Authors: Dava Sobel
More PERFECT HEAVEN
Revolutionized the Cosmos
To my fair nieces,
with love in the Copernican
tradition of nepotism.
Since 1973, when the five hundredth anniversary of his birth brought his unique story to my attention, I have wanted to dramatize the unlikely meeting between Nicolaus Copernicus and the uninvited visitor who convinced him to publish his crazy idea.
Around the year 1510, near the age of forty, Copernicus reenvisioned the cosmos with the Sun, rather than the Earth, at its hub. Then he concealed the theory for thirty years, fearful of ridicule from his mathematician peers. But when his unexpected guest, called Rheticus, made the dangerous, several-hundred-mile journey to northern Poland in 1539, eager to learn the novel planetary order from its source, the aging Copernicus agreed to end his silence. The youth stayed on for two years, despite laws barring his presence, as a Lutheran, from Copernicus’s Catholic diocese during this contentious phase of the Protestant Reformation. Rheticus helped his mentor prepare the long-neglected manuscript for publication, and later hand-carried it to Nuremberg, to the best printer of scientific texts in Europe.
No one knows what Rheticus said to change Copernicus’s mind about going public. Their dialogue in the two-act play that begins on
is my invention, although the characters occasionally speak the very words they wrote themselves in various letters and treatises. I had intended the play to stand on its own, but I thank my perceptive editor, George Gibson, for urging me to plant it in the broad context of history by surrounding the imagined scenes with a fully documented factual narrative that tells Copernicus’s life story and traces the impact of his seminal book,
On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
, to the present day.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind
Who laid the foundations of the Earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
—PSALM 104:1, 3, 5
The great merit of Copernicus, and the basis of his claim to the discovery in question, is that he was not satisfied with a mere statement of his views, but devoted a large part of the labor of a life to their demonstration, and thus placed them in such a light as to render their ultimate acceptance inevitable.
BY SIMON NEWCOMB, FOUNDING PRESIDENT OF
THE AMERICAN ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY
The cricket is a musical being. At the break of dawn it starts to sing. But much louder and more vociferous, according to its nature, is it heard at the noon hour, because intoxicated by the Sun’s rays. As the songster chirps, then, it turns the tree into a platform and the field into a theater, performing a concert for the wayfarers.
Letters of Theophylactus Simocatta
THE FIRST PUBLISHED WORK BY COPERNICUS, 1509
Nicolaus Copernicus, the man credited with turning our perception of the cosmos inside out, was born in the city of Torun, part of “Old Prussia” in the Kingdom of Poland, at 4:48 on Friday afternoon, the nineteenth of February, 1473. His horoscope for that auspicious moment (preserved in the Bavarian State Library in Munich) shows the Sun at 11° of Pisces in the sixth house, while Jupiter and the Moon are “conjunct,” or practically on top of one another, at 4° and 5°, respectively, of Sagittarius, in the third house. Whatever clues to character or destiny such data may contain, this particular natal chart is an after-the-fact construct, created at the end of the astronomer’s life and not the beginning of it (with the time of birth calculated, as opposed to copied from a birth certificate). At the time his horoscope was cast, Copernicus’s contemporaries already knew he had fathered an alternate universe—that he had defied common sense and received wisdom to place the Sun at the center of the heavens, then set the Earth in motion around it.
Nearing seventy, Copernicus had little cause to recall the exact date of his birth, let alone the hour of it down to the precision of minutes. Nor had he ever expressed the slightest faith in any astrological prognostications. His companion at the time, however, a professed devotee of the “juridical art,” apparently pressed Copernicus for biographical details to see how his stars aligned.
The horoscope’s symbols and triangular compartments position the Sun, Moon, and planets above or below the horizon, along the zodiac—the ring of constellations through which they appear to wander. The numerical notations describe more precisely where they lie at the moment, with respect to the twelve signs and also twelve so-called houses governing realms of life experience. Although the diagram invites interpretation, no accompanying conjecture has survived alongside it. One modern astrologer, invited to consider Copernicus’s case, used computer software to draw a new configuration in the shape of a wheel, and added solar-system bodies unknown in his time. Uranus and Neptune thus crept into the third house beside the Moon and Jupiter, while Pluto, a dark force, manifested itself opposite the Sun, at 16° of Virgo in the first house. The Pluto-Sun opposition drew a gasp from the astrologer, who declared it the hallmark of a born revolutionary.
The bold plan for astronomical reform that Copernicus conceived and then nurtured over decades in his spare time struck him as the blueprint for the “
marvelous symmetry of the universe
.” Even so, he proceeded cautiously, first leaking the idea to a few fellow mathematicians, never trying to proselytize. All the while real and bloody revolutions—the Protestant Reformation, the Peasant Rebellion, warfare with the Teutonic Knights and the Ottoman Turks—churned around him. He held off publishing his theory for so long that when his great book,
On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
, finally appeared in print, its author breathed his last. He never heard any of the criticism, or acclaim, that attended
On the Revolutions
. Decades after his death, when the first telescopic discoveries lent credence to his intuitions, the Holy Office of the Inquisition condemned his efforts. In 1616,
On the Revolutions
was listed on the
Index of Prohibited Books
, where it remained for more than two hundred years. The philosophical conflict and change in perception that his ideas engendered are sometimes referred to as the Copernican Revolution.