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Review: Biography

Copernicus in three acts Add to ...

Dava Sobel’s latest gem, A More Perfect Heaven, can take pride of place in the long tradition of books about the great Polish astronomer who proposed his heliocentric cosmological theory three centuries ahead of its time.

Still, a survey of Sobel’s bibliography might suggest that the sine qua non on Copernicus had already been written. Her sampling cites more than a dozen biographies, including the very first, by French polymath Pierre Gassendi, published in 1654.

Beyond that, consider just a few titles from the past decade. There’s Copernicus’ Secret, by Jack Repcheck, as well as The Book Nobody Read, Owen Gingerich’s investigation into Copernicus’s own book ( On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).

And there’s the young adult title Nicolaus Copernicus: Making the Earth a Planet, also by Gingerich, with James MacLachlan, and in the children’s section, Nicolaus Copernicus: The Earth is a Planet, by Dennis Brindell Fradin and illustrator Countess Cynthia von Buhler.

Luckily, the story of Copernicus – a fundamental set-piece in the history of science – is a bit like a bedtime story, in that it deserves and benefits from ritualistic and even inventive, improvisational retellings.

In her prelude, Sobel, formerly a science reporter at The New York Times and author of the bestseller Longitude, mentions the imaginings of John Banville and his historical novel Doctor Copernicus as an example of how a Copernican author has to “leap the gaps in the true life story.”

Amazingly, Copernicus’s entire original manuscript survived and the yellowed stack of 200 sheets currently resides at Jagiellonian University Library in Krakow. Sobel marvels at how one illustration of the planets’ concentric spheres bears a small hole drilled into the page by Copernicus’s compass. So close to the man himself, but yet so far. Because otherwise, his archival record is slim. “His lifetime of correspondence comes down today to just seventeen surviving signed letters,” she notes, adding parenthetically: “Of these, three concern the woman who lived with him as cook and housekeeper, and probably concubine as well.”

So it’s hardly surprising that this biography is peppered with “possibly” and “probably” and “perhaps.”

However, it is rather unexpected – indeed fancifully and delightfully unconventional, in that signature Sobel way – that she chose to deal with one regrettably undocumented gap in Copernicus’s life – the pivotal two-year period when he was visited by the young German mathematician and acolyte Rheticus (a.k.a. Georg Joachim de Porris), who somehow persuaded the astronomer to publish his heretical theory – by writing a play and giving it equal billing the between Part One and Part Three of her non-fiction narrative.

At a recent conference addressing the question “Is biography dead?” the publisher of an esteemed American house answered in the negative, but at once advised that only the likes of, say, Steve Jobs, deserve the Walter Isaacson doorstopper treatment, and that otherwise biographies should strive to be “bold and brief.” A More Perfect Heaven is a nice example of what this publisher may have had in mind.

As a playwright, Sobel elegantly curates the facts and melds them with her formidable powers of invention. She takes, for example, a joke known to have been made at Copernicus’s expense and puts it in the mouth of a bumbling Catholic bishop. (Who, incidentally, is paranoid that the Lutherans are trying to kill him via food poisoning, and yammers on about those cursed Lutherans, “Lutherans everywhere. In the kitchen. In the soup.”)

“[I]’s a laughingstock,” the fictive Bishop of Varmia declares of Copernicus and his work. “You should hear what they used to say about him at court. How he mistook the Earth for a side of beef. So he put it on a spit, and tried to roast it in the sun’s fire.”

Sobel, of course, also tells an entertaining tale when she mounts the facts straight. As he divulged in one of his letters, Copernicus expected (though didn’t live to hear) the ridicule: “I can readily imagine,” he wrote to the real Pope Paul III at the Vatican, “that as soon as some people hear how in this volume … I ascribe certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they will immediately shout to have me and my opinion hooted off the stage.”

Siobhan Roberts is a visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where astronomers are still seeking to better understand our place in the universe and its history.

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