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Nicolaus Copernicus with his model of the heliocentric universe

Dava Sobel has carved a niche for herself as a writer who employs narrative and biography to present archaic and complicated theories in an engaging and accessible manner. After making her name as an award-winning science reporter for The New York Times, she published Longitude, her first book in this style, in 1995. In it she described the long quest of the eighteenth-century British clockmaker John Harrison to build the perfect chronometer, and his fight to claim the national prize for measuring longitude, which had so far baffled navigators. The bold subtitle immediately proclaimed Sobel’s approach, as if in deliberate defiance of academic modesty or complexity: “The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.”

A similar use of a popular, but in this case more intimate, narrative genre marked Galileo’s Daughter, in 1999, announced as “A Drama of Science, Faith and Love.” Here Sobel skillfully used the relationship between the astronomer and his daughter, the nun Maria Celeste, to give an emotional and personal context to the controversies that surrounded his astronomical work. Six years later came The Planets, in which Sobel mixed recent scientific data with several different kinds of storytelling: myth, astrology, folk tales, and science fiction. What, one asks, would she do with Copernicus?

As her subtitle suggests, this time Sobel centers on the idea of revolution, astronomical and earthly. She dramatizes challenges to orthodoxy, not only in the overturning of prevailing views of the cosmos in Copernicus’s epoch-making De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) of 1543, but in the turmoil of religious debate, European politics and conflicts, and the personal and sexual lives of Copernicus and his contemporaries. In so doing, she presents Europe in the early sixteenth century as a world alight with ideas yet held back by vested interests and self-regarding, oppressive institutions.

At its heart, her book is literally a drama. It began, she explains, with her writing the two-act play that forms its centerpiece, an imaginative reconstruction of the relationship between the aging Copernicus and his young devotee Georg Joachim Rheticus, who traveled five hundred miles from Wittenberg in Saxony to northern Poland to visit the master, and who persuaded him, eventually, to publish his great work. As Sobel admits, “No one knows what Rheticus said to change Copernicus’s mind about going public.” Her play, drawing on letters and treatises, is a response to this dilemma. It was originally intended to stand alone—and has indeed been performed several times—but it appears here embedded within a more conventional, documented narrative.

The mixture of genres makes A More Perfect Heaven an interesting experiment, a triptych where the action springs to life in the central section, preceded by an account of the generation of De revolutionibus, and followed by an equally interesting story of its aftermath and influence. Early in the book, establishing a license in the reader’s mind, as it were, for the shift toward fiction, she quotes a vivid passage about Copernicus’s journey to Italy from John Banville’s 1976 novel Doctor Copernicus, the first in the trilogy that continued with Kepler and The Newton Letter.

If her new book lacks the heat of the disputes that fired Longitude or the urgent, intimate quality of Galileo’s Daughter, it remains full of tension, touching in its presentation of Copernicus’s persistence, and captivating in the way it balances visionary theoretical genius with emotional commitments and practical abilities.

One of its most interesting aspects is the blend and clash of languages. The eloquent epigraphs from Copernicus and his peers and from the Bible strongly convey the tone and the arguments of the day. The elegant outline of contemporary ideas about the elements and the mechanics of the cosmos now seems as curious as a fairy tale: the four mutable elements—earth, air, water, and fire—and the fifth essence, ether, the inviolate, enduring substance that filled the heavens; the belief that earthly objects moved along straight paths to find their place in the world order, while heavenly bodies nestled in celestial spheres, spinning in perfect circles, with the earth at the center.

This geocentric model derived from Aristotle, refined by Ptolemy in the second century AD: one of Copernicus’s favorite books in his youth was the Epitome of Ptolemy’s Almagest written by Johannes Regiomontanus in the 1460s. Beyond, and interwoven with the mathematics of astronomy, lies yet another language, that of astrology, conjured here by the horoscopes of Copernicus and Rheticus, and by the latter’s fervent belief that more accurate calculations could prepare the way for “momentous predictions,” revealing the future fate of states and empires.

The book is striking, too, in its depiction of the mobility of ideas and the circulation of manuscripts in an age when publishing was in its infancy and travel was hazardous and slow. Geography had much significance. Before moving to Kraków, then the capital of the Polish kingdom, Copernicus’s family came from the village of Koperniki, in the copper-mining district of Silesia in southern Poland. In the mid-fifteenth century, his father settled in the northern town of Torun, trading in copper and marrying a local woman. Subtly Sobel lets us see her own questing travels, as she describes their tall brick house, now a museum:


From the double doors under the house’s pointed arch, their two boys, Andrei and Niklas, could walk to classes at the parish church of St. John’s Church, or down to the family warehouse near the wide river, the Vistula, that coursed from Krakow past Warsaw through Torun, carrying the flow of commerce to Danzig on the Baltic Sea.

The Vistula, with its busy traffic, flowed through Copernicus’s life. As an adult, wistfully comparing his situation to that of Ptolemy, sky-watching in cloudless Egypt, he wrote, “The Nile, so they say, does not exhale such misty vapors as those we get from the Vistula.”

After his father died when Copernicus was ten, the four children came under the wing of their wealthy maternal uncle, Lukasz Watzenrode, later bishop of Varmia, the diocese of the region. One sister became a Cistercian nun, the other married a businessman, and the two boys, destined for the church, were sent to university in Kraków. Copernicus was already absorbed by astronomy, and Kraków was well known for its astronomical-mathematical school: it would have been interesting to know more about his studies here, and his wide reading of humanist texts in Poland and in Italy, as well as his debt—which Sobel acknowledges—to the calculations made by Islamic astronomers.

When he moved on to study canon law at Bologna in 1496—his income supplemented by a post as a canon at Varmia, obtained for him by his uncle—he lodged with the famous professor Domenico Maria Novara, assisting his observations of the moon and the brilliant star Aldebaran. In Rome, in the jubilee year of 1500, he recorded a partial lunar eclipse. After a short spell back in Frauenburg, where Varmia cathedral stood on its hilltop overlooking the Vistula Bay and the Baltic, Copernicus traveled south to Italy again, this time to study medicine at Padua, acquiring skills that would later fit him to become physician to the chapter and monks of the cathedral.

In 1503, having taken his doctor’s degree, Copernicus returned to Poland, where his passion for astronomy ran alongside more mundane work. Working for his uncle the bishop as secretary and physician, he continued his observations in private, taking notes, for example, of the Great Conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 1504 and the lunar eclipse of June 1509. His first work, however, dedicated to his uncle, was a translation from Greek into Latin of selected letters by the Constantinople moralist Theophylactus Simocatta, which he found in the cathedral library. (Sobel suggests that this was, in fact, an exercise in improving his Greek, so that he could study the works and calendars of Greek astronomers.) A year later Copernicus moved out of the Bishop’s Palace, two years before Bishop Watzenrode died. He had been working on the planetary reversals and movements that had led Ptolemy to propose a complex system of subsidiary spheres, and his move from the palace coincided with his writing of a short summary, the Brief Sketch, or Commentariolus, describing the new theory he had developed to correct Ptolemy’s violation of the basic axiom that “all planetary motions must be circular and uniform.” In Sobel’s version:

“All spheres surround the Sun as though it were in the middle of them and therefore the center of the universe is near the Sun,” he wrote. “What appears to us as motions of the Sun arise not from its motion but from the motion of the Earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the Sun like any other planet.”

With a wave of his hand, he had made the earth a planet and set it spinning.

Indeed, Copernicus noted three earthly revolutions: around the sun every year; around its own center each day, causing sunrise and sunset; and a slight, but perpetual, gyration of the poles, accounting for the changing direction of the earth’s axis.

Copernicus refined his ideas over subsequent decades, building a large, paved patio—his “pavimentum”—on which to stand his astronomical instruments, his triquetrum, quadrant, and armillary sphere. He pursued his great labor, the revision of Ptolemy’s Almagest, alongside his official duties as chancellor, supervising financial transactions on behalf of the cathedral chapter, whose politicking and bickering often reads like a passage from one of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, full of clerical jealousy and ambition.


And around the chapter’s petty fights swirled larger conflicts. The region was constantly subject to the ravages of the Teutonic Knights, the military order, to which many leading German and Baltic families belonged, which had evolved in the centuries after the Crusades into a powerful force, ruling over spreading territories in northern Germany and Poland. In November 1516, when Copernicus was sent to administer the cathedral’s lands in the south of the region, the Knights were threatening new attacks under their leader Albrecht.

In these difficult conditions Copernicus supervised land exchanges among the hard-pressed peasants, a task graphically illustrated by Sobel’s interposing of quotations from his ledger between details of his astronomical research. The interweaving of roles cogently demonstrates the nature of Copernicus’s intellect and temperament, showing how he applied his mind in a similar way to both earthly and heavenly problems, moving from the meticulous collection of data through rigorous analysis to imaginative and often unconventional solutions. As an astronomer he contributed suggestions to Pope Leo X’s campaign to adjust the Julian calendar; as an administrator, in his Meditata of 1517 he presented a practical—and influential—brief for reforming the coinage; later, in his Bread Tariff of 1531, he neatly proposed regulating the weight of the peasant’s daily loaf according to the price of grain.

In January 1520, when the Teutonic Knights attacked Frauenburg, destroying Copernicus’s house and pavimentum, he fled back to the south, appealing to the Polish king Sigismund to relieve the ravaged district. Eventually a truce was signed and Copernicus could work peacefully. In 1524 he circulated his Letter Against Werner, which Sobel describes as “the third pillar” of his theoretical work, with the Brief Sketch and On the Revolutions. This politely corrected the work of Johannes Werner of Nuremberg (who had since died, unknown to Copernicus) accounting for a drift in the “eighth sphere”—the phenomenon defined as precession, which makes the earth’s axis gyrate, extremely slowly, over time.

Even as the Teutonic Knights’ armies threatened, Copernicus continued his planetary observations, particularly of Jupiter, whose approaching Great Conjunction with Saturn was held to foretell disaster, in particular a mighty deluge—disappointing many when it failed to come. The flood, instead, was one of faith. In 1517 in Wittenberg Martin Luther had made his protest against the sale of indulgences by the Catholic church and drawn up his “95 Theses”: in 1521 he was excommunicated and branded as an outlaw.

The heresy spread fast. Within three years the number of Lutherans in Prussia and Poland, including some former bishops, horrified the church authorities. One of the sect’s greatest prizes was Albrecht, leader of the Teutonic Knights, who not only became a Lutheran but paid homage to the Polish King Sigismund, accepted the title of Duke of Prussia, and—to the horror of his followers—disbanded his entire order. Sigismund himself was a fierce opponent of the Lutherans in his kingdom and following his lead, Bishop Ferber of Varmia banned them from the diocese.

Copernicus’s great friend in the cathedral chapter, a key figure in Sobel’s account, was a fellow astronomer, Tiedemann Giese, a constant voice of toleration. Yet both he and Copernicus were forced to vote in favor of Ferber’s ban. Giese realized that Copernicus’s own work might constitute heresy, since in the Book of Joshua—a passage quoted frequently here, like a bell tolling through the hero’s life—God had ordered the sun “to stand still” until Joshua overcame his enemies. Yet Giese was among the first of many to urge Copernicus to publish. Fearful of ridicule, he held back—as Charles Darwin would do four hundred years later with The Origin of the Species, a different challenge to accepted belief. Copernicus also hesitated, Sobel suggests, because Ferber was censuring him for his private life, his liaison with his housekeeper, a dispute that continued after Ferber’s death with the zealous new bishop Dantiscus.

This was the situation when the twenty-five-year-old Rheticus arrived in 1539. He came from Wittenberg, where he had lectured in astrology, and was a Lutheran, although Luther sneered at astrology as “framed by the devil.” In Sobel’s version, it was partly Rheticus’s anxiety at his own doom-laden horoscope that led him to travel five hundred miles to find Copernicus in his cold northern city.

At this point, leaving the main narrative, Sobel inserts her play. Here the story is retold in a radically different voice, simple and sharp. The bishop sweats on his sickbed, soothed by doctor Copernicus, and rants at the Lutherans; Rheticus collapses exhausted on the doorstep; the housekeeper Anna acts as a caring, fussy guardian; Giese speaks as the soothing voice of reason. As Copernicus is seduced by Rheticus to finish and publish his book, so his boy assistant Franz is physically seduced by the young German scholar.

The dramatization allows Sobel to let Copernicus defend his new cosmological arrangement, not in mathematical or theoretical terms, but in the language of political orthodoxy and aesthetic harmony:

Why does it make more sense for the Sun to go around the Earth? The Sun should stand as a light for all creation, unmoved, at the center of the universe. The way a king or an emperor rules from his throne. He doesn’t hurry himself about, from city to city. Once you let the Sun take his rightful place at the hearth, the Earth and the other planets arrange themselves in perfect order around it. And they take their speed from his command.

Copernicus suffered a stroke in November 1542, aged sixty-nine. Paralyzed and speechless, he lingered on for six months, dying at the moment the final pages of his book were put into his hands from the printers, as though, Sobel writes, “he had held on all those months just to see the thing complete, and now he could let go.”

In the third part of the triptych Copernicus’s followers and heirs move to center stage. The first is Rheticus, who escaped the danger facing a Lutheran in Frauenburg by accepting an invitation to Löbau, where Giese was now bishop, and later by winning the protection of Duke Albrecht—to whom Copernicus also acted as a physician. By the end of the summer of 1539 Rheticus had learned enough about Copernicus’s work and ideas to write an “informed summary” of his master’s six-volume thesis. This took the form of a sixty-six-page letter to the Nuremberg astrologer and cartographer Johann Schöner, and was published in early 1540 in Danzig as the First Account. The report aroused wide excitement, and the prestigious Nuremberg printer Petreius announced that he was ready to print the full work as soon as it was ready. Rheticus carried it to the printers in Nuremberg, but after he left the city to become a professor at Leipzig he left the task of seeing the publication through to the Lutheran scholar and Nuremberg minister Andreas Osiander.

To his fury, and to the intense dismay of Giese, when On the Revolutions eventually appeared, in 1543, with a dedication to Pope Paul III, the introduction by Osiander reduced Copernicus’s major theoretical leap to the status of a fictional aid to calculation. But despite the dilution of the main theory, major Lutheran figures, including Luther himself and Philip Melanchthon, stoutly rejected the new ordering of earth, sun, and the planets on biblical grounds. In the years to come, Rheticus drifted around, always working to elucidate Copernicus’s teaching, settling eventually in the Hungarian city of Cassovia, where he died in 1574.

As Sobel puts it, European astronomers “took Copernicus at Osiander’s cautious word for the remainder of the sixteenth century,” with two great exceptions—Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Brahe upset all notions of fixed stars and solid celestial spheres by his observations of the explosion of a nova in the constellation Cassiopeia in 1572, and then of the course of the “Great Comet” five years later, defying the pattern of fixed spheres: “When he delivered this thunderbolt, one could almost hear the tinkle of shattering crystal.” Yet despite Brahe’s admiration for Copernicus, he stuck to the notion of the stationary earth, proposing a different model in which the major planets orbited the sun, while the sun, with planets in tow, orbited the central earth.

In Prague, at the dawn of the seventeenth century, Brahe collaborated with the younger mathematician Kepler, who would later develop a new model of his own, based on the five regular solids—tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron—rather than spheres. In doing so he adjusted Copernicus’s judgment of the center, placing this not “near the Sun” but in the body of the sun itself. Kepler elaborated his thinking in the New Astronomy of 1609 and the three volumes of the Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, 1617–1621.

It was only then, when Kepler’s influence was matched by that of Galileo’s astonishing discoveries through the telescope he invented, that Copernicus’s work came under the steely gaze of the papal censors. Galileo built his “spyglass,” the first complete astronomical telescope, in 1609, and the following year, awed by the sight of such wonders as the moons of Jupiter, he declared that his findings led him to accept the theories of Copernicus. The publication of his marvelous astronomical observations in The Starry Messenger in 1610 won wide acclaim but at the same time, as Sobel puts it, “Galileo also became a lightning rod for all the criticisms, ridicule, and outrage that Copernicus had dreaded.” In 1613 Galileo openly affirmed his support for the Copernican system and continued to defend the works of the Polish astronomer against threats of censorship by the Papal Office.

His defense was in vain. Three years later, in 1616, On the Revolutions was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, not banned but suspended until it was “corrected,” and in 1633 Galileo himself was convicted of heresy after the publication of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World. Forced to recant, he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Despite the advances of science and faith, it was not until 1992 that Pope John Paul II annulled Galileo’s conviction, and since the charge of heresy was based on his teaching of the Copernican system, the Pope first had to overturn the 1616 prohibition of On the Revolutions. In the intervening centuries astronomers had continued to brood over the mysteries of the universe, as they still puzzle today over the issues of dark matter and dark energy. Through her intriguing book Sobel lets us sense Copernicus’s own delight in his lifetime of questioning, and prompts us to ask, with him, “What could be more beautiful that the heavens, which contain all beautiful things?”