If an engine can be a hybrid, why not a book?
"A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos" (Walker), the new work by science writer Dava Sobel, author of "Longitude" (1995) and "
's Daughter" (2000) is half-narrative, half-drama — and it's all enthralling, all illuminating. As in her previous bestselling books, Sobel, scheduled to visit the Chicago area Oct. 20 (details below), turns the history of science into a great story filled with fascinating characters, excruciating near-misses and the sudden splendor of the new discovery.
Nicolaus Copernicus was the man who figured out that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of our solar system. That sounds like child's play today, but in 1514, it was not only crazy-sounding but heretical. The Catholic church stood ready to punish anyone who dared challenge the idea of the earth as the center of everything. Thus Copernics, the man "credited with turning our perception of the cosmos inside out," as Sobel puts it, was not only a great mathematician and astronomer; he also had to be an extraordinarily courageous man.
But he didn't get there right away. "A More Perfect Heaven" is the story of how a young German mathematician named Rhetiucs finally persuaded Copernicus to publish his outlandish theory. Their relationship is the energizing spark of Sobel's book.
Intriguingly, she tells the story through drama as well as prose. Her two-act play "And the Sun Stood Still" is included in "A More Perfect Heaven," and it puts flesh on the long-dissolved bones of these historical figures. We see Rheticus — castigated as a Lutheran, much-feared in Copernicus' Poland — pleading with Copernicus to let him stick around and absorb the great man's theories: "We'll limit ourselves strictly to arithmetic and geometry. The wings of the human mind. On such wings as those, we can transcend our religious differences." Sobel, who was writer-in-residence at the U. of C. in 2006, writes with a calm authority and a deep knowledge that never tip into condescension to the lay reader. The haunting final paragraph of this beautiful book, combining science and a sort of poetic awe, is emblematic of her work as a whole:
"When the Earth moved despite the Church's objection, Copernicus became the symbol of a new fall from grace. Because of him, humanity lost its place at the center of the universe. He had initiated a cascade of diminishments: The Earth is merely one of several planets in orbit around the Sun. The Sun is only one star among two hundred billion in the Milky Way . . . The Milky Way is just one galaxy in a Local Group of neighbors, surrounded by countless other galaxy groups stretched across the universe. All the shining stars of the galaxies are as nothing compared to the great volume of unseen dark matter that holds them in gravitational embraces. Even dark matter is dwarfed by the still more elusive entity, dark energy, that accounts for three quarters of a cosmos in which the very notion of a center no longer makes any sense."