Gingerich: The Book Nobody Read

January 11, 2010

The Book Nobody Read
Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus
Owen Gingerich (Penguin, 2004)
318 p.  First reading.

Every book sent out into the world is accompanied by the hopes of its author — and its publisher — that the book will find its readers.  It must have required an uncommon sense of humour, or a curious appetite for self-abasement, therefore, to give this book the title it was given.  The judgment of time can be unkind; no need to give it a hand.  I would love to have been the proverbial fly on the wall at Penguin when they discussed it.

The title, it turns out, is intended in a wry sense. The book in question is Nicolaus Copernicus’ great De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri sex, in which he famously set forth a heliocentric model of the solar system. In the 1950s Arthur Koestler, in his cosmological history The Sleepwalkers, had called De revolutionibus “the book nobody read”, apparently on the grounds that the medieval mind was boxed in like a cow in a cattle chute, quite incapable of raising its docile, dreaming head to entertain a new thought, and all too ready to let a brilliant, epoch-making work like De revolutionibus pass unnoticed.

That, at least, was the claim.  Owen Gingerich tells a different story.  Over the course of his long and distinguished career as professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard, he has travelled the world in an attempt to view and study every surviving copy of De revolutionibus, in both its first (Nuremberg, 1543) and second (Basel, 1566) editions.  This book is the story of that quest.  We learn about the people he met, the places he visited, and the clues that led him, step by step, to a better understanding of the place of De revolutionibus in the history of astronomy.  It’s an enjoyable and very interesting bit of historical and literary sleuthing.

It turns out that Copernicus’ book was not ignored by his contemporaries.  On the contrary, it was carefully studied all over Europe, as is evidenced by the detailed marginal notes that we find in many copies. Little by little, by comparing the notes in various copies, Gingerich was able to show that there were different “schools” reading the text, with the glosses of one reader being retained, and sometimes expanded, by another.  The result is a kind of De revolutionibus midrash that tells us much about the book’s reading history.  It is clear that it was read, and understood, by astronomers of the time.

Gingerich also teaches us a few things about the history of astronomy, correcting common misconceptions along the way.  We have all heard, for instance, that the appeal of Copernicus’ heliocentric model was that it did away with the endlessly proliferating epicycles of the Ptolemaic model.  This is false in several ways, one of which I knew, but one of which was a surprise to me.  First, Copernicus’ model, because it was still built on the principle that all celestial motion is uniform and circular, still contained epicycles (called “epicyclets” to distinguish them from the Ptolemaic epicycles) — 34 of them in all.  We are sometimes prone to forget that the solar system as imagined by Copernicus didn’t look much like our modern picture, and its advantages over the Ptolemaic model were not — and still are not — obviously evident to an untrained eye.

Second, it turns out that the idea that the Ptolemaic system was plagued by uncontrolled multiplication of “epicycles on epicycles” is not true.  If I understand Gingerich correctly, it contained just one additional circle per planet relative to the Copernican model — in other words, about 40 circles.  Gingerich tries to track down the origin of the idea that Ptolemy needed hundreds of epicycles, but without much success.  The editors of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, when challenged to substantiate their claim that Ptolemy required up to 400 epicycles, were unable to do so.  Why, then, were astronomers so interested in Copernicus’ model, considering that it gave only a fairly slight simplification of the model?  Gingerich argues that they were most impressed by Copernicus’ elimination of the equant, a device which had been introduced into the Ptolemaic system on empirical grounds, but which had the ugly consequence of introducing non-uniform motion.  That Copernicus could eliminate this problem was, in the eyes of his contemporaries, his primary contribution to the subject.

There are about 600 early copies of De revolutionibus still in existence.  Its rarity and historical importance combine to make it one of the most expensive books on the market, with copies selling for over $500,000.  The book attracts bibliophiles, but that kind of money attracts trouble, and there is a history of burglaring and counterfeiting the book.  Among the more enjoyable sections of Gingerich’s story are his accounts of thefts or attempted thefts of the book, and his identifications of fake copies.  The country with the most authentic copies is the United States with about 50, followed by Germany with about 45. Copernicus’ native Poland has a similar number.  Both England and Scotland are quite well-stocked, and Italy, being the rightful home of all things that delight the heart of man, has a healthy number as well.  Canada, not wishing to appear superior, has acquired a modest 4 copies, one of which is kept just down the street from my house.  I have already inquired whether I might examine it, but without success.

This was a light, but enjoyable, book.  I can attest that it makes for good reading on a long trans-Atlantic flight, when one can glance up into the night sky and see the stars.

2 Responses to “Gingerich: The Book Nobody Read”

  1. jim Says:

    Good information here. I enjoyed reading this and can’t wait for more. Keep up the good work.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks very much, Jim. It is good of you to stop by.

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