Sunday, December 31, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: “The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution” by Dennis Danielson; Walker & Company, 2006


Rheticus' name will be unfamiliar to all but those who have more than a passing acquaintance with the development of astronomy, from Copernicus to Kepler. He is frequently mentioned as Copernicus' only student, but his role in the revolution that removed Earth from the center of the universe was absolutely critical.

Scientific revolutionaries are often romantically imagined to have worked in isolation: Newton's discoveries during the plague year at Woolsthorpe come to mind, as does Einstein's famously singular push from special to general relativity. The truth is usually much more pedestrian. Newton might never have written the Principia Mathematica without Edmond Halley's urging and generous patronage. And nearly two centuries later, Darwin might never have published On the Origin of the Species unless prodded by Alfred Russel Wallace's paper on natural selection.

For Copernicus, the push to publish came from his disciple, Joachim Rheticus, a young scholar from Wittenberg who traveled to Frauenburg, where the aging astronomer was working as a canon in the cathedral there. Rheticus had come to learn of the new astronomy, after first learning of Copernicus’ unusual system of the universe from Johannes Petreius, a publisher in Nuremberg. Rheticus became Copernicus' pupil and stayed with him for two years. Dennis Danielson's new work, The First Copernican, is the first popular treatment of Rheticus' life.
Copernicus’ epochal De revolutionibus did not emerge from a cultural or intellectual vacuum, but biographical detail of Copernicus’ life is scant. Rheticus’ story fills a gap and Danielson’s telling of the story will enrich your understanding of this pivotal period in the history of science.

Danielson, a professor of English at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, stakes out his thesis in the prologue to the book, entitled "No Rheticus, No Copernicus." Rheticus' visit brought with it the first serious scholarly interest in Copernicus’ new view of the universe. More importantly, it brought him the personal contact and enthusiasm of a younger man to persuade him to undertake the enormous task of committing himself to a full treatment of his sun-centered system and all its complex mathematical consequences.

The details of Rheticus' life are perhaps not as important as his global role in the Copernican revolution. But the details, chronicled in conversational biography by Danielson, also help to paint a portrait of the times in which both Rheticus and Copernicus lived. Understanding this Zeitgeist is vital to understanding the revolutions in thought that emerged from it. Danielson neatly develops the historical context, particularly the Reformation, and how it created a landscape within which Copernicus' ideas would be received. Luther and his disciple, Melanchthon, rewrote the system of education in Germany by encouraging the study of God's world of nature, along with God's Word. Melanchthon took a personal interest in Rheticus, and encouraged both his education and his travels, with the selfish interest that Rheticus would become a lifelong professor of mathematics at the University of Wittenberg.

Danielson's treatment of the characters in this story bring to life the events that carry the tale forward. We feel the loneliness, both academic and personal, felt by the aging Copernicus. We are touched by the interest and friendship shown by the young Rheticus.
Copernicus’ reluctance to publish can be ascribed in part to the fact that he was busy with secular duties in the cathedral, but also because he sensed that his radical ideas lacked an audience. Our hearts swell as Rheticus gives him that audience and emboldens the old man to push forward with a grueling writing task that took, quite literally, the rest of his life. Later in the story we sympathize with the conflict Rheticus feels between his duty to return to Wittenberg to teach, and his desire to continue his travels and his own research into triangles (trigonometry). We are appalled when he becomes enmeshed in a lawsuit over his inappropriate sexual liaison with a male student, and is forced to flee or face persecution.

Danielson’s biography of Rheticus walks a line between a chatty popular account and a serious scholarly work of research. It is not an easy read due to the level of detail and, occasionally, the level of the vocabulary. It may be just beyond accessible for the casual reader who lacks a background in the history of science and astronomy. However, it will certainly be on the required reading list for any serious student of the times, whether by profession or avocation.




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