Copernicus' Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began [NOOK Book]

Overview

Nicolaus Copernicus gave the world perhaps the most important scientific insight of the modern age, the theory that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. He was also the first to proclaim that the earth rotates on its axis once every twenty-four hours. His theory was truly radical: during his lifetime nearly everyone believed that a perfectly still earth rested in the middle of the cosmos, where all the heavenly bodies ...
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Copernicus' Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began

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Overview

Nicolaus Copernicus gave the world perhaps the most important scientific insight of the modern age, the theory that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. He was also the first to proclaim that the earth rotates on its axis once every twenty-four hours. His theory was truly radical: during his lifetime nearly everyone believed that a perfectly still earth rested in the middle of the cosmos, where all the heavenly bodies revolved around it.

One of the transcendent geniuses of the early Renaissance, Copernicus was also a flawed and conflicted person. A cleric who lived during the tumultuous years of the early Reformation, he may have been sympathetic to the teachings of the Lutherans. Although he had taken a vow of celibacy, he kept at least one mistress. Supremely confident intellectually, he hesitated to disseminate his work among other scholars. It fact, he kept his astronomical work a secret, revealing it to only a few intimates, and the manuscript containing his revolutionary theory, which he refined for at least twenty years, remained "hidden among my things."

It is unlikely that Copernicus' masterwork would ever have been published if not for a young mathematics professor named Georg Joachim Rheticus. He had heard of Copernicus' ideas, and with his imagination on fire he journeyed hundreds of miles to a land where, as a Lutheran, he was forbidden to travel. Rheticus' meeting with Copernicus in a small cathedral town in northern Poland proved to be one of the most important encounters in history.

Copernicus' Secret recreates the life and world of the scientific genius whose work revolutionized astronomy and altered our understanding of our place in the world. It tells the surprising, little-known story behind the dawn of the scientific age.
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Editorial Reviews

Owen Gingerich
Jack Repcheck's new biography, Copernicus' Secret, at last brings the astronomer to life in a way that past efforts have not quite achieved. He paints the sites in a particularly vivid fashion…and he gives a clear account of the political and administrative structures of the cathedral chapter where Copernicus was a senior figure…no other biography of which I am aware treats the life of this scientific giant more vividly than this one.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The founder of modern astronomy was, according to Repcheck (The Man Who Found Time), a science editor at Norton, an unlikely scientific revolutionary: an unambitious man who had lingered in university for 12 years and never sought fame or success. This far-ranging study explores why Nicholas Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Sphereswasn't published until 1543, when he was on his deathbed, three decades after he'd first circulated a draft. Repcheck reveals that in addition to Copernicus being a late bloomer, astronomy had to be squeezed into spare moments between ecclesiastical duties and other civic duties. Copernicus also had an eye for the ladies, especially his housekeeper, which drew repeated, usually unheeded admonitions from his church superiors. It took the arrival of the brilliant young Lutheran mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus, who risked his life to travel to Frombork on the Baltic to seek out the reclusive Copernicus, to spur him on to complete his masterpiece. Repcheck paints a vivid picture of the times, in which both Protestantism and intellectual inquiry posed threats to the Catholic worldview. The author also does an admirable job of shining a light on Copernicus's little-known immediate predecessors to show that, like the works of Einstein and Darwin, the scientist's theory didn't spring Athena-like from his brow. Maps. (Dec.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Publishers Weekly

"Repcheck paints a vivid picture of the times, in which both Protestantism and intellectual inquiry posed threats to the Catholic worldview. The author also does an admirable job of shining a light on Copernicus's little-known immediate predecessors to show that, like the works of Einstein and Darwin, the scientist's theory didn't spring Athena-like from his brow"

NY Sun

"Excellent...[Repcheck] is especially good at setting Copernicus vividly in his time."

New York Times Book Review

"No other biography of which I am aware treats the life of this scientific giant more vividly than this one."

Library Journal

Repcheck, the author of a well-received popular biography of geologist James Hutton, The Man Who Found Time, is a skilled synthesizer of previously published scholarly and popular works. In this slender volume, he spins the tale of how a cleric of the Catholic Church developed a highly sophisticated theory of the architecture of the heavens. Much of the narrative, a distillation of earlier popular works about Copernicus, emphasizes the feet-of-clay aspects of the astronomer's life (1473-1543). Repcheck's descriptions of the political, cultural, and geographic landscapes in which Copernicus lived are fresh and spirited. The sections that distinguish his book from other recently published works (e.g., Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read; Dennis Danielson's The First Copernican; William T. Vollmann's Uncentering the Earth) are those in which Repcheck draws on his insights into the publishing process as a W.W. Norton science editor to describe the complexities of bringing De Revolutionibusinto print in 1543, from convincing the reclusive scholar to publish a work that would generate controversy to the printing of the manuscripts. Recommended for the popular science collections of public and college libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/07.]
—Sara Rutter

Kirkus Reviews
A fine biography of the obscure cleric who demonstrated that the earth was not the center of the universe. Copernicus (1473-1543) led a humdrum life, but science writer Repcheck (The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity, 2003) does an exceptional job bringing to life his character, his era and the astronomical problem he solved. Aristotle's notion that heavenly bodies orbited the earth in perfect circles seemed reasonable to everyone except astronomers, whose calculations didn't work if they assumed he was right. Two centuries later, Ptolemy described a universe in which the earth sat slightly off-center and heavenly bodies orbited in one perfect circle inside a second perfect circle at varying speeds. Although absurdly complicated, this model enabled astronomers to calculate with reasonable accuracy; 1,500 years later, it was still in use. Born into a family of prosperous Germans who settled in Poland, Copernicus passed a leisurely youth, spending 12 years at four separate universities. He finally received a doctorate from the University of Ferrara in 1503. Despite his fascination with astronomy, he took the customary degree in canon law and returned to his local diocese in Poland, where he remained until his death 40 years later, observing the sky in his spare time. His On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, packed with equations and diagrams, was incomprehensible except to astronomers, who appreciated the mathematics that improved their predictions of eclipses, solstices and planetary movements. Upon its publication in 1543, few paid attention to its heretical picture of a universe in which the earth circles the sun. Only after the flamboyantGalileo began spreading the news some 70 years later did the Catholic Church add the book to its Index in 1616. Repcheck emphasizes that Copernicus was one of the first thinkers who looked at the world without preconceptions and set down what he observed. He deserves his place among the founders of modern science, and this lively, lucid account does him justice. Agent: Susan Rabiner/Susan Rabiner Literary Agent
From the Publisher
"Repcheck paints a vivid picture of the times, in which both Protestantism and intellectual inquiry posed threats to the Catholic worldview. The author also does an admirable job of shining a light on Copernicus's little-known immediate predecessors to show that, like the works of Einstein and Darwin, the scientist's theory didn't spring Athena-like from his brow"

Publishers Weekly

"Excellent...[Repcheck] is especially good at setting Copernicus vividly in his time."

NY Sun

"No other biography of which I am aware treats the life of this scientific giant more vividly than this one."

New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416553564
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 12/4/2007
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 875,805
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Jack Repcheck is an editor at W. W. Norton & Co., where he publishes the work of leading scientists and economists. His previous book was the critically acclaimed The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity. He lives with his family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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Read an Excerpt


Preface

A flawed and complex man -- distant, obsequious, womanizing, but possessing a profoundly original and daring intellect -- started the scientific revolution. His name was Nicolaus Copernicus. He achieved this breakthrough when he published his seminal book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, the year that he died, aged seventy. The work provided the technical details for Copernicus's "heliocentric," or sun-centered, theory, the model of the universe that hypothesized that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun, and that the earth itself rotated once a day on its axis.

Prior to the publication of Copernicus's book, the Judeo-Christian world believed that a perfectly still earth rested in the center of God's universe, and that all heavenly bodies -- the sun, the other planets, the moon, and even the distant stars -- revolved around it. This conviction was based on the teachings of Aristotle and the writings of Claudius Ptolemy. The Church had long embraced the paradigm because it conformed to scripture and placed humans at the center of God's firmament. Copernicus's revolutionary work not only presented an entirely different cosmology, but once accepted, it required a titanic shift in mind-set and belief. No longer the center of God's creation, the earth became just one of the other planets. By extension, the primary position of God's highest creation, humankind, was also diminished.

There were many scholars before Copernicus who cast doubt on the earth-centered ("geocentric") model of the universe, in particular Aristarchas, a contemporary of Aristotle's. Yet, no one until Copernicus attempted to develop a comprehensive and complete system to supplant Ptolemy's. This was the key -- Copernicus provided all of the data and mathematics that any other serious student of the heavens would need to conduct inquiries using his heliocentric model of the universe.

Though Copernicus's theory had several serious flaws (in particular, his staunchly held belief that all orbits must be perfectly circular), it was fundamentally correct and exhibited the essential characteristics of modern science -- it was based on unchanging principles, rigorous observation, and mathematical proof. His contribution was immense. It formed the foundation of future work by Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and finally Albert Einstein. On the Revolutions, then, started the scientific journey that has led inexorably to our modern world.

Copernicus's history-altering book came very close to never being published. After pouring his soul into the manuscript for at least two decades and essentially completing it, the astronomer made no move to finish it or submit it to a publisher, despite strenuous urgings from friends and colleagues in high places. He was not afraid of being declared a heretic, as many assume; rather, he was worried that parts of the theory distilled in the manuscript were simply wrong, or if not wrong, incomplete. Thus, he resolved to keep it a secret.

Then, in the last years of his life, Copernicus became embroiled in two serious and distracting clashes that nearly resulted in the manuscript following Copernicus to his grave, consigned to a trunk among his belongings. One dispute was all too human and typical -- it involved a woman who was his mistress. The other was more serious and a product of the times -- Copernicus, a cleric in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, was tainted with the brush of the heretical Lutheran Reformation.

That the manuscript was not buried with its author was the result of a genuinely remarkable turn of events. At the precise moment that Copernicus was most troubled, a young Lutheran mathematics professor from the University of Wittenberg, having made an arduous journey over hundreds of miles of muddy roads, arrived unannounced on his doorstep. Georg Joachim Rheticus, defying a law that banned Lutherans from Copernicus's region, was determined to find the famous but shadowy astronomer and discover whether or not the rumored revolutionary theory of the heavens was true. He was euphoric when he discovered that it was. Rheticus then stayed with Copernicus for most of the next two years to help him complete the manuscript and publish it.

With turmoil swirling around them in the cathedral town of Frombork in northern Poland, the two gifted scientists found peace in each other's company. They worked together to put the final touches on the book that would introduce the heliocentric theory, beginning the era of scientific discovery that eventually led to modern science. But, as with everything involving Copernicus, nothing was simple, and even the straightforward act of publication became a complicated adventure.

This book explores the life of Copernicus, particularly the eventful last twelve years of his life -- a dozen years that changed the course of western history.

I have written this book for the lay reader who knows nothing of the events I describe, except perhaps for having heard of Copernicus and his theory that the earth revolves around the sun. The science I describe is at the simplest possible level. Those readers interested in digging deeper into the science will be directed to additional readings in the Notes and Select Sources and Suggested Additional Readings sections. The goal of this book is to provide a rich, accurate, and especially human account of the events that started the scientific revolution.

Copyright © 2007 by Jack Repcheck

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Table of Contents


Contents Preface 1. Prelude to Future Troubles 2. The Precursors 3. Childhood 4. Student Years 5. Warmia 6. Before the Storm 7. The Death of the Bishop 8. The Mistress and the Frombork Wenches 9. The Taint of Heresy 10. The Catalyst 11. The Nuremberg Cabal 12. The Meeting 13. The First Summer 14. Convincing Copernicus 15. The Publication 16. The Death of Copernicus 17. Rheticus after Copernicus 18. The Impact of On the Revolutions Notes and Select Sources Suggested Additional Readings Acknowledgments Index

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