What was the greatest discovery of all time?
Attributed to Albert Einstein, it was compound interest. To the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, it was the discovery of the method of discovery. To Mel Brooks, it was Saran Wrap, because it’s transparent and it keeps food fresh. According to my wife, Celia, the greatest discovery (actually an invention) was the thermos jug, because when you put hot stuff in, it stays hot, and when you put cold stuff in, it stays cold, and, what’s more, it knows when to do what!
“A More Perfect Heaven”
Walker & Company, $25
But my candidate for the greatest discovery is gravitation. Gravity is a bit like religion: It’s always here, always there, always everywhere, and it’s always “on.” But, unlike religious belief, you can’t shut it off, and it doesn’t cause war. It’s here to stay whether you believe in it or not.
The notion that the Earth was the center of the universe pervaded much of human history, philosophy, and religious thought — except for a few brave souls. Copernicus (1473-1543) was able to present cogent reasons why the Earth moved: “That the Earth is not the center of all revolutions is proved by the apparently irregular motions of the planets and the variations in their distances from the Earth. . . . Any apparent motion of the Sun can be better explained by the motion of the Earth.”
Not only was this courageous thinking at the time — and punishable by the powers of the church — but it was also dangerous for a Roman Catholic Church administrator, a canon, in northern Poland to utter public statements that departed from accepted wisdom and theology of that era.
The Copernican revolution ushered into popular sensibility a teaching, called the Enlightenment, that all subjects, indeed everything, was open to rational examination, observational data, and logic — instead of merely received wisdom and tradition.
Dava Sobel, in her lively and charming new book, “A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos,” chronicles and pays homage to someone the church’s Edict of 1616 called “a heretic.”
Not every heretic dies as happily as did Copernicus. Ms. Sobel plants within her historical narrative a play with imagined scenarios and conversations among the dramatis personae — the factually correct events and characters that truly existed. In the play, and based on the facts, she richly invents conversations that might make an excellent PBS or History Channel docudrama.
Thus, when Joachim Rheticus, a brilliant young mathematician, acolyte, and collaborator of Copernicus’s, delivers to his mentor the manuscript of their work together, he envisions Copernicus this way: “[He] tries to speak — the words ‘May God be w-w-w-w’ — clutches the manuscript to his chest . . . as he sinks into the chair.” She inserts a dramatic “blackout” at this point in her play.
The melodrama also depicts an erotic scene between Joachim and 14-year-old Franz (a Bishop’s spy) based on a real accusation directed at Rheticus of “the shameful and cruel vice of sodomy.” I could see Robin Williams as Copernicus, dying as he receives the first printed copy, and thus beyond the reach of the Inquisition-minded authorities. Maybe Penelope Cruz as his mistress-housemaid-harlot, and Tommy Lee Jones as the bishop. But what do I know about casting?
Ms. Sobel has Rheticus praising Copernicus: “There has been no greater human happiness than my relationship with so excellent a man and scholar as he . . . [who] solemnly charged me to carry on and finish what he, prevented by old age and impending death, was unable to complete himself.”
Ms. Sobel tells a great story very well, as she did in her previous books “Galileo’s Daughter” and, especially, “Longitude,” a brilliant tale of a great invention and duplicity.
The story of gravitation is yet to be told in full, but Copernicus’s successors are important heroes as well, in their own dedication to its understanding and the brave inferences they drew from observation. Tycho Brahe’s data together with Johannes Kepler’s calculations following Copernicus led to the laws of elliptical orbits and of equal areas (1609) and to the nexus between planetary periods and their semimajor axes (1619).
Galileo was able to view the satellites of Jupiter with a crude telescope and to realize that their existence supported the Copernican heliocentric theory.
It was left to Isaac Newton in 1692 to guess how the Sun and fixed stars might be formed by the universal gravitational force acting as attractive force upon matter assumed to be evenly dispersed throughout an assumed infinite space: “. . . some of [the mass] would convene into one mass and some into another, so as to make an infinite number of great masses scattered at great distances from one another throughout all that [assumed] infinite space.”
No wonder Newton famously said, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Certainly, Copernicus would have been one of those giants.
Today we know, courtesy of another giant, Einstein, that “space tells matter how to move, and matter tells space how to curve.” But that’s another story.
Dava Sobel lives in Springs. She will talk about “A More Perfect Heaven” at the East Hampton Library on Dec. 3 at 3 p.m.
Stephen Rosen worked as a research physicist at the Institut d’Astrophysique in Paris and the Centre Nucléaire de Saclay. He lives in East Hampton and New York.