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Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheresby William T. Vollmann
Synopses & Reviews
In 1543, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus lay on his deathbed, his just-published masterpiece On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in his hands. At that time, religious doctrine and common sense dictated that the earth ruled the universe, with the sun, moon, planets, and stars all rotating around it. By putting the sun at the center of that cosmology, his book fomented another kind of revolution a scientific one that would lead to a completely new view of the universe, and humanity's place in it. As contemporary cosmologists explore the universe's vastness and the nearly insignificant role we play in it, the repercussions from Copernicus's radical step continue to resound. With the energetic prose and powerful intelligence for which he is known, William T. Vollmann provides an enlightening and readable explication not only of Copernicus's book but also of Copernicus's epoch, and the momentous clash between the two.
"Modern readers are less inclined than earlier ones to sit through Copernicus's juggling of Ptolemy's epicycles to discover how he arrived at his eureka moment that the Earth moves around the Sun. Fortunately, they don't have to, as Vollmann, whose Europe Central won this year's National Book Award for fiction, provides a highly personal and philosophical gloss of all six chapters of Copernicus's De revolutionibus (1543). Vollmann interrupts his exegeses with discussions of the contemporary mindset, the limits of observation at the time (we're told repeatedly how difficult it is to spot Mercury without a good pair of binoculars) and the scientist's quiet, provincial career. What seems most remarkable about Copernicus's book after reading Vollmann's version is how firmly his work is based on Ptolemy's. It's also striking how close he came to modern astronomical values, especially since he thought that arriving within 10 degrees of a true value would be an amazing achievement. Vollmann can't completely avoid technical explanations, but readers who want to understand the significance of Copernicus's book in both his own time and ours will find this the next best thing to reading it." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"On the heels of Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus, which Vollmann cites, Uncentering is an interpretive exploration of how this world-changing knowledge was and is understood." Library Journal
"Though peppered with intrigue and conflict and even a little human interest, Vollmann's close reading of Revolutions is not for the scientifically fainthearted, full of head-spinning sentences....Stick with it, though, and there's much to learn about a book little studied today." Kirkus Reviews
As contemporary cosmologists explore the universe's vastness and the nearly insignificant role mankind plays in it, the repercussions from Copernicus's radical views continue to resound. The author provides an enlightening and readable explication of Copernicus's book and epoch, and the momentous clash between the two.
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