Saturday, December 07, 2013

Uncentering the Earth - William T Vollmann

“He was a scholar of Polish birth
  who stopped the sun and moved the earth.”

Nicolaus Copernicus, born in Poland, worked for the church for over 40 years, died in 1543 supposedly after suffering from a stroke. His earth shattering contribution to the scientific world saw light the same year, in Nuremberg , in the form of the book ""The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres", which declared that earth revolved around the Sun and the center of Universe is not Earth as the world was made to believe. This, considering the time and era was significant . A belief of over 2000 years, supported and upheld by the church, was shaken by someone from their own ranks. The magnitude of this declaration has to be understood, that this was done even before the invention of Telescopes ( which came in nearly 100 years later) and the theory of gravitational forces ( almost 200 years later).

One of the significant breakthrough in the science is the shift from Geo-Centric Universe to Helio-Centric universe. The triumph of scientific truth over 'religious truth', did not happen without its own martyrs and other sufferers. The 'golden words' of Ptolemy, which ruled the world of astronomy for over a millennium, had to give way to the new discoveries and thinking by some of the master minds in the Europe. Copernicus, a clergy by profession, did work with the available knowledge, with significant credit to Ptolemy himself  ( he was remarkably close and accurate in many other aspect) to shift the center away from earth to 'some place near the sun'. Others followed him later advanced this,  Kepler ( with his theory on planetary motions) , Galileo ( new discoveries with the invention of telescope) , Tyco Brahe (with geo-helio centric system of compromise) and Giordano Bruno ( burnt alive) to name a few.

This was no mean achievement. The religious community was very strong and organized. However wrong was their decree, it was forced and followed. A geo-centric universe, which suited their thinking was thus the dictate and law. Copernicus, did understand this power and the control of church and the dangers he is getting into. Thus, he did not publish his writing until his death, the first copy reaching him on his death bed, and thus did not see his theory gaining acceptance among many radical thinkers. What is remarkable is the accuracy of many of his calculations. One should keep in mind that these feats were achieved even before the invention of Telescope and Newton's Law of Gravitational Forces. Both of these significantly helped to help in the progression of the Copernican theory of helio-centric universe.

 While on this subject, it is interesting to compare with the progress in astronomy in India in early days. It was said that 'Aryabhata'( 5ht Century AD) and other South Indian Mathematicians and astronomers are already working with a Sun-Centric universe. While there were difference of opinion, unlike their counterparts in the west, they were not subjected to torture of extermination by the religious or ruling powers. But, it was Aristarchus, 3rd Century BC, who supposed to have proposed a Sun - Centric universe at first.

Volmann split his book in the same sequence as the book of Copernicus. Examining each volume ( six of them), calling each of them as his 'exegesis',  he derive comparison to Ptolemy  ( Almagest - the bible for Geo Centric Universe)  and Aristotle's efforts ( who believed that the earth was a sphere , observing the eclipses) and the importance of Copernicus's results. The approach is not scientific and he does not bombard the reader with difficult mathematical formulas. Coming from the literary profession, the approach has been in the same line. Having said that, whenever he attempts to bring in few scientific and mathematical calculations or theorem, it is not sounding very convincing. But on the whole, he manages to re-create the works of Copernicus, to the new readers by appropriately summarizing the text, by clearly referencing this to the prevailing decree , by reflecting upon the impact of these revelations in the world that are both ancient and current with the help of expert commentators.

People looking for the biography of Copernicus, or the history of scientific progress of the world will find this book inadequate. This is mostly set up as a commentary on the book that shook the world, through the writing of one of the well known writer in English. Books on science by non-scientist are curious to read. One, they tend to be speaking the language that is relevant and appropriate to those not qualified to understand the nuances of the subject. If the attempt is by someone who is known for his literary works, the expectation is rather high. William Vollmann's book on Copernicus, the commentary on the Copernicus's "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres" is thus did create the initial interest as a reader. The attempt to focus on his work rather than the person, did impact my enthusiasm, to some extent, but Vollmann did manage to get through pretty good in the end.

Uncentering the Earth  ( 2006)

William T.Vollman 


295 Pages

Universe Today, Bookslut, NY Times

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