Careful Readers

J.L. Heilbron

  • The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus by Owen Gingerich
    Arrow, 320 pp, £7.99, July 2005, ISBN 0 09 947644 4

Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read is an engaging account of a harmless obsession. For thirty years he has been ferreting out every copy of Nicholas Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium to which library catalogues, booksellers’ lists, auction records, informed tips and plain luck led him. The exceptional importance of Copernicus’s work in the history of science was only indirectly the cause of this monomania. The direct inspiration was a common sort of academic discomfort: being scheduled to speak at a large international meeting and having nothing particular to say.

The meeting was part of the worldwide celebration of the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth in Torun, on the Vistula, in 1473. It was a much grander occasion than the 400th anniversary in 1873, which was primarily seen as an occasion for the new German state to claim Copernicus for the German cultural sphere by initiating the publication of his collected works. On the 400th anniversary of his death, in May 1943, the Nazis seized the opportunity to reassert German ownership of Nicolaus Koppernick and to assert that the Poles were intellectually too weak to have produced so great a genius. The Allies claimed Mikulaj Kopernik for Occupied Poland, and as an icon of the international character of scientific ideas and the transcendental importance of unfettered freedom of inquiry. The United States commemorated Nicholas Copernicus in schools and universities across the country, and in a ceremony at Carnegie Hall. There were co-ordinated radio broadcasts in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, and coverage of the British observances was beamed into Occupied Europe.

Neither nationality nor national culture made any sense in the place and time of Copernicus’s birth, however. Italy has as fair a claim to have created Copernicus as Poland or Germany, since he spent a decade studying in and around the universities of Bologna, Padua and Ferrara. But Germany and Italy lost the war and Nicholas Copernicus, Mikulaj Kopernik, Nicolò Copernico, Nicolaus Koppernick, Copernich or Coppernick, has been Polish since 1945.

De revolutionibus started a revolution in cosmology by placing the Sun motionless near the centre of the Earth’s orbit, making the Earth a planet and the planets so many Earths, violating common sense and sound physics, and conflicting with biblical passages that spoke plainly of the Sun’s motion and the Earth’s rest. Copernicus admitted all this to make sense of certain qualitative features of the behaviour of the planets: in particular, the limited elongations (angular distances from the Sun as seen from the Earth) of Mercury and Venus, and the stations and retrogradations of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These phenomena followed as direct consequences of placing the Earth’s orbit between those of Venus and Mars. Copernicus showed how to determine not only the order of the planets, but also the relative sizes of their orbits, which the traditional Earth-centred scheme could not accomplish without special hypotheses. Even astronomers and astrologers who rejected Copernicus’s system used it to determine planetary distances. They justified their paradoxical position by claiming that Copernicus’s masterpiece was not a revolution in cosmology, but merely a convenient calculating device.

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