September 9, 2011 9:54 pm

A More Perfect Heaven

Dava Sobel fluently tells the story of Copernicus and his radical theory that redefined man’s place in the universe

The best bits are in the footnotes: every attentive reader knows that. Dava Sobel has built a career out of taking these marginal details and spinning them into pop-science bestsellers.

Longitude (1995), the book that made her name, was about the man who invented the clock that made accurate navigation possible in the 18th century. Galileo’s Daughter (2000) was about, yes, Suor Maria Celeste. Now A More Perfect Heaven is about Copernicus – or, if he’s too much of a household name, Copernicus and his dealings with Rheticus, the young Lutheran scholar who, in 1539-41, persuaded him to publish his crazy idea that the Earth went round the Sun rather than vice-versa.

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But even Copernicus is an obscure figure, a footnote to his own theory. We know that Galileo got in trouble with the church; we know that Newton had an apple land on his head (well, maybe). But apart from his big revolutionary idea – which, in Sobel’s elegant formulation, “initiated a cascade of diminishments”, with Earth’s position becoming ever more insignificant in an ever vaster cosmos – who was Copernicus?

In telling us, Sobel characteristically gives us the man in full, with the evolution of Copernicus’s cosmological speculations woven into the more down-to-earth concerns of the man who grew up Niklas Kopernigk in the Polish town of Torun. As we learn about his arguments for rejecting Ptolemy’s 1,400-year-old geocentric theory, we also learn about his privileged but precarious position as a canon at Frauenberg (now Frombork) cathedral: privileged because of the income this nepotistically obtained job afforded him; precarious because of marauding Teutonic knights and the fast-growing Lutheran heresy.

Although Rheticus came late into Copernicus’s life – only four years before the canon’s death at the age of 70 – the relationship between the two men fascinates Sobel. So much, in fact, that the central third of the book is a two-act dramatisation of their encounter. The cautious Copernicus has mothballed his manuscript of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, eager to “protect his most beautiful ideas from ridicule”; can the old boy’s ardent disciple persuade him to publish?

This little play is certainly of a piece with Sobel’s strategy of making the history of science come alive but it’s not good enough to stave off the thought that only a big-name writer could be so indulged by her editors. Copernicus is very much the hero, in a benignly liberal kind of mould, saner than both his zealously anti-Lutheran bishop and the impetuous Rheticus.

Yet if this Copernicus seems too good to be true, elsewhere Sobel tells her story fluently. A charming chapter sketches Copernicus’s dealings with his diocese’s peasant tenants; another recounts what modern scholars have learnt from the marginal annotations that Johannes Kepler and others made in their copies of On the Revolutions. The play you can take or leave: treat it as a footnote.

Neville Hawcock is the FT’s deputy arts editor

A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos, by Dava Sobel, Bloomsbury, RRP£14.99, 274 pages

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