Account of celestial pioneer’s life makes far from
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