy on Copernicus, just in case the whole thing wasn't already weird enough), though. I'd still cautiously recommend the book to anyone wanting to know more about Copernicus or the birth of true scientific astronomy. ( )
  rosalita | May 12, 2016 |
As with "Longitude", Dava Sobel selects a topic that is awfully interesting, and about which I know next to nothing, but writes about it fairly poorly. Well worth the read, if you don't know much about Copernicus already. I skipped the play in the middle of the book. ( )
  themulhern | Jul 2, 2015 |
54. A More Perfect Heaven : How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (Audio) by Dava Sobel, read by Suzanne Toren Fernandez (2011, 7 hours 24 minutes, 288 pages in text form, Listened September 17 - 23)

Stage play voices by George Guidall, John McDonough, Peter Jay, Alma Cuervo, & Andy Paris

I couldn't pass up a Dava Sobel on Nicolas Copernicus...and in audio. But I would only grant this three stars overall.

This is mainly an exploration of the world of an elder Copernicus from about the time when he apparently picked up his neglected astronomical work and finally prepared it for publication. Sobel inserted a stage drama inside the book about this time, which was entertaining on audio with several actors adding voices. George Guidall was the voice of Copernicus.

Copernicus had become a valued diplomat and apparently a valued medical doctor. He experienced the early days of Lutheran reformation, when the catholic leaders were forced to respond and were suddenly expected to be better behaved. The clerical politics got complicated and an elder Copernicus was expected to part with his female housekeeper, who was likely his long time partner. Yet Copernicus was allowed to work on and publish this religiously controversial work, and his main assistant in finalizing his work, a young expert mathematician named Georg Joachim Rheticus, was Lutheran.

I found all this interesting but a bit limited in scope. Copernicus's younger life and legacy were covered but not in a very rewarding way as they are not the book's focus. I did enjoy the stage play on audio, even if it never felt authentically true to me. ( )
  dchaikin | Sep 25, 2014 |
By 1514, the reclusive cleric Nicolaus Copernicus had developed an initial outline of his heliocentric theory-in which he defied common sense and received wisdom to place the sun, and not the earth, at the center of our universe, and set the earth spinning among the other planets. Over the next two decades, Copernicus expanded his theory and compiled in secret a book-length manuscript that tantalized mathematicians and scientists throughout Europe. For fear of ridicule, he refused to publish.

In 1539, a young German mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus, drawn by rumors of a revolution to rival the religious upheaval of Martin Luther's Reformation, traveled to Poland to seek out Copernicus. Two years later, the Protestant youth took leave of his aging Catholic mentor and arranged to have Copernicus's manuscript published, in 1543, as De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres)-the book that forever changed humankind's place in the universe.

In her elegant, compelling style, Dava Sobel chronicles, as nobody has, the conflicting personalities and extraordinary discoveries that shaped the Copernican Revolution. At the heart of the book is her play "And the Sun Stood Still," imagining Rheticus's struggle to convince Copernicus to let his manuscript see the light of day. ( )
  MarkBeronte | Jan 8, 2014 |
Very readable, and chocked with info on Copernicus's life as a Canon in Varmia on the Baltic, after study at U of Krakow, and at least two Italian univoersities--Bologna (canon law) and Padova (medicine. Copernicus ended up a physician who made his living as a political appointee (canon) at Varmia Cathedral, appointed by the literal nepotism of his uncle the Bishop.
But I found the play a problem, "Interplay," inserted in the middle of the book--a fictonal account of Copernicus and his Protestant fan and assistant Rheticus, as well as a few others. Perhaps it should have been attached at the end of the book; it would be less damaging, less intrusive, so.
Sobel makes just enough non-specialist mistakes to please this specialist. For example, on her very first page she refers to horoscopes and "birth certtificates" though they were not used until 1837 in the UK. No idea when in Poland. Of course, the whole thing in the Renaissance was baptism; we have Shakespeare's baptismal day, NOT his birthday, which no-one knows, though everyone celebrates it. (A typical event in popular culture.) ( )
  AlanWPowers | Oct 8, 2013 |
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Sobel, Davaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fernandez, Suzanne TorenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Dedication
To my fair nieces,
Amanda Sobel
and
Chiara Peacock,
with love in the Copernican
tradition of nepotism.
First words
Nicholas Copernicus, the man credited with turning our perception of the cosmos inside out, was born in the city of Torun, part of "Old Prussia" in the Kingdom of Poland, at 4:48 on a Friday afternoon, the nineteenth day of February, 1473.
Quotations
The eclipsed Moon daubed itself with the Sun's color: it glowed like an ember throughout the hour of totality, reflecting all the dusk and dawn light that spilled into Earth's shadow from the day before and the day ahead.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802717934, Hardcover)

By 1514, the reclusive cleric Nicolaus Copernicus had written and hand-copied an initial outline of his heliocentric theory-in which he defied common sense and received wisdom to place the sun, not the earth, at the center of our universe, and set the earth spinning among the other planets. Over the next two decades, Copernicus expanded his theory through hundreds of observations, while compiling in secret a book-length manuscript that tantalized mathematicians and scientists throughout Europe. For fear of ridicule, he refused to publish.


In 1539, a young German mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus, drawn by rumors of a revolution to rival the religious upheaval of Martin Luther's Reformation, traveled to Poland to seek out Copernicus. Two years later, the Protestant youth took leave of his aging Catholic mentor and arranged to have Copernicus's manuscript published, in 1543, as De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres)-the book that forever changed humankind's place in the universe.


In her elegant, compelling style, Dava Sobel chronicles, as nobody has, the conflicting personalities and extraordinary discoveries that shaped the Copernican Revolution. At the heart of the book is her play And the Sun Stood Still, imagining Rheticus's struggle to convince Copernicus to let his manuscript see the light of day. As she achieved with her bestsellers Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, Sobel expands the bounds of narration, giving us an unforgettable portrait of scientific achievement, and of the ever-present tensions between science and faith.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:09 -0400)

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Traces the story of the reclusive sixteenth-century cleric who introduced the revolutionary idea that the Earth orbits the sun, describing the dangerous forces and complicated personalities that marked the publication of Copernicus's findings.

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