Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (Great Discoveries Series)

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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 modern science, leading to a completely new understanding of the universe, and humanity's place within it.
But what did Copernicus ...

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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 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.

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Editorial Reviews

“Energetic, piquant, and contextually rich. . . . Vollmann writes with vigor and poetic insight about the evolution of science.”
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393329186
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/12/2007
  • Series: Great Discoveries
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

William T. Vollmann

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.


Fearless, ambitious, and wildly original, William T. Vollmann has been lionized as one of the most significant and influential voices in contemporary postmodernist literature. His dauntingly voluminous books, a hodgepodge of fiction and journalism, are marked by bold, often beautiful language. They also spring from personal experience: Volmann is famous for total immersion in his subjects. His research has taken him to the ends of the earth – to the North Pole, to war zones around the globe, and (perhaps most famously) to San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin district to gain a better understanding of its notorious denizens..

Vollmann roared onto the literary scene in 1987 with You Bright and Risen Angels, a bold and quirky debut novel that chronicled in allegorical fashion the bitter battle between insects and the inventors of electricity. From that point on, his books became less surreal and more gritty. In 1992, he wrote his first "official" work of nonfiction, An Afghanistan Picture Show , an impressionistic chronicle of his experiences among the Afghan rebels in the early 1980s. Since then, the prolific author has produced an unstoppable juggernaut of prose, most notably installments in his towering fictional sequence Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes and a labyrinthine seven-volume treatise on violence called Rising Up, Rising Down. Published by the iconoclastic publishing house McSweeney's in 2003, this magnum opus was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction.

In 1999, The New Yorker named Vollmann one of the 20 best American writers under the age of 40. In 2005, he was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction for Europe Central, a 750-page series of linked stories set in Germany and Russia during World War II. His journalism continues to appear in such magazines as Esquire, Spin, Gear, Outside, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. In addition, he has founded the Co-Tangent Press as a vehicle for publishing his own limited edition art books.

Good To Know

Vollmann wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, while working as a computer programmer.

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    1. Also Known As:
      m the Blind, Captain Subzero
    2. Hometown:
      Sacramento, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 28, 1959
    2. Place of Birth:
      Santa Monica, California
    1. Education:
      Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

Table of Contents

List of Diagrams     17
Notes     19
Why the Universe Screams     21
Exegesis: Osiander's Preface and I.1-4     25
Once upon a time, beneath an unspotted sun
Provenance of the preface
Rev. I.1: What ought to be must be
Spherical finitude
I.2: The spherical Earth
Starry proofs
I.3: Proportioning water on the Earth
I.4: Eternal circles, circles around circles
The ecliptic and the Zodiac
The equinoxes
Ecliptic wriggles
A complaint against contrary movements
I.4 (cont'd): "We must however confess that the movements are circular"
On guard
What We Believed: Cosmology     53
Centeredness as inevitability
Twelve impieties
Ptolemy's justifications
Polish courtyards
The dead hand
Diagram of a water-mill
The parable of the Alphonsine Tables
One thing with many effects.
Exegesis: I.5     79
What We Believed: Motion     80
Earth's appropriate position
Natural versus compulsory motion
Willed perfection
"Circular movement belongs to wholes and rectilinear to parts"
Exegesis: I.5 (cont'd)-I.9     90
I.5: "Does the Earth have a circular movement?"
I.6: The geometry of heavenly immensity
I.7-9: Copernicus almost defines gravity
A digression on Neptune's atmosphere
A sub-digression on the Coriolis Effect
"Then what should we say about the clouds?"
I.9: Centering the sun.
The Limits of Observation in 1543     100
How easy itused to be to save the appearances!
Foucault's pendulum
"Bequeathed like a legacy"
"Binoculars are usually needed"
Exegesis: I.10-14     109
I.10: Simplifying and rearranging the heavenly spheres
I.11: The Earth's three movements
I.12-14: Some theorems of plane and spherical geometry
Orbits of Venus     113
"In line with the Water-Bearer's testicles"
Another perfect circle
"Then what will they say is contained in all this space?"
"An easier and more convenient demonstration"
"More complicated than the Ptolemaic system"
"But now the Telescope manifestly shows these horns"
Exegesis: Book II     136
II.1-2: Uncentering definitions
II.3-14: Tables and transformations
What We Believed: Scriptures     142
The parable of the lodestone
Exempt from re-examination
The status of the sun when Lot came to Zo'ar
"Aided by spiritual insight"
Twenty-four centuries since Creation
Axioms of Scriptural astronomy
The leaden square
"The Sun did run much more than 7,000 miles"
Exegesis: Book III     161
III.1-3: Spica's variables
III.3-4: The lost ellipse
III.5-26: Eccentrics, epicycles and an uncentered Earth.
Silent to the End     168
"A pale, insignificant figure"
Postludes to an occupation
Fish days and meat days in Gynopolis
"Nobody shall have any proper pretext to suspect evil of me hereafter"
Safe at last
Exegesis: Book IV     180
IV.2-4: "I say that the lunar appearances agree"
IV.4-32: Distances, diameters, volumes
The Pillars of Hercules     185
"I doubt not that certain savants have taken great offense"
To the Eighth Circle
Herschel's looming universe
Exegesis: Book V     192
V.1-5: The Martian circles
V.4-36: Rescuing Mercury from injury and disparagement
Assessments     203
"Rotting in a coffer"
False supposition, true demonstration
Exegesis: Book VI     206
VI. 1-8: Inclination, obliquation, deviation
VI.9: "Except that in the case of Mercury..."
Simplicity     212
Astrologers' shameful recourse
Epilogue to Mercury's obliquation
Back to iron-grubbing
But the universe screamed
Burnings     221
The Medicean planets
Resolutely Copernican
"How great would have been thy joy"
"Newly emerging values still seeking intellectual justification"
"Safely back on a solid Earth"
Chronology     235
Glossary     239
Sources     247
Bibliography     287
Acknowledgments     295
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  • Posted September 14, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Tom from Japan gives his two cents on Vollmann

    It's pretty good.

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    Posted October 19, 2010

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