Our good friend Dava Sobol has a remarkable ability to bring the science of astronomy, and some of its most accomplished practitioners, vividly to our eyes. Continuing the series which began with the highly successful Longitude, she has now given us A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (Walker & Company).
Although not a priest, Copernicus spent his life in the service of the church in various administrative capacities. His scientific studies were something of a sideline, but early in the 16th century he developed the theory that the earth revolved around the sun; although this discovery was circulated in outline form, it's devastating impact on the conventional theology of the day was somehow not noticed.
Copernicus kept working and expanded and developed his theory by way of mathematical formulas as well as actual observations of the planets. Over a period of twenty years or so he completed the manuscript of an entire book on this topic, but he refused to publish it; these were the years of the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Church was on the lookout for anything that smacked of heresy. But now occurs one of those strange stories that occasionally crop up in history: a young German — a Protestant no less! — having heard the rumors of Copernicus' theory, undertook a journey to Catholic Poland (actually part of Prussia at the time) with the sole purpose of persuading Copernicus to publish his book.
No one knows exactly how the young man was able to do this, so Ms. Sobol had the ingenious idea of expressing the speculation of what might have been the discussions between them in the form of a play, entitled "And the Sun Stood Still", which appears in the center of the book. The play is highly entertaining and certainly depicts the main protagonists quite vividly.
The fact is that although there are no records of this particular event, both men left quite a bit of correspondence behind, which allows their characters to be much more known than those of, for example, Shakespeare or Bach. In the end the young German was successful in his persuasion and actually took charge himself of the task of having the book printed.
Ms. Sobol — reverting back to non-fiction — tells us this story and also the story of the book's immense impact. She has a wonderful knack for being able to articulate potentially difficult concepts clearly and lucidly, while never seeming to talk down to the reader. We are in her debt for once again opening up an area of history to which too little attention has been paid in recent times.
— Jeremy Nussbaum