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Dava Sobel delivers intriguing insights into the life of Copernicus, but one aspect of the book falters

downloadReview by: KEN KORCZAK

If would be fair to say that Nicolaus Copernicus was the Albert Einstein of his time. In fact, what Copernicus was asking the world to accept was even more radical than what Einstein proposed with his theory of relativity.

Shortly after Einstein’s relativity went public, the New York Times pounced. An editorial said Einstein’s theory was: “Certainly a fiction.” But he got off easy compared to Copernicus.

More than 500 years ago when the intellectual world got wind of Copernicus’s heliocentric model featuring an earth that was not only spinning, but hurling through space — it simply defied common sense!

Arguments like these were made: “Would not birds get lost after they flew off their nests? If the earth spun away from under them while they were in the air, how would they find their way back?”

It seemed the most fundamental notion of common observation: The earth was solid underfoot, did not appear to be moving, no motion could be felt or observed – a spinning, orbiting earth? Ridiculous!

And what about the sacred scripture of the Bible!

This is what makes the Copernican Revolution still so incredibly breathtaking to this day. It was a monumental leap – a major paradigm shattering event – against seemingly impossible odds.

Imagine the man, the fabulous, disciplined mind, that could make such a thing happen! It was Copernicus!

For me, the stunning nature of what Copernicus achieved — the feeling of it — is not captured or conveyed in this book. DAVA SOBEL has given us a lot of interesting facts, but failed to impart a sense of wonder.

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Dava Sobel

I must also say: I agree with other critics who have taken Sobel harshly to task for including her three act play to fill the middle third of this book – a disastrous decision both on her part, and that of her editors. The latter should have talked her out of it. The play is a drag. I think it fails to capture the spirit of the man, and the texture of the times.

That’s why this book cannot earn a top rating from me.

Even so, this is otherwise a fascinating book from which I learned things about Copernicus that I did not know before – and I have admired Copernicus and read about him since I became an obsessive amateur astronomer almost 50 years ago.

I became a die-hard fan of DAVA SOBEL after I read her GALILEO’S DAUGHTER one of the best books I have read in 10 years. When I saw Sobel had turned her brilliant historian’s eye on the mighty Copernicus, I couldn’t wait to buy a copy and read.

The first third and the last third are indeed absorbing and fascinating. I give Sobel enormous credit for crafting an often intimate narrative of the life of Copernicus, considering what must be an agonizing lack of available historical documentation. So much of what we might know about Copernicus has been lost – especially the biography written by Copernicus’s only student, the brilliant but tragic Georg Joachim Rheticus.

I live for the day – if it might ever happen – that some discovery is made of Rheticus’s biography of his master in some ancient back room, museum or library.

But Sobel could have done so much more with what was one of the most amazing, tumultuous times in history. Consider that Copernicus was about 19 or 20 years old when Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, and the shock waves this sent across Europe. It’s not mentioned in this book. It was also Copernican science that drove the final stake into the heart of feudalism – sure, feudalism was all but dead by 1500, but the Copernican universe made sure it would stay dead. (Many scholars have also offered that it was The Copernican system that provided the fuel to end feudalism of Japan! No mention of that either).

Then there’s the overarching societal effects of calendar reform, the death blow it delivered to the Dark Ages in general, the amazing confluence of the Protestant Revolution — all of this gets short shrift – in favor of pages padded with a bland theatrical play that just had to discuss the homosexual predilections of Rheticus and Copernicus’s relationship with his concubine.

Again, the first third and last third of this book are a tantalizing and absorbing peek into the life of one of the most consequential men ever to live – and makes this book worth the price. I recommend you buy it.

But, as it stands, A MORE PERFECT HEAVEN represents a missed opportunity to provide the reader with a more comprehensive look at a time when the entire spiritual and psychological universe of humankind changed in a fundamental way – and what it still means to all of us today.




Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

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