Before Nicolaus Copernicus published “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” in 1543 it was believed that the earth was the center of the universe. In his masterwork Copernicus proved the world wrong, demonstrating that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun, an insight so revolutionary that it sparked the scientific revolution.
In “Copernicus’ Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began,” author Jack Repcheck focuses on the human-interest side of Copernicus’ life story, reminding us that his subject was an unlikely candidate to make a history-altering scientific discovery. During his late teens and twenties, Copernicus was what we might call a “professional student,” spending 12 years studying at various far-flung universities. Then, as a mature adult, he served the public as a medical doctor and canon of the Church, performing relatively mundane chores like collecting taxes and administering laws.
Yet, as Repcheck tells it, Copernicus did not allow the pressures and responsibilities of his well-paying day jobs to quash his dreams. He moonlighted as an amateur astronomer, toiling away in obscurity, alone, without the resources afforded the professional astronomers of his day, who received the institutional support of universities or royalty. That explains why he seemingly came out of nowhere when he announced his basic conclusions in 1514.
For decades afterwards Copernicus kept the details of his calculations secret—not because he fretted about being labeled a heretic, as one might suspect—but because he feared his work contained significant flaws (yes) or was incomplete (of course). In fact, if it weren’t for the intervention of a young mathematician named Georg Joachim Rheticus, Copernicus might have taken the bulk of his work to his grave.
Today, most Americans know the man only as one of the fathers of modern astronomy. Repcheck does an elegant job of humanizing Copernicus and putting his heroic efforts in context, enhancing our knowledge about him in much the same way that he redefined our understanding of our place in the universe.