Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not… We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them… John Henry Newman


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Imagine you could write a book putting words in the mouths of historical characters which they never, in fact, said nor, given the context of all their known utterances, were ever likely to say. At one end of the spectrum you might have a harmless piece of science fiction trash involving George Washington in a plot with extraterrestrials to defeat the British and become king of the world. At the other end of the spectrum you have everything from revisionist history to the worst blasphemies of the new theologians attempting to assert the legitimacy of every heresy from gnosticism to the worship of craven images. Unfortunately Sobel’s books land squarely in the middle of the latter category which may account for their current popularity. It is a shame that more scientists and writers no longer display Copernicus’ discipline. If you are really interested in a history of Copernicus and heliocentric theory we can only suggest Owen Gingerich’s volume, The Book that Nobody Read [WARNING the title is misleading!], which reflects the type of scholarship that Copernicus deserves.

Copernicus is far more than a heliocentric theorist – probably having realized that an infinite universe has no center. How much more useful it would be to have a writer explore Copernicus’ exploration of Gresham’s law [before Gresham was on the scene] that when a government overvalues one type of money and undervalues another, the undervalued money will leave the country or disappear from circulation into hoards, while the overvalued money will flood into circulation – or – as is commonly stated as: “Bad money drives out good”. Giving the lie to the supposition that Copernicus was a product of the so-called Dark Ages he was, like most medieval scholars, not only a reader of but also a translator of such ancient scholars as Pythagoras, Aristarchos of Samos, Cleomedes, Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Philolaus, Heraclides, Ecphantos and Plato. In as fine a piece of Jesuitical reasoning as ever came out of a Lutheran, Andreas Osiander added a preface to the first publication of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in which he claimed that astronomers may find different causes for observed motions, and then choose whatever is easier to grasp – as long as a theory allows reliable computation – it does not have to match what authority might teach as the truth. Welcome to the new gnosticism!

A more perfect heaven : how Copernicus revolutionized the cosmos  Dava Sobel  New York : Walker, 2011  Hardcover. 1st U.S. ed. and printing. xiv, 273 p. : ill., maps ; 22 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 257-261) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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By 1514, the reclusive cleric Nicolaus Copernicus had written and hand-copied an initial outline of his heliocentric theory – in which he placed the sun, not the earth, at the center of our universe, and set the earth spinning among the other planets. Over the next two decades, Copernicus expanded his theory through hundreds of observations, while compiling in secret a book-length manuscript that tantalized mathematicians and scientists throughout Europe. Because he knew that his evidence still constituted a theory – not meeting the standards to establish it as fact [not because it wasn’t true but simply because the evidence was still inconclusive] – he refused to publish.

In 1539, a young German mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus, drawn by rumors of a revolution to rival the religious upheaval of Martin Luther’s Reformation, traveled to Poland to seek out Copernicus. Two years later, the Protestant youth took leave of his aging Catholic mentor and arranged to have Copernicus’s manuscript published, in 1543, as De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) – the book that forever changed humankind’s perception of its place in the universe.

Sobel chronicles the conflicting personalities that shaped the Copernican Revolution. At the heart of the book is her imagining Rheticus’s struggle to convince Copernicus to let his manuscript see the light of day. Sobel expands well beyond the bounds of narration, creating her own portrait of scientific discipline and exploding the tensions between science and faith created when emerging political forces sought to challenge authority to gain power.

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