1543 saw the publication of one of the most significant scientific works ever written: De revolutionibus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), in which Nicolaus Copernicus presented a radically different structure of the cosmos by placing the sun, and not the earth, at the centre of the universe. But did anyone take notice? Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gingerich was intrigued by the bold claim made by Arthur Koestler in his bestselling The Sleepwalkers that sixteenth-century Europe paid little attention to the groundbreaking, but dense, masterpiece. Gingerich embarked on a thirty-year odyssey to examine every extant copy to prove Koestler wrong... Logging thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of miles Gingerich uncovered a treasure trove of material on the life of a book and the evolution of an idea. His quest led him to copies once owned by saints, heretics, and scallywags, by musicians and movie stars; some easily accessible, others almost lost to time, politics and the black market. Part biography of a book and a man, part bibliographic and bibliophilic quest, Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read is an utterly captivating piece of writing, a testament to the power both of books and the love of books.
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Owen Gingerich is Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachussetts.From The Washington Post:
Owen Gingerich is senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and research professor of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard. From his new book -- an account of his decades-long quest to examine every copy in existence of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus, the world-shaking, heavens-altering demonstration that the Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa -- we also learn that he knows Latin, French and German, and probably some Polish since he spends a fair amount of time in Cracow and Warsaw. He's constantly winging his way off on some all-expenses-paid trip to England, Scotland, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Russia or Egypt. He purchases rare 16th-century books at auction -- and then discovers even rarer ones bound in with the already choice item. In fact, no matter where he goes, Gingerich is always making some dramatic textual discovery, proving or disproving provenances, deciphering fuzzy handwriting, destroying other scholars' theories. Throughout The Book That Nobody Read he leaves us in no doubt that when it comes to the history of Renaissance astronomy, Prof. Owen Gingerich is the man.
Which he probably is. But The Book Nobody Read will irritate at least some readers by its pervasive self-congratulatory tone. In real life Gingerich may be a second Francis of Assisi, but in these pages he presents himself, willy-nilly, as yet another of those pampered and indulged Harvard hotshots. At times he even sounds like the supercilious detective Philo Vance (who, as Ogden Nash observed, needs a "kick in the pance"): "Because I was then in my spare time computing planetary positions from ancient Babylonian times to the present, I figured I could easily help him test his hypothesis." Right. This lordly manner crops up in asides, footnotes and personal details: "I assumed that everyone knew what offsetting was. . . . Very quickly I realized that Umiastowski had inserted eight Tychonic leaves to make his first edition complete; in fact, the leaves were not from a first edition at all but from a second. . . . Eventually, I had an opportunity to mention this" -- that a Russian-held copy of a certain book was stolen from East Germany -- "to the head of the Library of Congress, a specialist in Russian studies, who allowed that the experts had always suspected this, but my report was the first actual evidence."
The Book That Nobody Read takes up a somewhat rarefied topic. It's not quite a précis of Renaissance astronomical theory, nor is it a potted biography of Copernicus and his readers, among them such notables as Kepler, Tycho Brahe and Galileo. At heart it's nothing less than a scholarly memoir of Gingerich's encounters with more than 600 first and second editions of De Revolutionibus and his attempts to understand how the book had been understood during the 16th century. Arthur Koestler had claimed that nobody actually read Copernicus, essentially because his treatise was so mathematically arcane. To prove or disprove this assertion, Gingerich examines all the extant copies and shows, through detective work going back to the early 1970s, that De Revolutionibus was actually widely available to the scientific community, that copies were heavily annotated, and that they passed from teacher to disciple all around Europe.
Such a story will naturally appeal to those who enjoy "books about books" or the kind of memoir that traces the personal drama behind some scientific or literary breakthrough. The progenitor of this sort of biographical study is The Quest for Corvo, in which A.J.A. Symons describes the course of his investigations as he tries to unearth details about the secret life of a minor late-19th-century author (one best known for his skillful invective and a single good novel, Hadrian VII). More recently, James Watson's The Double Helix chronicled the back-stage give-and-take behind the discovery of the structure of DNA. But such books only work if the result is either immensely quirky and charming (Symons) or replete with drama and revelations (Watson). The Book Nobody Read misses because Gingerich's personality isn't particularly winning and what he has to say is at once highly bibliographical and the point proven less than earth-shattering.
Though Gingerich writes clearly enough when relating his visits to libraries, museums and universities, he is likely to leave the unmathematical at a loss when he defines an astronomical detail: "Second, [Ptolemy] had to figure out a way to make the epicycle move around the eccentric (deferent) circle more slowly on the side where the loops didn't come as close to the Earth, and here he invented a very ingenious device called the equant." Admittedly, numbers and formulae are always going to distress the casual reader (like musical examples in the brilliant books of Charles Rosen or untranslated Latin or Greek in works of classical scholarship). But if you think you can just skip over the equant, guess again: "My Copernican census eventually helped to establish that the majority of sixteenth-century astronomers thought eliminating the equant was Copernicus' big achievement, because it satisfied the ancient aesthetic principle that eternal celestial motions should be uniform and circular or compounded of uniform and circular parts."
Indeed, it comes as something of a shock that many readers at first took Copernicus's heliocentric arrangement of our part of the cosmos as simply a better, simpler way to calculate planetary positions. Demonstrating that it was also literally, and not just heuristically, true required further evidence, largely provided by Kepler and his proof of the elliptical nature of planetary orbits.
In the end, Gingerich's census of Copernicus's great work cannot fail to leave one impressed by the man's energy -- he totes his camera and flood lights everywhere -- and by his historical acumen. Scholars, of course, don't need to be anything but smart -- even as books really just need to be enchanting.
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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Book Description Arrow Books Ltd, 2005. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110099476444