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Friday, March 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Book Review
A thrilling journey on the paper trail to Copernicus' genius

By David B. Williams
Special to The Seattle Times

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In 1970, while searching through the shelves of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich happened upon what he thought was a rarely read manuscript from the 16th century.

When he opened the heavy pigskin binding, however, he discovered that annotations filled the 400-page volume, from the title page through the radical theory that made the book famous to the final technical tables. Gingerich wondered how the first copy he ever saw of a book that science historian Arthur Koestler called "the book that nobody read" could contain so much detailed analysis. Thus began a project to find, catalog and describe every extant copy of Nicolaus Copernicus' "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri sex."

"De revolutionibus" set forth the then-radical notion that the Earth rotated around the sun. Copernicus was so concerned about his revolutionary ideas that he wrote: "The scorn that I had to fear on account of the newness and absurdity of my opinion almost drove me to abandon a work already undertaken."

First published in 1543, "De revolutionibus" is 95 percent "deadly technical" graphs, tables and astronomy handbook, and 5 percent theory of a sun-centered solar system (Koestler's assertion was that nobody read it because it was so technical and dull). Copernicus died soon after publication, but his book started a scientific revolution. Many consider him to be the father of modern science, and "De revolutionibus" one of the great books of science.

Author appearance

Owen Gingerich will read from "The Book Nobody Read," 7 p.m. Monday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle, free (206-634-3400 or
Gingerich's "The Book Nobody Read" (Walker and Co., $25) describes his 30-year-long search for all available copies of the first and second editions of Copernicus' great book. Writing in first person, Gingerich makes palpable the excitement of holding a treasured book in one's hands, of piecing together a mystery through arcane and dedicated research, and of allowing a passion to become an obsession.

Central to Gingerich's goal of finding "De revolutionibus" was his interest in how the idea of heliocentrism spread across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. When he first began his search for "De revolutionibus," Gingerich could only come up with a list of nine possible readers, including eminent scientists Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe and Galileo. Furthermore, Gingerich thought there might only be around 100 extant copies.

Hundreds of thousands of miles of travel later, Gingerich finds that he badly underestimated his original guesses. He has now investigated 590 copies of "De revolutionibus" from Aarhus, Denmark, to Melbourne, Australia, to Zwickau, Germany. (No public copies exist in Seattle. The closest is at Stanford University.) Owners have included saints and scalawags, movie stars and medicine men, heretics and bibliomaniacs.

More important are the astronomers who pored over the book. They find faults and also applaud the insights. Their annotations show students disagreeing with their instructors, how the Catholic church tried to suppress parts of the book and how scientists rebelled against church doctrine. They show that Copernicus' book was read by many and that they ultimately accepted his "absurdity of ... opinion."

If his book was just a detailed account of all 601 copies of "De revolutionibus," which is available as a 430-page tome, "An Annotated Census of Copernicus' De revolutionibus," Gingerich's "The Book Nobody Read" would soon fit its title. But Gingerich also weaves in the people who have owned the book, ideas on book making in the 1500s, Cold War politics, book theft, book collecting, book conservation and book forgery.

No one knows the true number of copies of "De revolutionibus" that were printed — Gingerich estimates between 400 and 500 first editions and 500 to 550 second editions. He blames water and insect damage (including bookworms, not a worm but a silverfish) as leading culprits in their demise.

We are fortunate that so many did survive and that Gingerich took the time to track them all down. His enthusiasm is contagious and makes his book a quick and enjoyable read. In this age of the Internet and the perception of instant access to any bit of information you need, Gingerich makes one realize that nothing can replace first-hand experience and the thrill of making a discovery on your own.


Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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