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.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under