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The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus

Hal Harris's picture
Fri, 10/01/2004 - 01:00 -- Hal Harris

In his surprise 1959 bestseller about Kepler, The Sleepwalkers, Arthur Koestler claimed that Nicolaus Copernicus' book, De Revolutionibus had very little influence on the other astronomers of his time because it was little-read. While Koestler was a captivating and persuasive writer, his history and his science (as in The Case of the Midwife Toad) was often suspect. When astrophysicist and science historian Owen Gingerich happened upon a copy of De Revolutionibus that was richly annotated in the hand of a Copernicus contemporary, he began to wonder whether Koestler's claim could be erroneous. Thus began his quest to locate every extant copy of the first and second editions of the famous book, this so that he could study the marginalia written by their owners - people like Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Would you believe that he located over six hundred copies that have survived the four hundred fifty years since its first publication? Gingerich tells us the personal story of how he compiled his exhaustive "census" of the book that many would claim began the scientific revolution. It is a great story of science, history, and books. It starts in a courtroom, where Gingerich testifies in a case involving a stolen copy of De Revolutionibus and meanders through libraries, museums, and book dealers throughout the world. As a (very) amateur book collector, I thought I knew something about the subject, but Chapter 13, "Sophisticated Ladies" was very informative to me. This is a wonderful book, which is scheduled for release by Penguin in paperback early in 2005. I recommend it in any kind of cover.

Pick Attribution: 

Owen Gingerich

Publication Date: 
Thursday, January 1, 2004