The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 3 May 2016

Doctor Copernicus

by John Banville

Science is about describing the world in a reliable manner that, to the best of our abilities, explains and repeatably predicts the behavior of the systems we are studying. It is an iterative process, one that moves, ideally, toward a more complete understanding of the universe in which we live. It is also not terribly easy, and can be an obsessive quest for the most committed scientists. We like to think of it as a noble occupation, but like everything else, it does not exist in a vacuum. Science is surrounded by the everyday world of people, personalities, politics, ideology, small-mindedness, mendacity and power. The most controversial scientific conclusions are argued in the least-qualified halls of power. Meanwhile, scientists make their studies, come to conclusions based on consensus and rigorous peer review. Facts, unfortunately, do not give a damn about politics. In this world so deeply threatened by anthropogenic climate change, we are more visibly immersed in this argument than in many years. The stakes couldn't be higher.

So, imagine another world, that of five hundred years ago. It is a world convinced of the Ptolemaic view of the structure of the universe: the Earth is at the center, and the Sun and all the stars and planets revolve around it. It is logical enough when you think of humanity as the center of God's creation. But, science doesn't care much for your religous standpoint, either. Facts are facts. They don't hold a political point of view. Into this world comes Nicolas Copernicus, a lay official in the church, living in a turbulent time (that of the Lutheran Reformation), and in a turbulent place (the chaotic principalities of Prussia, Poland and Germany). He is also a brilliant astronomer. He sees the quirky flaws in Ptolemy's view of the universe and, using mathematics, finds a more convincing and predictive formula for planetary motions. It is his conclusion, though, that the Earth is not the center of existence, but is just one of the planets revolving now about the Sun (actually, a point somewhat outside the Sun, a following conclusion that leads to the notion of elliptical orbits, that Copernicus would resist in his insistence on the picture of nested perfect spheres). This is not only scientifically revolutionary, it is also politically dangerous and religiously anathema. (How can Man no longer be the center of Creation? People still ask that question.) Copernicus would resist publishing his theories until the day of his death, in 1544. The first editions of his work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, would deny that it was anything more than just a mathematical description of observed motions, that it wasn't describing the Real World.

Indeed, describing the Real World is what Copernicus was all about. In the beauty of the mechanics of the heavens, he saw an underlying, ethereal truth about our universe. He desperately wished to express that truth. At least, that is how John Banville describes him in this engrossing novel. In the end, the mathematical proofs and theories grew more baroque, the scientist veering from the spherical purity of his vision by becoming entangled in the actual complex mechanics of the world. He despaired of his true experience of the universe. In a sense, it is the exercise of naming things. The universe and its components do not care what humans think of them, nor what they are named. Nor does the universe care about how we go about describing it. In this novel, Copernicus seeks something more than description. To him, his great scientific work was a failure insofar as it failed to do that. He is, unfortunately, a man of his time. It was a brutal, dirty, and a tragic world. It encroached upon the purity he sought. He was battered by officials, his family, circumstances of life, and its inevitible brevity. That is what this book is about, far more than about the making of a scientific landmark. Banville shows us the Copernican revolution as it arises from the muck of everyday existence, and the yearning to rise above it. It is a tragic dream. The pursuit of perfection was the undoing of the merely good. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium would not be a precise description of the universe, certainly not in the spiritual sense, but it was and is a brilliant step forward in the search for knowledge, even if merely mechanical. Recommended.

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Also by Banville: [The Sea]

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