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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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5152833,063 (3.55)63
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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Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
Dava Sobel’s A More Perfect Heaven has called attention to Copernicus’ historic scientific findings and the events leading to their publication. Unfortunately, her account is marred by inclusion of a "play" that obscures the relevant history while portraying events that never happened. In a monumental blunder, she has her fictional Rheticus engage in child abuse while her fictional Copernicus turns a blind eye to his malfeasance. Her misguided attempt to entertain her readers is an astonishing lapse of judgement that irreparably harms the book.

The play in question is not an afterthought, but the main rationale for the book. As Sobel reveals in the book’s introduction, she had written an 80 page play to dramatize how she imagined a key event in Copernicus’ life. The rest of this book was written as a vehicle for the play. While the blending of fact and fiction is controversial in its own right, Ms. Sobel’s attempt is clumsy, amateurish, and a gross libel on the names of two eminent scientists.

The centerpiece of Ms Sobel’s account is the historic collaboration between Copernicus and the young mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus. The latter had heard of the unpublished work of the aging Copernicus, and in spring of 1539 traveled to Poland to become his student. Rheticus published a “First Account” of Copernicus’ theory in 1540, and over the next two years of studying with him, convinced him to publish his full account. Following Rheticus’ final departure, Copernicus arranged to have his book sent to Nuremberg to be printed under Rheticus’ supervision. The famous De Revolutionibus was published prior to Copernicus' death in 1543. According to legend, a copy was delivered to the dying Copernicus, who awoke from a coma, looked at his book, and expired.

Sobel presents a serviceable recounting of the major events, told with style. She excels at presenting the historical events in the context of the political and religious turmoil of 16th century Europe. As a resident of Lutheran Germany, Rheticus risked his freedom (if not his life) in traveling to Catholic Poland to work with the famed astronomer. Given the role that Rheticus played in assisting Copernicus to publish, the reader is forced to wonder whether Die Revolutionibus would have ever come to light without the young mathematician’s help.

As for the play, which occupies the central 1/3 of the book, it is an amateurish farce that simplifies, conflates, and ignores the very historical events Sobel took pains to recount elsewhere. In her imagined account, Rheticus is hardly a pupil -- rather, he guides a great scientist more than 40 years his senior in how to write his work and advises him on how to ensure it passes muster with the political authorities. In Scene xv, Rheticus is being forced to leave, and literally tries to wrestle the book away from Copernicus in order to take it to be published. At Copernicus’ resistance, he assents to taking a portion away – presumably this is to become the 1540 “First Account.” The scene ends with Copernicus suffering a stroke. The next scene, the final one, has Copernicus on his deathbed, comatose from his stroke, but reviving in time to receive a copy of his published book. The play misrepresents the events, because years must pass between these two scenes. During this time, Rheticus travels back to work with Copernicus for another two years, followed by his final departure. And so, three years are constricted into a few months, the successive publication of aspects of Copernicus' work is ignored, and events are invented wholesale for entertainment purposes.

And then there’s the unavoidable issue of character assassination. First, to spice things up, Sobel gives Copernicus a mistress. Second, over the course of scenes 9 through 15, Sobel has her fictional Rheticus engage in the pederastic seduction of a 14 year old houseboy named Franz. After episodes of embracing and bottom- fondling , the subplot culminates in the two being discovered in bed together, unclothed and kissing, by Copernicus himself. Little Franz scampers away in fear.

Rheticus: You’ve known all along, haven’t you?
Copernicus: I wasn’t sure.
R: But you suspected.
C: I prayed that my suspicions were unfounded.
R: Now you know the truth
C: Yes.
R: And you despise me
C: No Joachim. Neither do I judge you.
R: You needn’t pretend to understand.
C: But I can no longer protect you.
R: From myself?....
C: You’ve got to get out of here. Go now, before anything else happens.

What is there to say? Even for historical fiction this is far beyond the pale. The reader, if his critical facilities are not too numbed by disgust and outrage at the libel of Rheticus, will note that Sobel’s Copernicus (a canon in the Catholic church) adopts a 21st century tolerance of homosexuality, seeks to protect the perpetrator of child abuse, and gives no thought to the young victim. Historical anachronism is the least of her errors. To view her account as an ironic commentary on institutionalized pederasty of the contemporary church is certain to give the author far more credit than she deserves.

This is surely one of the most ill-conceived literary devices of our time. The so-called "play" contained in this work violates minimal standards of acceptability for a respectable work of history. It irreparably damages what could have been a serviceable historical account.

___________
Note: Many years later, following a mental breakdown, Rheticus was accused by a person of having had carnal relations with a 17-18 year old male. A male of that age was considered to be a man. Whether or not Rheticus was involved in the alleged, consensual activity is not known and never will be. The claim should have no bearing on the libelous, fictional episode of child abuse invented by the author. ( )
3 vote danielx | Jan 3, 2020 |
The story of Copernicus and Kepler from the XVI century is oddly relevant in the USA of the XXI century. These great men followed the facts to their ultimate conclusion, even though the facts did not agree with their beliefs or even the accepted common sense of the time. They put scientific honesty and facts above dogma, something that is very rare in this age when people are willfully ignorant and proud of their ignorance and label anything they don't agree with as "fake".

Also interesting is the life of Copernicus himself, who is claimed by both Poles and Germans. In a time when nationality was secondary to regional and even local loyalties, this controversy is only a modern occurrence. The author of the book comes unambiguously on the German side and I think the facts are clear that Copernicus was mostly German. Even though the nationality of his father is disputable, his mother was definitely German, his lover Anna Shilling was German, his best friend Tiedeman Giese was German and his only pupil Johannes Rheticus was German. Most importantly all that he ever wrote was in either Latin or German. It's hard to argue that Copernicus was Polish other than to point out that city of his birth had passed to the Kingdom of Poland seven years before, but was still a German speaking town.

Overall this little book is well worth the time to read it, although I think the play that the author includes as a filler would have been better left off.
( )
  Westwest | Oct 31, 2019 |
This book is on the fascinating topic of how Copernicus led an astronomical revolution to place the Sun at the center of our Solar System with the planets circling about. There were serious concerns by the Catholic Church owing to the biblical story of Joshua asking God to make the Sun stand still so he could vanquish his enemies. Some of Copernicus's friends were also Lutheran, although Martin Luther himself did not approve of replacing Ptolemy's original earth-centric theory. "Consorting" with Lutherans also put Copernicus at risk, since Lutheranism was considered heresy. I should have found this book fascinating but somehow it was slightly flat. In particular, the first third was very dry with lots of names and places I didn't know and couldn't keep track of. The second part was written as a play, which really humanized Copernicus and rescued the book for me. The third part takes place after his death and described how scientists began to spread his theory and bring it into the mainstream of the science of astronomy. That part was also somewhat interesting. In summary: could have been better but I learned a lot. ( )
  krazy4katz | Dec 19, 2016 |
Partly a biography of Copernicus, this is mainly a summary of the impact and influence of his book On the Revolutions. Sobel also provides a two-act play of historical fiction that seems a bit out of place, at first. But it's not. The fiction, oddly, adds a certain sense of reality to the setting in which Copernicus lived, studied, pondered, and wrote. His world was much different than ours. There was no true freedom of inquiry. The power of established authority was pervasive and oppressive. And everyone was certain that the purpose of the stars and planets was to provide clues to human affairs on a fixed Earth far below. Today, astronomy seeks to discover what's out there. Not so in the 16th century. In Copernicus's time, the purpose of astronomy was to provide better observations and calculations of planetary motion for preparing astrological predictions and for reforming the calendar. That this seems bizarre to us now is due to the revolution Copernicus began back then. ( )
  DLMorrese | Oct 14, 2016 |
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 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sobel, Davaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fernandez, Suzanne TorenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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