Ac­count of ce­les­tial pioneer’s life makes far from

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Re­view: Hugh Mac­don­ald

Dava So­bel Blooms­bury, £14.99

Don McLean was once asked what t he l yrics to his con­tin­u­ally al­lu­sive Amer­i­can Pie meant. “They mean I do not have to work again,” he said. The song­writer was, of course, be­ing mis­chievous, but his re­ply spoke to the truth that one song had in­deed given him the free­dom to do what he wanted, cer­tainly in the artis­tic sense.

The same ap­plies to Dava So­bel. Lon­gi­tude, her story of how John Har­ri­son’s time­pieces rev­o­lu­tionised naval travel, has earned her the where­withal to pur­sue her cho­sen projects in her in­di­vid­ual style. Galileo’s Daugh­ter and The Plan­ets both surfed the suc­cess of Lon­gi­tude, and the author has now told the story of Ni­co­laus Coper­ni­cus, who changed the very fab­ric of sci­enti c thought by prov­ing the the­ory that the Earth moved.

It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary and won­der­ful story, but the work of Coper­ni­cus, a 16th-cen­tury Pol­ish cleric, has been ex­am­ined from ev­ery an­gle. So­bel has taken an­other look and it is pro­foundly idio­syn­cratic. One would have loved to have heard the ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween her agent and her pub­lisher.

“Dava’s writ­ten a new book,” ex­claims agent, with the en­thu­si­asm of one un­cov­er­ing a win­ning Lot­tery ticket down the back of the sofa.

“Oh, mar­vel­lous,” whoops pub­lisher, si­mul­ta­ne­ously up­grad­ing nan­cial fore­casts for the com­ing year.

“Yes, it is all about Coper­ni­cus and the story is split by the in­ser­tion of a two-act play on his life,” con­tin­ues agent, ne­glect­ing to add that So­bel’s re­searches re­veal noth­ing new, the play is sim­plis­tic, some­times dull, and the book’s form has all the strength of a bar of choco­late left in front of a re.

This is a work with in­fu­ri­at­ing aws. It will, of course, be widely bought, per­haps widely read. It will re­ward those read­ers with the oc­ca­sional de­light and the en­dur­ing strength of its main char­ac­ter.

So­bel has cho­sen a sub­ject that can­not fail to in­trigue. This is a book, af­ter all, about how the world was fun­da­men­tally changed, how hu­mans came to ac­cept they were not the cen­tre of all but mere denizens on a lump of rock swirling around space.

Mer­ci­fully, per­haps, So­bel does not dwell on the pre­cise cal­cu­la­tions of Coper­ni­cus. Grat­i­fy­ingly, she does, how­ever, give an ex­cel­lent ac­count of the ge­nius and his life.

Coper­ni­cus, t he sci­en­tist who changed sci­ence, was a man of God who was chained to the mun­dane as he stared at the heav­ens. So­bel shows how his hum­ble daily du­ties of run­ning the af­fairs of the church did not seem to strain the great man’s sense of him­self. Coper­ni­cus was hum­ble in essence. His work might have lain hid­den un­til long af­ter his death had it not been for the in­ter­ven­tion of Ge­org Joachim Rheti­cus, who di­vined ru­mours of the work of Coper­ni­cus and helped bring it into ma­jes­tic light with the pub­li­ca­tion of On The Rev­o­lu­tions Of Ce­les­tial Spheres.

Coper­ni­cus feared ridicule, per­haps even death if his dis­cov­er­ies were deemed hereti­cal. His con­cern was not mis­placed. His work was banned, though he did not live to wit­ness this

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