Before Georg Joachim Rheticus successfully convinced Nicolaus Copernicus to publish his controversial idea that the Earth isn’t the centre of the universe, he strongly suggested he drop that particular bombshell towards the end of the publication.
At least, that’s how Dava Sobel recreates a conversation between the Austrian mathematician and Polish astronomer in the play at the middle of her latest book.
Treading carefully and easing the reader in was of course a valuable suggestion, considering such a notion would have landed Copernicus in a lot of trouble at the time, particularly with the Catholic Church of which he was a cleric. But nowadays, Copernicus’s revolutionary idea – that the Sun is the centre of the universe (or as we now know, just our Solar System) around which the planets, including Earth, orbit – is mainstream knowledge, easily proven and provable. The wonder and controversy lies in the history of the idea and its inception.
That’s why I would have preferred the ‘heart’ of this book – the play in which Sobel dramatises the meeting between Copernicus and Rheticus that led to the publication of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres – to appear at the beginning.
Instead, Sobel’s no-doubt painstakingly researched and thorough account of Copernicus’s life up to that pivotal point is communicated before the reader has been given a chance to really get to know or care about its central character.
Call it a lack of imagination on my part, but the portion of the book after the play was rendered more exciting and meaningful now that I’d envisioned Copernicus as a living, speaking person. Not only that, someone who may have had a secret love affair and who harboured an illegal foreigner (Rheticus, a Lutheran, was banned in Catholic Poland at the time) who in turn would later be prosecuted for a homosexual affair he had with the Bishop’s assistant in Copernicus’s attic. Now that’s a story.
And it was a gripping read: Sobel executed the play well, despite her misgivings about fictionalising part of Copernicus’s story, as she was forced to do to get around a crucial period of his life of which there is little historical record.
Nonetheless and much to Sobel’s credit, the fictionalised play is heavily informed by research and, more importantly, breathes life into the book’s main character. But the latter is surely a vital step before the reader could be truly impressed by the preceding chapters of essay-like prose covering, among other things, Copernicus’s dealings with peasants as a church official and his role in establishing a new method for minting coins in 16th-century Poland.
As such, I would recommend starting this book not at the beginning or the end, but at the middle. For the two acts of the book’s central play achieved what the previous six non-fiction chapters had failed to – I now felt properly, subjectively sad that Copernicus may have died without ever seeing his work published.
I immediately flicked back through the chapters I confess I may have glazed over with a rekindled interest in one of the most important figures of science, who has a timeless story that is as relevant and compelling today as it was 500 years ago.