The man and the idea that created modern science, as seen by one of today's most celebrated writers.
In 1543, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus lay on his deathbed, his just-published masterpiece On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in his hands. At that time, religious doctrine and common sense dictated that the earth ruled the universe, with the sun, moon, planets, and stars all rotating around it. By putting the sun at the center of that cosmology, his book fomented another kind of revolution—a scientific one—that would lead to a completely new view of the universe, and humanity's place in it.
As contemporary cosmologists explore the universe's vastness and the nearly insignificant role we play in it, the repercussions from Copernicus's radical step continue to resound. With the energetic prose and powerful intelligence for which he is known, William T. Vollmann provides an enlightening and readable explication not only of Copernicus's book but also of Copernicus's epoch, and the momentous clash between the two. 20 diagrams.
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William T. Vollmann is the author of several works of fiction, including The Atlas and The Rainbow Stories, and has contributed stories and journalism to many publications. He lives in California.From Publishers Weekly:
Modern readers are less inclined than earlier ones to sit through Copernicus's juggling of Ptolemy's epicycles to discover how he arrived at his eureka moment that the Earth moves around the Sun. Fortunately, they don't have to, as Vollmann, whose Europe Central won this year's National Book Award for fiction, provides a highly personal and philosophical gloss of all six chapters of Copernicus's De revolutionibus (1543). Vollmann interrupts his exegeses with discussions of the contemporary mindset, the limits of observation at the time (we're told repeatedly how difficult it is to spot Mercury without a good pair of binoculars) and the scientist's quiet, provincial career. What seems most remarkable about Copernicus's book after reading Vollmann's version is how firmly his work is based on Ptolemy's. It's also striking how close he came to modern astronomical values, especially since he thought that arriving within 10 degrees of a true value would be an amazing achievement. Vollmann can't completely avoid technical explanations, but readers who want to understand the significance of Copernicus's book in both his own time and ours will find this the next best thing to reading it. 20 b&w illus. (Feb. 6)
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