Copernicus for dummies

Copernicus for dummies

Update 84 Endeavour Vol.31 No.3 facts but rather successfully arranges them into a new challenging interpretive framework for understanding the eme...

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Endeavour Vol.31 No.3

facts but rather successfully arranges them into a new challenging interpretive framework for understanding the emergence and the practice of Renaissance natural history. His study will stir scholarly debates, not at least on his claim that the discovery of the New World brought little fresh to the development of theories and technologies of observation and describing. Enormously engaging, and written with a passion that rivals that of the

sixteenth-century naturalists themselves, this book can be heartily recommended to all who wish to learn more about the European origins of the modern investigation of nature, and how we have come to engage with its overwhelming splendour. 0160-9327/$ – see front matter ß 2007 Published by Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2007.06.001

Copernicus for dummies Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’ by William T. Vollmann, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006. L18.99 (295 pages, hardback) ISBN 0297845683

Sheila J. Rabin Department of History, St. Peter’s College, 2641 Kennedy Boulevard, Jersey City, NJ 07306, USA

In this work William T. Vollmann, an author of novels and short stories, presents for non-specialists arguments that Nicolaus Copernicus made in his 1543 work On the Revolutions in support of the heliocentric universe. Vollmann intersperses his book-by-book description of the work with chapters about pre-Copernican astronomy, current astronomy, and religious and intellectual life in Copernicus’ time. It is delightful to think that a general audience would be interested in Copernicus’ entire work, not just the first book, which sets forth the heliocentric system. Vollmann’s description of the non-mathematical points in Copernicus’ work is certainly adequate. Strangely, he titles each chapter on it an ‘exegesis’, when his description is little more than a summary with asides. Some of these asides are meant to be cute: Vollmann suggests repeatedly that Copernicus was right for the wrong reasons; he repeatedly complains that the work is largely unreadable. Of course, how could Vollmann find the book readable when he apparently could not read the original and he used the translation by Charles Glenn Wallis rather than the vastly superior one by Edward Rosen, and he could not understand the mathematics in this highly mathematical work? But maybe this speaks to Vollmann’s intended audience. Moreover, though Vollmann cites Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read, he misses the intended irony of the title. On the Revolutions was read in the sixteenth century by everyone whom anyone could be expected to have read it. The average sixteenth century educated reader, like the average twenty-first century reader, did not have the mathematics to read it, and no one would have expected it to be a best seller. Still it sold well, and in 1566 a second edition was published, an impressive achievement for a technical book in the sixteenth century. Though Tycho Brahe rejected heliocentrism, as Vollman repeatedly notes, Tycho had two copies of Copernicus’ book, which he thoroughly annotated, and praised its author highly. A historian can take heart that Vollmann praises Ptolemy; it is too easy to dismiss him for having fostered Available online 20 August 2007

geocentricism. (I once knew a chemist who told me that Aristotle was stupid because so many of his ideas were wrong.) Indeed, the tables made from Copernicus’ calculations were barely distinguishable from those made from Ptolemy’s. But why does Vollmann have to disparage Copernicus in order to praise Ptolemy? Yes, Copernicus’ work was in certain ways more primitive than Ptolemy’s. But Ptolemy’s Almagest was the final product of centuries of thought. In fact, so little of it was original that Dennis Rawlins, in a letter to Isis, called him a plagiarist. And Copernicus may have been ‘wrong’ to reject the equant, as Kepler’s calculations that led to the ellipse showed, but that rejection led Copernicus to the heliocentric idea, without which Kepler would not have been successful in his calculations. Furthermore, Vollmann does not point out that a major superiority of Copernicus’ heliocentricism is that it establishes a correlation between the distance of the planet from the sun and the length of its orbit; Ptolemy gives Mercury, Venus, and the sun the same planetary year. It is difficult to write a work about the heliocentric theory without mentioning the religious controversy around it. (Noel Swerdlow and Otto Neugebauer succeeded, but the book was Mathematical Astronomy in Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, and Vollmann did not use it; it is a great title though for an academic confronted with the accusation of too much vacation time.) Contrary to Vollmann and others, fear of religious authorities was probably the least of the reasons that Copernicus delayed publishing his work. He had sent a precis (the Commentariolus) about 30 years earlier and was mostly encouraged. His isolation in Frombork and his lack of time because of the pressing needs of his position were more important. Nor was the Catholic Church an ‘evil’ persecutor of Copernicans. Bruno was not a ‘martyr of science’; he was not executed because of his support of the Copernican system. Vollmann misunderstands Rosen’s article ‘Was Copernicus’ Revolutions Approved by the Pope?’. It does not prove that the Church was bent on persecuting Copernicans from the beginning; it proves that the



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death of an inquisitor left the Church without a policy regarding heliocentricism until the 1616 condemnation. The persecution of Galileo was wrong, but it was a very complex issue, not simply the benighted Church against enlightened science. Perhaps a specialist should not have been invited to review a book by a non-specialist intended for a general audience. But the points I have made would not have detracted from the narrative; they are not issues of narrow


scholarly interest. (Strangely, Vollmann weighs in on the controversy about whether or not ‘spheres’ should be in the title. How narrow can he get?) In fact, I was surprised that a book written by a novelist was not more readable. It leaves Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers the most readable book about Copernicus, and that is a shame. 0160-9327/$ – see front matter ß 2007 Published by Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2007.07.001

Elsevier celebrates two anniversaries with a gift to university libraries in the developing world In 1580, the Elzevir family began their printing and bookselling business in the Netherlands, publishing works by scholars such as John Locke, Galileo Galilei and Hugo Grotius. On 4 March 1880, Jacobus George Robbers founded the modern Elsevier company intending, just like the original Elzevir family, to reproduce fine editions of literary classics for the edification of others who shared his passion, other ‘Elzevirians’. Robbers co-opted the Elzevir family printer’s mark, stamping the new Elsevier products with a classic symbol of the symbiotic relationship between publisher and scholar. Elsevier has since become a leader in the dissemination of scientific, technical and medical (STM) information, building a reputation for excellence in publishing, new product innovation and commitment to its STM communities. In celebration of the House of Elzevir’s 425th anniversary and the 125th anniversary of the modern Elsevier company, Elsevier donated books to ten university libraries in the developing world. Entitled ‘A Book in Your Name’, each of the 6700 Elsevier employees worldwide was invited to select one of the chosen libraries to receive a book donated by Elsevier. The core gift collection contains the company’s most important and widely used STM publications, including Gray’s Anatomy, Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, Essential Medical Physiology, Cecil Essentials of Medicine, Mosby’s Medical, Nursing and Allied Health Dictionary, The Vaccine Book, Fundamentals of Neuroscience, and Myles Textbook for Midwives. The ten beneficiary libraries are located in Africa, South America and Asia. They include the Library of the Sciences of the University of Sierra Leone; the library of the Muhimbili University College of Health Sciences of the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; the library of the College of Medicine of the University of Malawi; and the University of Zambia; Universite du Mali; Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, Mozambique; Makerere University, Uganda; Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador; Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Guatemala; and the National Centre for Scientific and Technological Information (NACESTI), Vietnam. Through ’A Book in Your Name’, these libraries received books with a total retail value of approximately one million US dollars.

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