Sunday, April 15, 2012

Five notable books on the early history of astronomy

Dava Sobel is the bestselling author of Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, and The Planets, coauthor of The Illustrated Longitude, and editor of Letters to Father. Her latest book is A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos.

One of five books on the early history of astronomy she discussed with Daisy Banks at The Browser:
The Book Nobody Read
by Owen Gingerich

So this was very much the explosive century where lots of big minds came along to prove otherwise. One of the people at the forefront of that is Nicolaus Copernicus who is at the centre of Owen Gingerich’s book, The Book Nobody Read. Before we discuss the book can you explain who Copernicus was.

This is someone who really changed the world because he turned our perception of the universe inside out. He dared to suggest that the earth was in motion – that it rotated and revolved – which was an insane idea at the time.

How did people react to his ideas?

He put his ideas in a book called On the Revolution. But he didn’t want to publish it for a long time because he was worried he would be laughed at. So by the time his book came out he was dying and he never really heard any of the reaction to it. And for a while there was no explosive reaction because the book is a great big dense difficult mathematical text written in Latin! So it was only the educated few who could really appreciate its intent.

And that is why the 20th century author and journalist Arthur Koestler dismissed it as “the book that nobody read”, which is something that Owen Gingerich is at pains to correct with this book.

Yes, he is referring to Koestler’s comment with his title. This was the insult hurled at Copernicus’s book because it is so long and mathematical. What is interesting about Gingerich’s book is that he writes about his own study of On the Revolution. Over a period of 30 years, wherever he travelled he sought out all the extant copies of it, examining more than 600 surviving copies from the 16th century, and while he was doing that he noticed that the book hadn’t only been read but properly studied. He knew this because the margins of the copies were full of notes. So he was able to prove that it was, in fact, an extremely important book. It was also a very expensive book. It cost about the equivalent of a term’s tuition at university. So people who bought it were likely to take very good care of it.

What kind of people were buying it?

Galileo owned a copy. [Johannes] Kepler owned a copy. In fact any astronomer or mathematician from that period would have owned that book.
Read about the other books Sobel discussed at The Browser.

Read about Sobel's heroine from outside literature.

See Sobel's five best list of books which record extraordinary journeys of discovery.

The Page 99 Test: A More Perfect Heaven.

--Marshal Zeringue