Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Copernicus’ Secret by Jack Repcheck

Repcheck, Jack. Copernicus’ Secret. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Copernicus is famous for kicking off the scientific revolution by proclaiming his heliocentric (sun-centered) theory of the universe. Someone who reads much about the scientific revolution that came about in the 15th and 16th centuries will come across his name. Even so, there are many misconceptions regarding the astronomer.


The main misconception is that Copernicus was prosecuted for his heliocentric theory. Though his book on the subject was eventually banned by the Roman Catholic Church for about two centuries, he was an official of the church who had taken first orders and he was mostly well received in both the scientific and religious communities of his day. His primary book on the subject wasn’t even published until the very end of his life.

Copernicus had his share of troubles. One he brought on himself by keeping a mistress. His ordination included a vow of celibacy. The other came from being an official of Catholic government in a territory surrounded by recently converted Lutheran countries.

Oddly enough, it was Lutheran mathematics professor who helped the Catholic astronomer prepare is book for publication. Joachim Rheticus was educated at Wittenberg where he taught astronomy and astrology (astrology was widely accepted at the time and practiced by almost all astronomers). He was given a leave of absence, which he stretched out for three years before returning to his duties, and took it upon himself to find Copernicus and become his student.

This was a dangerous situation for Rheticus, Lutherans were banned from Copernicus’ home territory of Warmia, and doubly so for Copernicus because of his role as a church and civil official. That he housed a Lutheran seemed to have been tolerated better than his long affair with a woman.

Copernicus’ Secret is an interesting look at the astronomer’s professional life and its development. It touches on his personal life, especially his long-term relationship with the mistress who lived with him until he was forced to break off the relationship, but this part is much weaker. This may be because Copernicus was a private person. Even so, Repcheck show’s that trouble Copernicus faced had more to do with his personal life and the political tensions of the day than with his proposal of a heliocentric universe.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
Descarte’s Secret Notebook by Amir D. Aczel
The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
The Science of Leonardo by Fritjof Capra