Wood-block portrait of Copernicus by Tobias Stimmer appears in "A… (Walker & Co. )
Though much of the story in Dava Sobel's "A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos" (Walker & Co.: 274 pp., $25) is set up as you might find in any history book, the heart of this bestselling author's new book about Copernicus is a two-act play. Readers are presented with a scene in which German mathematician Rheticus urges Copernicus to publish "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres." A Protestant who eagerly sought out Copernicus in 16th century Poland, Rheticus overcomes the astronomer's hesitation in the following excerpt by suggesting a clever strategy that he believes will insulate him and his work from any criticism.
Rheticus. I have a new plan, for a dedication that you will write. To the real power.
Copernicus. You mean Duke Albert?
Copernicus. The king?
Rheticus. No, no one from the government. The dedication must acknowledge higher powers. Someone in the Church.
Copernicus. Not the bishop?
Rheticus. No! It's bad enough we're stuck with his doggerel verses.
Rheticus. Not nearly powerful enough.
Copernicus. Who then, the pope?
Copernicus. I was joking, Joachim.
Rheticus. I am perfectly serious.
Rheticus. He's really the only one.
Copernicus. His Holiness?
Rheticus. Paul Pontifex Maximus himself. To protect you. From those backbiters who will bend chapter and verse to evil purposes, and try to condemn your theory. Even though, we both know, there is nothing irreverent in your book, nevertheless there is the danger that someone will …
Copernicus. But … His Holiness.
Rheticus. The mere mention of his name will lend the book the air of papal authority. It might even give people the impression that he had commissioned you to write it.
Copernicus. He would never do that.
Rheticus. Still, it might appear that he had.
Copernicus. What could he possibly have to say about astronomy?
Rheticus. He doesn't have to say anything. You simply dedicate the book to him.
Copernicus. I couldn't even do that without his express permission.
Rheticus. Then we must get his permission.
Copernicus. He has the troubles of the world on his shoulders. He's gone and excommunicated the King of England.
Rheticus. Your bishop must have representatives in Rome. Ambassadors to the Vatican? Someone who can get to him?
Copernicus. Even if we could get to him … He is consumed with a final solution to the Lutheran problem! I'm sorry, Joachim. Forgive me for…
Rheticus. I have no love for him either. To me, he's the Antichrist. But for your book…Trust me, Father. If you dedicate your studies to him, then you prove to everyone that you do not run away from judgment, even by the highest authority.