Dava Sobel tries her hand at historical fantasy.

Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time is almost certainly the most successful popular history of science book published in the last fifty years. This is to some extent understandable as it is a well written enthralling tale of one mans battle against the establishment to solve a great scientific challenge, the determination of longitude at sea. It suffers however from a major flaw, it is a distortion of the real history it is claiming to relate. Sobel makes this tale of a complex episode in the history of science into a struggle between good, represented by John Harrison, and evil represented by Nevil Maskelyne, a severe distortion of the historical facts. To discover more about what really took place I recommend reading the posts at The Board of Longitude Project Blog, my concern here is Sobel’s latest history of science outing A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos.

When I first read her Longitude I was very impressed by the story that she told about a period and a development in the history of science about which I then knew very little. Unfortunately for Ms Sobel I was so impressed that I decided to investigate further and started to acquire and read the academic literature on the subject and fairly quickly learnt that Sobel’s version of the story was anything but accurate. Having made this experience I was more than sceptical when I first discovered that Sobel had chosen the life and work of Copernicus as the subject for her latest book. I feared that she would make a mess of it and unfortunately my fears have been confirmed. One can get a first impression of how Sobel deals with the subject from an interview she gave about the book earlier this year in Cosmos.

Cosmos: What is A More Perfect Heaven about

Sobel: It’s about Copernicus and how he was talked into publishing his crazy idea, heliocentrism. It was an idea he developed in his youth and told only a few people about and promised he would write a book on the subject. He eventually did, but he worked on the book for decades and became increasingly fearful he would be laughed at and that people would use the Bible to claim his idea was irreligious.

Here we have Sobel repeating the old myth that Copernicus didn’t want to publish because he feared the religious reaction; this has been dismissed by historians of science for decades. Copernicus didn’t publish because he couldn’t deliver. In his Commentariolus he had claimed he would provide proof that the world (read universe or solar system) was heliocentric. He was nowhere near being able to deliver that proof and that is why he hesitated to publish his book.

Sobel: He seems to have decided not to publish it, but then he was surprised to get a visit from a young German mathematician, a brilliant man called Rheticus, who was a colleague of Martin Luther. Rheticus was on a self-improvement journey and he learned about Copernicus’s work while in Nuremberg, so he went off to see him – a journey of 500km. Copernicus’s region of Poland was Catholic, and the bishop had banished all Lutherans, so when this fellow showed up it was a conflict on several levels.

Except in the formal sense that they were both professors at the same university Rheticus was not a colleague of Luther’s and the suggestion that he was is part of Sobel’s disinformation tactic.

Sobel: I remember learning that story in 1973 – the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth. There was an article by science historian Edward Rosen in a magazine called Sky and Telescope, and I remember thinking what a great play it would make. The characters are different in every way, but they came together on this one idea and somehow Copernicus managed to keep them there for two years, and Rheticus helped him complete the book.

Here we have the core of Sobel’s distortion of history, which I will deal with later but I find it significant that Sobel bases her work on a source that is anything but up to date or accurate for that matter.

After a lot of hesitation as to whether I really wanted to waste my money on a book that I was fairly certain was not very good I finally succumbed and bought the Kindle edition. Sadly, to have my worst suspicions confirmed.

The book is in three sections. The first is a conventional biography of Copernicus, which however doesn’t really deal with his astronomy. The second, and major, part of the book is written in the form of a play and is a fictional reconstruction of what occurred between Copernicus and Rheticus when the latter visited Frauenburg and persuaded the reluctant author to part with his manuscript and allow it to be published. The final part deals with the reception and further developments of the heliocentric hypothesis, Kepler, Galileo etc.

The biography at the beginning of the book is actually quite good although given the nature of the material it is anything but scintillating. Sobel deals with the material well and presents a rounded picture of Copernicus the political administrator and physician, which is what he was. There is nothing new here but as there isn’t a good modern English language biography of the man it might have made for a good book if not for the following section. My only quibble with the first section is that Sobel keeps emphasising Copernicus’ astronomical observations as if they were highly significant. This was not the case. In fact Copernicus made comparatively few observations in his forty odd years as an active astronomer and most of those that he did make were of a comparatively trivial nature. He was not an observational astronomer he was a theoretician.

It is with the second, central, part that the book unravels very spectacularly. Sobel claims to be writing historical fiction in this section, creating a plausible reconstruction of what took place between the two mathematicians during their time together, a period that we know very little about. However what she has produced could at best be called historical fantasy, although the use of the word historical here is very much stretching the point. What we have is a collection of ahistorical cardboard cut out figures spouting soap opera dialogue that is at time so bad it’s embarrassing.

The problems start with the opening scene where Copernicus comes home to find the newly arrived Rheticus sleeping on his doorstep. Rheticus is presented as a sort of naïve, simpleton, teenage astronomical groupie who has just hitch-hiked in from Wittenberg in the clothes he is standing up in and with a bag slung over his shoulder to pay his respects to his hero Copernicus. Historically plausible? Like hell it is. Although relatively young, 25, and given to hero worship Rheticus was the independently wealthy son of a minor Italian aristocrat who was professor of mathematics at a leading European university that was a major centre of humanistic learning. He was travelling with a servant and alone the folio editions of the books that he had brought with him, as a gift for Copernicus would have required the services of a pack mule if not a horse. He in fact checked into a hostelry like any other wealthy and educated visitor and sent a message to Copernicus requesting an audience. Sobel now proceeds to play the religious card for all that it’s worth repeating a standard myth that because we are in the middle of the Reformation and Rheticus is a Lutheran Protestant from Wittenberg visiting a Catholic Prince Bishopric that some how his life must be in danger. What we have here in reality is actually an interesting historical phenomenon because throughout the Reformation and Counter Reformation scholars, who weren’t fire breathing preachers, were treated with consideration and respect on both sides of the divide. As long as they kept their noses out of religious affairs they were free to come and go and to correspond as they pleased. All of the time that Rheticus spent in Ermland he was treated, as what he was, an honoured scholarly guest. Before moving on there is one minor point that relates back to those observations. The naïve groupie on being allowed to view Copernicus’ manuscript asks, so many observations did you make them all yourself? Well no, the vast majority of the observations used in De revolutionibus are taken from other sources. As I said Copernicus was a theoretician not an observer.

The situation in Sobel’s mini-drama gets even worse when we come to Copernicus and the Bishop of Frauenburg. Here we get a repeat of the Longitude scenario with Copernicus presented as a wise and caring saint, a sort of Prussian Albert Schweitzer, who hides the Protestant groupie in his attic like a sixteenth century Anne Frank. As I’ve already pointed out there was no need what so ever for Rheticus to hide anywhere. Even worse is Sobel’s vision of the Bishop of Frauenburg, he, who is never given a name, is presented as a snivelling, paranoid, anti-science cretin, who is determined to bring about the downfall of both Copernicus and his book. A fair representation? Like hell it is.

The real life Bishop of Frauenburg at the time of Rheticus’ visit was Johannes Dantiscus an acknowledge humanist scholar and a crowned poet laureate. He had served for many years as a diplomat for various kings, emperors and princes throughout Europe before entering the church and maintained an extensive correspondence with many leading European scholars. He had personally met Phillip Melanchthon, Rheticus’ superior and mentor, respected him as one of the most learned men of the age but regretted that he was a Protestant. One of his correspondents had been Johann Reuchlin Melanchthon’s uncle and the leading humanist Hebrew scholar in Europe. Dantiscus was a cultivated, highly educated and very knowledgeable man. Far from being anti-science and trying to block Copernicus’ work he sent a copy of Rheticus’ Narratio Prima, the first published account of Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis, to Gemma Frisius in Leuven and tried to persuade him to come to Frauenburg to work together with Copernicus. The real Bishop of Frauenburg didn’t fit Sobel’s simplistic fairy tale of saints and demons and religious and scientific persecution so she invented a completely fictional character who bears no resemblance to Johannes Dantiscus.

All of this would be all well and good if Sobel wasn’t claiming to be producing a plausible reconstruction of what took place in Frauenburg between 1539 and 1541.  However what she presents has absolutely nothing to do with the known facts and whatever did take place was certainly nothing like Sobel’s warped distortion of history.

Reading the third section of the book I got the impression that this was filler material added to bulk out a rather thin volume. It is a very uninspired retelling of standard myths and falsehoods about the history of heliocentrism between 1543 and 1630, which contributes absolutely nothing towards redeeming a truly bad book. If you were thinking of reading or even buying this book save your time and money it’s not worth either the cost or the effort.


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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

18 responses to “Dava Sobel tries her hand at historical fantasy.

  1. Pingback: Dava Sobel tries her hand at historical fantasy. | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Thomas Ferraro

    I am no expert, but did recently read and enjoy “Copernicus’ secret: how the scientific revolution began” by Jack Repcheck, which goes into the Copernicus-Rheticus relationship in detail, and intersection of science/religion/politics of the time/location.

  3. Anders Ehrberg

    Not on topic but isn´t Longitude just a bad rewrite of a chapter in Lloyd A Brown´s The Story of Maps
    Anders Eg

    • Rebekah Higgitt

      Sobel’s book was inspired by attending a conference in Harvard on Harrison and Longitude. The papers were published as Andrewes (ed) Quest for Longtiude, and are of varying quality and clearly biased to an interest in Harrison over a wider history of science. Certainly not all the sins in Sobel’s book originate with her!

      • I hadn’t read Brown’s book previously so I couldn’t comment. However I borrowed a copy from the library this morning and read the chapter on longitude. He does indeed follow a similar line to Sobel almost completely ignoring Tobias Mayer and the lunar distance method as well as damning Maskelyne and the Board of Longitude. Brown’s main source is Rupert T. Gould, The Marine Chronometer: its history and development, which if memory serves me correctly is also one of Sobel’s major sources therefore the similarities.

  4. Tim O'Neill

    Meanwhile the book is getting rave reviews on Amazon.

  5. Love it when Thony is laying the smack down.

  6. johnpieret

    As always, we are less Homo sapiens than Homo narrans and not very good at living up to either moniker.

  7. Peter R.

    I was reasonably impressed by Dennis Danielson’s book on Rheticus, _The First Copernican_. I remember looking at Repchek’s book and thinking it was pretty sensationalistic, but that might have been just a bad jacket blurb.

    Poor popular histories of science are a dime a dozen. Why don’t publishers look for reviewers of these manuscripts? It’s not as if there are no experts in the field for these authors to draw from, or who can do a basic fact check on the manuscript. On the other hand, historians of science routinely complain about these books (e.g. this site), but almost never write one of their own, largely because they won’t get credit for it–popular books “can’t” be scholarly.

    • Dennis’ book The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution is indeed very good although not completely free of error. But then again what is?

      Repchek’s Copernicus’ Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began , which I got as a present when it first appeared, is actually a much better book than its title or dust cover blurb might suggest. It is certainly a couple of classes better than Sobel.

      Historians of science also decline to review such books seemingly afraid to damage their reputations in a cat fight, which is one of the reasons that I do so here, as I have no reputation to ruin. ;)

  8. Wasn’t the book meant to be about John Harrison and Nevil Maskelyne? You are only writing about Rheticus and Copernicus and the bishop of frauenburg instead. How come?

  9. John Scott

    The fact that Ms Sobel’s ‘A More Perfect Heaven’ got into The
    New York Review of Book for Sept. 27 suggests that somebody
    thinks the book is a work of serious scholarship rather than
    derivitive pop lit. You should send your excellent critique to
    editor@nybooks.com or to their blog.

    To me the most intriguing thing about the early heliocentric
    theory is how early astronomers could deduce soo much from so little.
    They did not have the insight of parallax to guide them nor, before
    Galileo, did they have telescopes. They were dealing with limited,
    naked-eye observations of moving specks of light on a two dimensional
    tableau. So how did they figure out the structure of the solar system?
    Was it merely interpreting retrograde motion in the context of Occam’s
    razor? Was it a more subjective deference to the most luminous object
    in the sky?

    I have not read Ms Sobel’s book but I should hope to encounter some
    treatment of these issues there. Otherwise, if the book, as I suspect,
    subordinates human interest to actual science, if it amounts to an
    excursion into the psychology of human relations rather than at
    least some technical exposition, I shall be very disappointed.

    John Scott

  10. Pingback: The other professor of mathematics at Wittenberg. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  11. Pingback: The other professor of mathematics at Wittenberg | Whewell's Ghost

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