With the printing of On the Revolutions in 1543, Copernicus didn’t so much set the world on fire as he did set it spinning. But there were those in his time, not quite ready to receive his pioneering theories about the cosmos, who, had he lived longer, may have wished to see the astronomer himself set ablaze (à la Giordano Bruno). In her new book, A More Perfect Heaven, Dava Sobel tells of the universe-altering ideas that Copernicus put forth and the high stakes that nearly kept him from sharing his life’s work.
Breakthroughs in science ask us to imagine the unimaginable. And in 16th Century Europe, the notion of a heliocentric solar system wasn’t merely unimaginable, it was downright heretical. The conflict at the center of Sobel’s book is the decision that Copernicus had to make of whether to publish his discoveries and risk whatever reaction they might provoke. For the first time, Sobel, a science writer, also serves as playwright for a portion of the book and dramatizes the conversations that Copernicus had with Georg Joachim Rheticus, the Lutheran mathematician who ultimately convinced him to make his theories known. PLANET spoke to the author about bringing characters in scientific history to life for real this time: