Happy Birthday Nicolaus Copernicus!

The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus

by Owen Gingerich

The so-called “book nobody read” was Copernicus’ 1543 work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in which the Polish astronomer expressed, for the first time, that the sun and not the earth was the center of the universe.

For a work of this nature, this book by Harvard Smithsonian professor Owen
Gingerich takes a different approach from most. Unlike previous histories
written about Copernicus, Gingerich focuses more on locating copies of
Copernicus’ book than in examining the ideas in it.

Arthur Koestler’s influential 1959 history of astronomy The Sleepwalkers,
presented a view that Copernicus’ book was not nearly so widely read as many
other books on astronomy of the day, due to its extreme unreadability.
Ultimately, Koestler’s work inspired Gingerich to locate and survey almost
every known edition of On the Revolutions, a 30-year obsession which led
Gingerich not only to Europe and some Warsaw Pact nations but also to Australia
and China. During his travels, he served as an expert witness at a trial of a
man who had stolen a copy of Copernicus’ book; braved the Byzantine procedures
in the rare book archives of Cold War Russia; and attended a rare books auction
in which, in less than three minutes, a first edition of On the Revolutions sold
to an anonymous telephone bidder for $675,000.

In the end, Gingerich located 600 copies of On the Revolutions, documenting
who had owned them and the comments they had written in them. Most important
were the copies owned by astronomers, which demonstrated a long-time acceptance
of the Suncentered cosmos. Finally, Gingerich concludes that Koestler was
completely wrong about the negligible influence of On the Revolutions.

Although Gingerich’s tracking of the centuries-old copies of Copernicus’ work
through the dusty archives of history may not be for everyone, anyone who finds
it interesting to peer over the shoulders of those who had the courage to defy
the entrenched orthodoxy of the day and to write about the heavens as they
observed them, will find this book second to none.

By Ron Hunka