Skip to main content

Celestial Revolutionary – John Freely **

I was really looking forward to reading John Freely’s scientific biography of Copernicus as the man who put the sun where it belongs is someone who tends to only receive a couple of pages of aside before we get onto the meaty stuff. I knew the basics, but I wanted to know about Copernicus the man, and to discover more about his work that the concept of a heliocentric universe.
Sadly, the opening chapters were a huge let-down. They consist of brain-numbingly dull history. I was reminded powerfully of the bit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where everyone has got soaked by the pool of Alice’s tears, and the mouse says ‘I’ll soon make you dry enough,’ and goes on ‘This is the driest thing I know,’ followed by a tranche of exceedingly dull history, all names and places with no real content. Compare, for example, this from Celestial Revolutionary:
The Second Peace of Thorn in 1466 had removed Warmia from the control of the Teutonic Knights and placed it under the sovereignty of the Polish Crown as part of the province of Royal Prussia, although with special privileges that gave it some degree of autonomy under its bishop. The following year the cathedral chapter of Warmia elected Nicolaus von Tüngen as bishop, going against the wishes of King Casimir IV. The new bishop allied himself with the Teutonic Knights and King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary. This led to a conflict known as the War of the Priests, which began in 1478 when the army of the Polish Crown invaded Warmia putting the town of Braunsberg under siege. The town withstood the siege and the war ended the following year with the Treaty of Piotrkow Trybunalski.
That isn’t even the whole paragraph. It is just plonking down facts – no narrative, no link to Copernicus or his work. Even when we get a chapter of historical background Ancient Greek models of the universe, we just get a long list of ‘This philosopher thought this. Another philosopher thought that.’ Without doubt, this reviewer was losing the will to live by page 35.
Later on things got slightly better as we spent more time on Copernicus and his work. Again, though, there did tend to be a heavy duty concentration on putting the facts across without any great literary flair. Even so, in this part it does the job. Interestingly, the sections that cover Copernicus’s life and work outside of his astronomy are more lively and readable than the parts that should be the core of the book. Copernicus himself is out of the way by page 160, but we trudge on to page 249, with a detailed analysis of De revolutionibus, then chapters that take us all the way through to Newton, which seemed perhaps a little too far removed from the supposed subject matter.
This is a very useful and detailed book if, say, you are doing some academic research for which a knowledge of exactly what Copernicus got up to in his work would be useful, but it really isn’t the popular account that it was sold to me as by the publisher. The front paper promises to tell us about the ‘epic, thrilling times in which [Copernicus] lived’, but I am afraid that for me, that thrill was sadly lacking.

Hardback  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…