Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres

Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres

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by William T. Vollmann
     
 

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“Highly personal and philosophical . . . the next best thing to reading Copernicus.”—Publishers Weekly
In 1543, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus lay on his deathbed, reportedly holding his just-published masterpiece, The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in his hands. Placing the sun at the center of the universe, Copernicus launched

Overview

“Highly personal and philosophical . . . the next best thing to reading Copernicus.”—Publishers Weekly
In 1543, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus lay on his deathbed, reportedly holding his just-published masterpiece, The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in his hands. Placing the sun at the center of the universe, Copernicus launched modern science, leading to a completely new understanding of the universe, and humanity's place within it.
But what did Copernicus really believe? Some argue that he anticipated the vast secularizing impact his ideas would have on history. Others contend that Copernicus was a man of his time and, on the whole, accepted its worldview. William T. Vollmann navigates this territory with the energetic prose and powerful intelligence for which he is known, providing a fresh and enlightening explication of Copernicus, his book, and his time, and the momentous clash between them.

Editorial Reviews

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) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Novelist Vollmann, the 2005 National Book Award winner for fiction (Europe Central), develops what is essentially an imaginative meditation on the life and work of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). The writer reflects on Copernicus's achievement in pursuing and publishing a heliocentric view of the universe, a daring act that faced condemnation from the Roman Catholic Church and that would influence the next generation of astronomers. Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, or On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, is the gravitational center around which Vollmann's literary reflection revolves. Organized into interpretative chapters based on Copernicus's six books, Uncentering knits the knowledge and philosophy of 16th-century European scientists with strands of 21st-century cosmology. On the heels of Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus, which Vollmann cites, Uncentering is an interpretive exploration of how this world-changing knowledge was and is understood. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/05.]-Sara Rutter, Univ. of Hawaii at Manoa Lib., Honolulu Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Times may be tough for evolutionists, but consider: As recently as 400 years ago, folks were being burned at the stake for thinking that Earth revolved around Sol, and not the other way around. Indeed, remarks the hyper-prolific Vollmann, author of Europe Central, winner of the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction, "Copernicus . . . was not only lucky, but canny to have died when he published." The publication in question, The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, looks antique to us now. But, Vollmann argues, following other historians of science, Nicholas Copernicus' treatise-which he rightly reckoned would scandalize the godly-was and remains remarkable on a number of fronts. Most important, by positing and then proving that the solar system is heliotropic, Copernicus removed humankind from the center of the universe at a time, Jacques Barzun notes, "when men thought of themselves as miserable sinners fearful of an angry God." Revolutions, writes Vollmann, is neither empirical nor, strictly speaking, rational. It is based, he adds, on "what we would now consider a faulty premise." Yet it is remarkably coherent, and even if it took two more centuries to prove him experimentally, Copernicus turned out to be right on many points. Copernicus did die soon after publishing his book, condemned by Protestant and Catholic clergy alike; infamously, his follower, Giordano Bruno, was burned to death for his heterodoxical views, taking the place of his comparatively lucky master. Though peppered with intrigue and conflict and even a little human interest, Vollmann's close reading of Revolutions is not for the scientifically fainthearted, full of head-spinning sentences on the order of, "[I]t ismore than remarkable that the deferent radii which Copernicus calculated for the planets, which translate into the mean radii of their actual elliptical orbits, will be fairly accurate for Mercury and Saturn . . ."Stick with it, though, and there's much to learn about a book little studied today-but one that inarguably changed the world.
Booklist
“Energetic, piquant, and contextually rich. . . . Vollmann writes with vigor and poetic insight about the evolution of science.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393059694
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
02/06/2006
Series:
Great Discoveries Series
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
5.98(w) x 7.94(h) x 0.95(d)

Meet the Author

William T. Vollmann is the author of The Atlas (winner of the 1997 PEN Center West Award), Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, and Europe Central. His nonfiction includes Rising Up and Rising Down which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2003.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Sacramento, California
Date of Birth:
July 28, 1959
Place of Birth:
Santa Monica, California
Education:
Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

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Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (Great Discoveries Series) 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
zampano6 More than 1 year ago
It's pretty good.