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Book Review: A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel

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A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel is part fiction, part non-fiction. The book — enlivened by the historical narrative and introduction to the Poland Copernicus lived in — includes a play in two acts in the middle.

It is 1514 and Polish monk Nicolaus Copernicus has the initial outline for his heliocentric theory in which he defies the norms of society and church by placing the sun in the center of the universe. The reclusive cleric’s book is long and detailed, yet unpublished.The historical narrative and introduction (for me) to

A young German mathematician named Georg Joachim Rheticus comes to study under Copernicus hearing about his genius. Several years later the young man leaves his mentor and tries to arrange the manuscript to be published.

 I am fascinated by writings about these super-geniuses who have changed the world we live in, stood up to norms and the effects of their discoveries still affecting our daily lives. Part of me knows I will never understand their actual writings; most of it looks like Greek to me and, of course, some of it is in actual Greek.

But in any form of expression, it’s certain that the counter-revolution that ensued in immediate response to Copernicus’ ideas had a profound impact, and continues to make waves:

“State and local governments still claim the right to control what can be taught of scientific theories in classrooms and textbooks. A so-called museum in the southeastern United States compresses the Earth’s geological record from 4.5 billion to a biblical few thousand years, and pretends that dinosaurs coexisted with human beings”  

Sobel was also having fun with this book. In the middle is a two-act play called And the Sun Stood Still which captures the interaction between Copernicus and his student, the mathematician Johann Joachim Rheticus. Before the play the author writes about Copernicus’ life before meeting Rheticus; after the play the author writes about the decline on Copernicus after Rheticus has left.

When I started reading the play I thought of skipping it – I’m not much for plays – but Sobel’s writing managed to pull it off. The interaction between Copernicus and Rheticus, along with the historical background provided, actually added to the book even though the author said she wanted to publish the play alone. I think  Sobel’s editor made a wise choice by including the historical background.

You won’t learn much about the science and mathematics of astrology in A More Perfect Heaven. However you will get a terrific image of the man we know as Copernicus, his struggle to develop his theory, and his internal struggles with publishing his ideas against the norms and the church.

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