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Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
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Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres

A-UncenteringTheEarthThe publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’s theories in 1543, just months before his death, was a radical shock to received wisdom. Without the aid of a telescope, Copernicus overturned the elegant Ptolemaic theory that had long placed the Earth at the center of the universe. Yet Copernicus’s revolutionary tome, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, a notoriously difficult book, was only the tip of the iceberg; it would take scientists from Galileo to Newton to tease out the proofs that gave credence to the great Polish astronomer’s postulations. Now American novelist William T. Vollmann takes a crack at explaining Copernicus’s famous tract for the lay audience.
Norton. 296 pages. $22.95. ISBN: 0393059693

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Many readers will be thankful they can read Vollmann’s summary rather than the real thing. Some may balk at the astronomical terms, but the author provides helpful diagrams and a glossary for easy reference." Lisa Montanarelli

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Try to breeze through and, unless you majored in astronomy, you will be gasping at the sky. Peruse slowly, though, and a gentle sense of wonder arises as Vollmann peels back the layers of knowledge we now take for granted." John Freeman

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"[H]e soon sinks among Copernicus’s theorems, tables and demonstrations. I can hardly fault Vollmann for that, given the valor of the foray, but the result is an onslaught of taxing concepts expressed in an often wearying style." Dava Sobel

Cleveland Plain Dealer 1.5 of 5 Stars
"His work amounts to a highly technical yet breezily informal gloss on Copernicus’s book. Vollmann neglects to explain technical terms, and his language is casual to the point of flippancy—somehow jettisoning clarity along the way. Nor are the celestial charts and diagrams he includes much help to the lay reader." Robert Finn

Los Angeles Times 1 of 5 Stars
"To make sense of his extraordinary achievement, one needs to zoom out, to see Copernicus within the frame of his age and get a feeling for the monumental transformation that the Western world was going through philosophically, theologically and culturally. … Inexplicably, Vollmann … has chosen to burrow in and in so doing has produced a text almost as incomprehensible as the one it seeks to illuminate." Margaret Wertheim

Critical Summary

Though Norton’s Great Discoveries series intends to bring science to the general reader, Vollmann’s measure of success in that endeavor proves as divisive as the theory he tries to explicate. Fresh from a National Book Award for his omnibus novel Europe Central ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005), Vollmann claims amateur status as an astronomer and then busies his pages with intelligent, intricate readings of Copernicus’s thought. Critics feeling he has done an admirable job beseech the reader to be patient: his meanings will deepen the more time you spend with them. The dissenters (all science writers of some renown) feel that no amount of persistence will yield a better understanding of Copernicus. Though we have long accepted that our Earth is just another rock around the sun, it might be some time before the average reader can understand how Copernicus came to that staggering conclusion.

Reviewed in the Series

Everything and More A Compact History of Infinity | David Foster Wallace (2003): 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2004. Novelist and essayist Wallace strives to "make math beautiful" by offering a mathematical history of infinity, from Zeno and Pythagoras to Dedekind and Cantor.

Incompleteness The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel | Rebecca Goldstein (2005): 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2005. In 1932 the Austrian-born logician Kurt Godel (1906–1978) articulated one of modernity’s greatest concepts: that no formal mathematical system could prove every mathematical truth. Simply put, some things you just can’t prove, even if you know they’re true. Philosopher and novelist Goldstein tells his story and lays out his theory.