Traditional scholars often portrayed Copernicus as the first “scientific revolutionary,” whose heliocentric system not only transformed mathematical astronomy but also instigated the changes that led to the birth of modern science. On the other hand, many modern scholars see Copernicus as the culmination of classic astronomical traditions, as his system was firmly based on the ancient principle of uniform circular motion, and his arguments supporting heliocentrism were devised to minimize erosion of the medieval worldview. Whether they understand Copernicus as conservative or revolutionary, all scholars agree that his book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543; On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, 1939), is a monumental landmark of the modern world. Like many great books, including Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica(1687; The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1729, best known as Principia, 1848), Copernicus's work developed the reputation of a “book nobody read.” Owen Gingerich, who generally refers to it as De revolutionibus, after its initial Latin words, was aware of this reputation, but two events in his life caused him to question it.
In 1959 he read the newly published The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe, a popularization of the scientific revolution that the novelist Arthur Koestler had just published. Johannes Kepler was Koestler's hero, and he depicted Copernicus as a villain whose supposedly great book went largely unread by scholars and the public. Initially Gingerich, who knew that most of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was formidably mathematical, agreed with Koestler that few contemporary readers would have had the intellectual stamina to read the book from cover to cover. However, in 1970, on a visit to the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, he examined an extensively and perceptively annotated copy of the first edition, and he began to wonder if other annotated copies existed. If many of them did, these would certainly falsify Koestler's claim that Copernicus's book lacked serious readers.
For three decades, from 1970 to 2000, Gingerich tried to locate and study all existing copies of the first edition of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (published in Nuremberg in 1543) and the second edition (published in Basel in 1566). He was not interested in the third printing (in Amsterdam in 1617), because, by that time, the Copernican system was becoming widely accepted. He called his quest “The Great Copernican Chase,” and it eventually involved his traveling hundreds of thousands of miles to more than twenty-five countries. He had many adventures with secretive and eccentric librarians, archivists, and auctioneers. He met book lovers and restorers, and he also encountered a few forgers and thieves. In tracing the provenance of copies, he discovered owners who were saints (Aloysius Gonzaga) and heretics (Giordano Bruno, burned to death in 1600). Some owners were kings (Henry II of France, Philip II of Spain, and George II of England), and many were scientists (Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler). Kepler, who knew that Copernicus believed his system was real, discovered that the anonymous introduction, which claimed that the book's heliocentrism was merely hypothetical, had been written by the theologian Andreas Osiander.
Because Gingerich made use of numerous letters to family, friends, and colleagues in writing The Book Nobody Read, it is also a memoir of an important part of his life. Further complicating categorization of this book is Gingerich's analysis of sixteenth century publication practices; therefore, besides being a book about a particular book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, it is also a book about the making of books during the Renaissance. Furthermore, as Gingerich is a historian of astronomy, The Book Nobody Read is about his profession, and as he pursues his quest, the reader learns much about such great Copernican scholars as Robert S. Westman, Edward Rosen, Jerzy Dobrzycki, and Jerome Ravetz. Finally, because one of the reasons for Gingerich's search for surviving copies of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium is to discover those thinkers who understood Copernicus's reinterpretation of the cosmos, attentive readers gain an excellent introduction into the chief ideas and practices of sixteenth century astronomy.
The early years of Gingerich's quest profited...
(The entire section is 1854 words.)