- Hardcover: 306 pages
- Publisher: Walker Books (March 1, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0802714153
- ISBN-13: 978-0802714152
- Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 42 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #681,941 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus
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From Publishers Weekly
In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer and "Catholic canon at the Frauenburg [Poland] cathedral," published De revolutionibus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), one of the world's greatest and most revolutionary scientific works, explaining that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than the reverse. Yet many have wondered if this dense and very technical book was actually read by the author's contemporaries. Arthur Koestler, in his bestselling history of astronomy, The Sleepwalkers, called it "the book that nobody read." Gingerich, a Harvard astrophysicist and historian of science, proves Koestler wrong. Gingerich went on a quest to track down every extant copy of the original work, and he does a fabulous job of documenting virtually everything there is to know about its first and second (1566) editions, conclusively demonstrating the impact it had on early astronomical thought. As thoroughly engaging as a good detective story, the book recreates the excitement Gingerich himself felt as he traveled the world examining and making sense of centuries-old manuscripts. There is a rich discussion of techniques for assessing treasures of this sort. Handwriting analysis of marginalia, for example, enabled Gingerich to determine who owned many of the copies and to document how critical new ideas spread across Europe and beyond, while an examination of watermarks and glue helps demonstrate whether books have been altered. Providing great insight into 16th-century science, the book should be equally enjoyed by readers interested in the history of science and in bibliophilia. 8 color, 35 b&w illus.
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From Scientific American
In a 1959 best-selling history of astronomy, Arthur Koestler called Copernicus's De revolutionibus (which set forth the controversial view that the sun rather than the earth is at the center of the universe) "the book that nobody read." Gingerich, then an astrophysicist at Harvard University, happened on a first edition from 1543 richly annotated by a well-known 16th-century astronomer. At least one person had read the book! His fascination with this find turned Gingerich into a full-time historian of science and, to prove Koestler wrong, sent him on a 30-year odyssey to examine every first edition he could track down. This is the story of that quest, in which Gingerich covered hundreds of thousands of miles, uncovered 276 first editions and showed that Koestler was, indeed, wrong. The marginal notes, especially in copies that had belonged to other astronomers, reveal how much Copernicus's thesis was being debated by his contemporaries. Part detective thriller, part vivid historical biography, it's all fun.
Editors of Scientific American
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For me it was a slow read -- not because of technical detail but because it is such a fascinating story that I didn't want to go at my normal pace. I can hardly think of higher praise than this. I relish stories of people who worked at the true frontiers of science, as these men did.
Just one small carp. The footnote on p. 191 is a bit misleading. Commenting on a fresco "observing the eclipse at Christ's passion" he states "There couldn't have been an eclipse at that time. Jesus was crucified the day after Passover..." This is wrong on two counts. True, there was no solar eclipse (as the fresco indicates according to a communication with the author), but there was a lunar eclipse at the crucifixion (which Peter refers to in Acts 2:20). Second, the crucifixion was on the "day of preparation" for the Passover -- just preceding the Passover feast. See the Wikipedia article on the Crucifixion of Jesus citing the 1983 article by Humphreys and Waddington, and the dvd The Star of Bethlehem which also mentions the eclipse. The crucifixion was on Friday, April 3, 33 AD.
I recommend this book as bedside reading for anyone interested in a great who-dun-it.
Certainly biographies figure high on the priority list. Here the selections reflect the amount of material available about the lives of the principle players. Galileo and Newton have no shortage of books devoted to their lives and work. Biographies of Copernicus are rare because relatively little is known of his life. Kepler and Tycho fall somewhere in the middle.
The current work of by Owen Gingerich is a very different take. It is essentially the biography of a book: Copernicus' seminal De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.
Gingerich has been in a hunt for surviving copies of the 1st and 2nd editions of Copernicus' De Rev for over 30 years, and this book tells the story of his journey and its rewards, trials, dead-ends, who dunits, and frustrations. Gingerich has written of his trek before, in magazines and selected articles. Many of these pieces have been released in his two excellent compilations, The Great Copernicus Chase and The Eye of Heaven, but those few pieces were only tantalizing morsels. The full course meal is in the present volume, and it is a treat.
Gingerich's census of surviving copies of De Rev presents a unique window into the development of cosmology and the slow acceptance of the heliocentric view. Early scholarly readers were in the habit of annotating their copies, pointing out their agreements and dissents, occasional passages of scripture, comments of their teachers, etc. Since many of the books passed from owner to owner over the centuries, Gingerich found many copies that contained multiple layers of annotations, marginal notes, edits, censorings, etc.
What began as a simple census of extant copies soon turned into a scientific/historic detective story as Gingerich traced the various schools of thought, teacher/student relationships, and geographic migration of ideas through 16th to 18th century Europe. The result is a fascinating, personal account of the journey, detailing many of Gingerich's wrong turns and dead ends as well as the brilliant deductions and "aha" moments as he traveled the globe and interacted with the community of Copernicus scholars, rare book dealers, and often, the seamy underside of library theft and international looting during wartime.
The title, by the way, is lifted from Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers, a work which Gingerich read as a graduate student. Koestler referred to De Rev as "the book nobody read," and Gingerich was inspired to find out if that was really true. Except for the opening chapter on cosmology, De Rev is a murderously technical and geometrical treatise, and could only be understood by those well-trained in mathematics. But as Gingerich soon learned, it was far from ignored.
Gingerich's book has much to add to any history of the period. De Rev was owned by virtually all of the important figures in the history of astronomy. Tycho, Kepler, Galileo and Newton all figure prominently in the story, and Gingerich's clear prose and knack for story telling will give even the uninitiated reader a pleasurable introduction to one of the most fascinating periods in history. However, to the knowledgeable reader who is already familiar with the development of ideas in astronomy, this book will be hard to put down due to its unique spin on the period.
Gingerich has produced an instant classic in the history of astronomy with this book. It is a fascinating read and has already entered my personal top-ten list as a book that will be referred to again and again.