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Originally published Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 5:33 AM

Book review

Dava Sobel's curious new book on Copernicus

"A More Perfect Heaven," is a curious blend of historical fact and speculation about how Copernicus, on his death bed, was prodded into publishing his findings that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around, by the author of "Longitude" and "Galileo's Daughter." Sobel speaks Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Dava Sobel

The author of "A More Perfect Heaven" will discuss her book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at www.brownpapertickets.com, 800-838-3006 or at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
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'A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos'

by Dava Sobel

Walker & Co., 273 pp, $25

Few individuals have done as much to overturn people's established view of The Way Things Are as Niklas Koppernigk, known to history by the Latinized version of his name, Nicolaus Copernicus. While he wasn't the first astronomer to posit the Earth revolved around the sun rather than vice versa (Aristarchus of Samos beat him by 1,800-odd years), it was Copernicus' model that eventually ousted the Earth-centric view and launched astronomy as we know it.

But it almost didn't happen that way, or at all. Copernicus, whose day job was as a physician and church functionary in a remote province of Poland, had settled on his sun-centered model as early as 1510. But aside from a few letters and academic papers, he put off publishing his theory for more than three decades, until he was literally on his deathbed.

How Copernicus was prodded into publishing his book is the subject of Dava Sobel's latest book, A More Perfect Heaven," a curious blend of historical fact and speculation that leaves the reader (this one, at least) feeling a bit whipsawed.

For much of the book, the author of "Longitude" and "Galileo's Daughter" follows the latter book's template, basing her narrative on primary sources — not just Copernicus' own astronomical writings but records of his work as a land administrator, a perceptive treatise on coinage, letters to, from and about him, and contemporary commentaries about his revolutionary ideas.

We learn much about how Copernicus' corner of the world was constantly being tugged between rival religions and empires, and how in 16th-century Europe astronomy, astrology and mathematics were often just different names for the same pursuit. (The church apparently tolerated Copernicus' ideas, at least until they began circulating widely, because his tables of planetary movements were so useful in casting horoscopes and revising the calendar.)

Then, more than a third of the way into the book, the narrative comes to a 76-page halt. Sobel interposes a two-act play imagining Copernicus' meeting with Georg Joachim Rheticus, the 25-year-old academic who visited Copernicus near the end of his time and convinced him to finish his long-delayed manuscript.

In her introduction, Sobel makes it clear she wrote the play first and then, at her editor's suggestion, wrote the rest of the book around it. It's not that the play is bad, per se, but it's awkwardly and unnecessarily shoehorned into an otherwise straightforward narrative. Reading it, one gets the same feeling as when watching a PBS or Discovery Channel documentary and having to sit through an obvious and faintly embarrassing re-enactment.

Why, one wonders, did Sobel feel the need to combine play and book? Did she feel her documentary material didn't have the same dramatic zing as the letters of Galileo's daughter? Or was the lack of any detailed description of Copernicus and Rheticus' encounter a gap she felt she had to bridge some way? Regardless, the juxtaposition seems to give Sobel's imagined scenes a weight they ultimately cannot bear and may make some readers question (without cause, so far as I can tell) the factual material that precedes and follows them.

So: Two-thirds of Sobel's book is an often-fascinating look at the life and work of a man who, despite the world-changing nature of his work, is far less known to the general public than, say, Columbus or Newton. The other third — well, maybe a regional theater is looking for something unusual to fill out next year's program.

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter at The Seattle Times: ddesilver@seattletimes.com

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