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Copernicus' Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began

Copernicus' Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began

Author:Jack Repcheck
Release Date:2008
Publisher:Simon and Schuster

By Joab Jackson | Posted 4/30/2008

It's not easy to render dull one of the most profound changes in human thinking, but Jack Repcheck's Copernicus' Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began does the trick. With plodding prose, historical regressions, and sparse scientific insight, this miserable little book utterly fails to convey the earth-shaking magnitude of the ideas hatched by 16th-century part-time astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus.

Evoking only a big fat "duh" today, Copernicus' notion that the earth revolved around the sun--rather than vice versa--was insanely radical for the time. In one of the book's juicier quotes, theologian Martin Luther--no stranger to revolution himself--mocked Copernicus' heliocentric cosmos by saying, "This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving." Crazy!

Copernicus spent more than 20 years doing the math to prove why the sun, moon, planets, and stars move around the sky in the peculiar ways they do, but he didn't bother publishing at first; he eventually collected his work in a volume titled On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres. Why not? Copernicus didn't seem to sweat being labeled a heretic--though the inflammatory notion of God's Green Earth not being the universe’s G-Spot was buried well under the heft of the calculations. Repcheck attributes the delay to Copernicus' dalliance with a married woman, which brought the Catholic cleric heat from the church, as well as to the then-emerging Lutheran Reformation, which probably made it politically dicey for Copernicus to invite some Lutheran fellow astronomers over to help cogitate.

But, distractions though both probably were, Repcheck presents no proof that either of his hypotheses waylaid publication in any serious way. So the discussions of both events feel like distractions, especially when Repcheck provides almost no descriptions of the advancements Copernicus actually made in his work. "[T]he book is unapologetically technical, with page after page of math, numerous complicated drawings, and many dense tables of numbers," Repcheck writes of Revolutions, as if it were those traits alone that cast such a wide shadow over the world of science.

To be fair, like most popular histories, Copernicus' Secret was limited by scant source material. But Repcheck doesn't form what he did gather into a coherent narrative. Even at less than 200 pages, the book feels padded and without direction. The Secret in the book's title appears to have eluded Repcheck as much as it will elude readers.

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