Monday, February 19, 2007

Book Review: "The First Copernican"

In The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution (Walker, 2007) Dennis Danielson brings to life the man without whom Copernicanism might never have been presented to the world. Mathematician and astronomer, pupil and teacher, none more than Rheticus can be credited with the 1543 publication of De Revolutionibus, Copernicus' magnum opus and the book which would - eventually - open the eyes of the world.

Danielson skillfully traces the peregrinations of the young Rheticus around central Europe: from his birthplace in Feldkirch to educational institutions in Zurich, Wittenberg, and Nuremberg, and then on to Frauenberg in pursuit of a rumored "new idea" being espoused by amateur astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Planning to stay a month, Rheticus remained with Copernicus for several years, during which time his teacher wrote the manuscript outlining the new cosmology. When Rheticus left in the fall of 1541, he carried with him the manuscript of De Revolutionibus, which he delivered to printer/publisher Johannes Petreius in Nuremberg for publication.

This biography of Rheticus points out excellently the interconnectedness of mid-sixteenth-century European science (particularly astronomy), tracing various figures back to who taught them, who they were corresponding with, and where they were located. Danielson also does a good job working in the vital religious threads which were at play during the period.

Rheticus' story cannot be told without its more troubling aspects: expelled from his university post and his homeland following charges of sexually abusing a male student, Copernicus' disciple fled to Krakow and other cities, for many years forsaking astronomy and geometry for the practice of medicine. In a bizarre twist, it was another young scholar, Valentin Otto, who persuaded Rheticus late in life to return to his former calling and finish research into a projected work on triangles (published first in 1596 by Otto).

Danielson has done his research well, and its shows in this work. The text (very well designed) is nicely complemented by appropriate illustrations; I found both the footnotes and the index useful (an additional bibliography would have been welcome, however). An excellent biography.


Ed said...

JBD - You are a reading machine these days. What's that 3 reviews in 4 days? Where do you find the time?

JBD said...

haha well, the Mason bio I finished earlier in the week but didn't get a chance to write up. The Johnson was a quick read, and the Rheticus bio was today - it was too cold to go outside and I had nothing better to do :-)