On stage

"And the Sun Stood Still," the Copernicus play that I conceived 41 years ago but couldn't find the courage to start writing until 2006 -- the play I've rewritten and revised more times than I can count since then -- opened last weekend in Boulder, Colorado. I was sleepless with excitement for several nights beforehand. And perfectly delighted with the preview and premiere performances. The first review has just appeared.

So much of what I like best now in the script is the result of workshop and rehearsal collaboration with director Stephen Weitz of BETC, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company. He helped me discover the weaknesses in the version that was published in 2011 as the heart of A More Perfect Heaven. For example, he eliminated one of my six characters. This was Franz, the sole fictional identity in a cast of otherwise real people. I had invented him for a reason, but Stephen deemed him a disturbing distraction. Absent Franz, the religious conflict and scientific content stood out more clearly. The interactions of the remaining characters became more dramatic. It was the sort of radical change I doubt I ever could have come to on my own. 

Several of the BETC actors, most notably Jim Hunt as Copernicus, had participated in various staged readings of the play. Last year they read it twice at conventions in Denver -- once for the American Physical Society in April, and again in October for the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences. But the difference between a staged reading and a fully staged performance is a leap of multiple imaginations that envelop the dialogue in costumes, scenery, lights, and music. I never thought I'd see the day.

Introducing Galileo

A handsome new, illustrated edition of Galileo's great Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World will be published in June, and I was invited to write an introduction.

Of course I accepted. I like introducing other people's books. It's something I've done perhaps half a dozen times in my life, though never for anyone so revered or so long dead. Yesterday (February 15) was Galileo's 449th birthday; January 8 marked the 371st anniversary of his death.

The Dialogue -- or Dialogo in the original Italian -- is nearing four hundred years in print. Having spent its first two centuries in a state of suspended animation on the Index of Prohibited Books, it remains evergreen. A reviewer's note in the mid-February 2013 double issue of The New Yorker called Galileo's Dialogue "the most entertaining classic of science ever published."

Others have shared that opinion, including Albert Einstein, who wrote the Foreword for the 1953 English translation by the late Stillman Drake. Einstein judged the Dialogue "a downright roguish attempt" to pretend obedience to authority while in fact flouting it: "A man is here revealed who possesses the passionate will, the intelligence, and the courage to stand up as the representative of rational thinking against the host of those who, relying on the ignorance of the people and the indolence of teachers in priest's and scholar's garb, maintain and defend their positions of authority."

Re-reading the Dialogue and retracing its tragic history for my current assignment, I reflected that I will never be asked to perform a similar service for Copernicus. Unlike Galileo, who functioned as the Carl Sagan of his day, Copernicus spoke to a small community of intellectuals who could read Latin and follow his math. Although his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, inspired Galileo and fomented a scientific revolution, one could never call it a page-turner.


Doctor Copernicus in Padua

On October 15 I had the honor of delivering a lecture about Copernicus's day job -- his lifelong service as personal physician to the bishop of Varmia -- in Padua, at the very institution where Copernicus attended medical school early in the 16th century. I was happy to return to Padua, where another of my heroes, Galileo, spent the eighteen happiest years of his life, teaching medical students how to cast horoscopes at the city's famed university.

In his Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World, Galileo makes reference to the human dissections he attended in Padua's anatomical theater, which opened in 1594 as the world's first such facility.

My Copernicus talk formed part of a lecture series conceived by cardiac pathologist Gaetano Thiene to celebrate the "Morgagni Year 2012." Three centuries ago, Giovanni Battista Morgagni arrived in the Latin quarter of Padua as a demonstrator in anatomy. He stayed for six decades, working to the day he died of a stroke in December 1771. Morgagni's long career of research and teaching immortalized him as the founder of modern anatomical pathology.

A highlight of my visit was a tour through the cabinet of curiosities in the basement of Padua's Graduate School of Clinical and Experimental Medical Sciences. Some of the collection's specimens date from the 1850s, making the jars and preservation techniques almost as interesting as the anomalies themselves.

In his element

A few friends sent me excited word this week that a new element had been named for Copernicus -- and perfectly timed for the release of my book about him. Only, I had already reported this news in the new book. The  designation of super-heavy atomic element number 112 as "copernicium" (symbol Cn) occurred nearly a year ago, on February 19, the date of Copernicus's birthday (his 537th), as announced then by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. The recent news concerns the acceptance of the name copernicium by a sister organization, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, which voted in favor during its General Assembly in London this past week.

Nice to know that everyone agrees.

Copernicium is a radioactive element that does not exist in nature. A few atoms' worth were created in 1996 from a fusion of zinc and lead under laboratory conditions at the Center for Heavy Ion Research (GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung) in Darmstadt, Germany. The tiny sample of new substance decayed into extinction within microseconds of its synthesis. Yet its significance lives on. Chemists and physicists the world over have since reviewed the experiment and authenticated its results.

According to custom, the scientists who produced the copernicium earned the right to suggest a name for it. The team's leader, Sigurd Hoffman, drew a nice comparison between Copernicus's world view (of planets orbiting the Sun) with the structure of a copernicium atom, in which 122 electrons orbit a nucleus of 122 protons and 155 neutrons.

Enduring Legacy

Being interviewed by NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca would have been thrill enough, but he also chose the perfect venue for our meeting on Thursday (October 27) -- at the Dibner Library of the History of Science & Technology, a trove of rare books and manuscripts tucked inside the National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Set out on a table for our inspection was a pristine looking first edition of Copernicus's great book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Next to it sat the much rarer First Account of his heliocentric theory, written by his only student, Georg Joachim Rheticus. The two sixteenth-century titles served us well as conversation pieces.

After weeks in and out of bookstores, seeing hundreds of new hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-reader accoutrements, I found myself startled anew into appreciation of early books as sturdy artifacts.

Copernicus was covered in a deep brown tooled leather. Rheticus wore white. He shared his elaborate binding (held closed by two antique clasps in good working condition) with a set of astronomical tables by his mentor Johann Schöner, plus eight other related tracts from famed cosmologists of his own and earlier eras. Since book buyers in the 1500s purchased treatises unbound, they could create custom volumes according to their personal tastes.

Palca and I delighted in the texture of the pages, which felt more like fine fabric than paper. The librarian looking over our shoulders, Kirsten VanderVeen, attributed their creamy durability to a rag content of predominantly pure linen.

On close inspection, the Copernicus displayed a hole drilled through a succession of chapters by a bookworm. The insect had eschewed the ink as it ate its way through On the Revolutions, leaving the text unexpurgated.


Dividing Lines

As I travel from book store to book store in cities around the country, I find that my talk of Copernicus's Sun-centered cosmos quickly raises questions about the relationship between science and religion. Last week in New Hampshire a pamphleteer deemed Copernicus's ideas "anti-God." This week a Denver resident attacked science more broadly, bringing evolution into the discussion of heavenly revolutions. Copernicus himself conceded he feared censure from people who might twist scripture to discredit him. As a canon of the Catholic church, he could hardly have considered his own theory irreligious. Rather, it was non-religious--separate from theology. As he declared in the opening pages of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, "Mathematics is written for mathematicians." At the same time, he bowed to an omnipotent creator. "Thus vast," he wrote later in that same book, "is the divine handiwork of the most excellent Almighty."

Nothing in Copernicus's faith prevented him from trying to understand natural philosophy on its own terms. Nor from insisting that faith alone was insufficient for probing the mysteries of the universe. Galileo, another Catholic, shared that conviction, quoting a quip by a cardinal friend of his: "The Bible is a book about how to go to Heaven--not how the heavens go."

Kepler, who was so true to his Lutheran faith that he moved to another town to avoid forced conversion, agreed with Copernicus and Galileo on questions of science and religion. Kepler warned against "wantonly dragging the Holy Spirit into physics class."

An op-ed piece in The New York Times on Tuesday (October 18), "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason," added a valuable current perspective on science and religion. Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens-- a physicist and a historian, both affiliated with Eastern Nazarene College--rue the anti-intellectual rhetoric of most Republican presidential candidates. As men of faith, the authors distance themselves from fundamentalists who insist the Bible trumps all other sources of information. "When the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas," they write, "we must not be afraid to speak out."

Last night (October 19) in Milwaukee, I found another hopeful sign during the event Boswell Book Company arranged for me at Discovery World Museum. A man asked me to inscribe a copy of my book for his brother: "To Peter, who follows science and respects faith." I was happy to do it.

Time travel?

The first round of U.S. travel to promote A More Perfect Heaven landed me last Sunday (October 9) in Concord, New Hampshire as a guest of Gibson's Bookstore. Two extraordinary experiences bracketed my talk at the Capitol Center for the Arts.

First, on approaching the theater for the 7 p.m. event, I saw my name in lights.

Upon exiting later, however, after speaking to a most congenial audience, I learned that every car parked near the venue had been leafleted with anti-Copernican literature.

The headline on the three-sheet handout, "Selected Profiles in the Geocentric-Heliocentric Debate," made me think the document must be a prank. Surely no one in New England in 2011 still clung to a flat Earth or an Earth-centered cosmos. But I regret to say I was wrong.

"In the 16th century, anti-God forces waged an all out war on Biblical truth," the printed diatribe began. "Copernicus proclaimed that the earth was not stationary--in direct contradiction to the holy scriptures. With no proof, Copernicus dethroned the earth as the jewel of all creation and enthroned the sun in its place."

Since the distributor of this document did not attend my talk to confront me, I had no chance to defend Copernicus--or Galileo, who was similarly defamed on page 2: "None, but none among the fanciful assertions of the believers in Galileo's sun-centered astronomical gospel has ever been proven."

Surrounded by friendly nerds as I usually am, I've been shielded from this desperate brand of deceit. It jibed all too well with the laments I heard last month from staff at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, ruing the energy they expend fending off "deniers" who insist the Apollo landings were faked.

Things are worse than I thought.

Missing Person

Contemporary portraits from the sixteenth century depict nearly all of the key figures in Copernicus's life story - his fellow astronomers and churchmen, the printer who published his magnum opus, a few friends and family, the enemies who opposed him, and the royalty who commanded his allegiance. The sole and surprising exception -  the missing face in the portrait gallery - belongs to his lone disciple, Georg Joachim Rheticus, the brilliant mathematician who traveled five hundred miles from Germany to northern Poland to seek out Copernicus and convince him to publish his novel cosmology. The absence of any such likeness belies the fact that Rheticus authored several of his own well regarded mathematical treatises, paid formal visits to prominent scholars in foreign countries, and lived, despite his own dire predictions, to the age of sixty years.

Last week I thought I saw him in Bristol at The Watershed.

The actor from the Show of Strength Theatre Company who took the part of Rheticus in a staged reading of scenes from "And the Sun Stood Still" gave such an earnest portrayal as to imprint his face on the character.

The actor who played the Bishop, on the other hand, was far too handsome for the part, though his performance perfectly captured the character's demanding attitude and demeaning treatment of Copernicus.

As for our stage Copernicus, a retired physicist with no previous acting experience, his zeal for the role was exceeded only by his mastery of the subject matter. Many thanks to Andrew Kelly of the Bristol Festival of Ideas for organizing this most enjoyable event.


How I Learned to Write My Own Name

For the launch of A More Perfect Heaven at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Saturday (August 27), two Scottish actors took the roles of Copernicus and Rheticus, and read aloud scenes from the play-within-the-book, "And the Sun Stood Still." A local reporter from The Scotsman interviewed me on stage and moderated a question-and-answer session. Of the several hundred readers who attended the event, many "queued up" afterward with just-purchased copies of the book for me to autograph. I was happy to see them. Although speaking in public can be anxiety-provoking, signing books provides a pleasant opportunity to meet the people who like to read what I write.

The first person to approach me held up two books, and apologized for asking me to sign them both. Why, I wondered, would I object to such a request? I sat alone in a room for years to produce this work. Now someone else wants to read it - and also make a gift of it to a dear one. I'm delighted to inscribe a message to her in one copy, and wish her daughter a happy birthday in the other.

Several well-wishers had brought along worn copies of previous books (most often Longitude) to be signed along with the new, which I was also pleased to do.

Despite the long line, a few individuals seized the moment to confide something personal about their own lives, or to suggest something I should see while briefly in the city.

This was how I found out about the new statue of Edinburgh-native scientist James Clerk Maxwell sitting on George St., just a few blocks from the Festival grounds. I also learned that the hotel where I was staying had once been the home of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, so I made sure to look for the maps from his expeditions hanging in the ground-floor conference room.

For an event last night (August 30) here in Dublin at the Science Gallery, Trinity College, I showed some photos I'd taken of Copernicus-relevant sites in Poland. Science Gallery director Michael John Gorman, himself a science historian, joined me for a conversation on stage and then invited comments from the audience.

During the book-signing that followed, I appreciated the many expressions of concern that I might end the evening with a bad case of writer's cramp. I find that using a fat pen wards off any such suffering and allows for a legible signature. Thanks to everyone who turned out and made me feel so welcome to Ireland.


Cultural Exchange

On a cruise to the mid-Pacific to view the total solar eclipse of April 8, 2005, I sat at dinner one evening near Tomasz Mazur, a young mining engineer from Poland. I told him about my Copernicus project and said I would soon be visiting his country. Without hesitation, he asked for the dates of my trip, offering to take time off work to serve as my translator and guide. Copernicus was his hero, Tom volunteered, and it would be his pleasure to accompany me to the cities where the astronomer had lived. Tom with Copernicus

Tom fulfilled his promise that summer, and again two years later, when I returned for a second round of research. We enjoyed our finest hour in Krakow, being treated to a rare, private glimpse of Copernicus's hand-written manuscript for De revolutionibus. The curator held the volume in gloved hands and opened it to several interesting pages -- the iconic diagram of the Sun-centered cosmos, the author's ink-smudged fingerprint in a margin. She told Tom (in Polish) how unusual it was for the priceless document to come out of its temperature- and humidity-controlled safe. As we left the building, Tom compared the viewing to the eclipse we'd seen together: difficult to achieve, over too soon, but stunning and unforgettable in its impact.

Staying in touch with Tom by e-mail, I knew he wanted to visit the States, most of all to see a Shuttle launch. Last February, thanks to another friend's good luck in winning a lottery for launch-watching privileges in the Kennedy Space Center's Rocket Garden, I invited Tom to Florida. Finally, I thought, I might return one of his countless favors.

The launch experience proved as addictive as eclipses for Tom. He returned to Cape Canaveral with his brother earlier this month, to witness Atlantis's last lift-off. Since I couldn't join him this time, he sent me a report:

We came to Miami 7th of July in the afternoon, drove several hours north to our booked hostel in Kissimmee, and were quite tired and sleepy at 11 p.m. when we finally arrived. I was especially afraid about my brother who was driving whole time after long, tiring flight from Europe (with overnight in Madrid airport), so the news about poor weather prospects and 70 percent chance for postponing the launch didn't make me very happy.

At 3 a.m. we learned that fueling was underway, and we left for Jetty Park, our chosen place of observation. We got there at 4 a.m. and found really great spot on small mound. We put our tripods there immediately and pointed our cameras on the small white point on the horizon (about 16 miles away), which appeared in the viewfinders as beautifully lighted with powerful beams. In that chilly  night it was the only moment when the Shuttle was clearly visible and we could take pictures of it on the launch pad.

After sunrise haze rose from the lakes and canals, and one could see no more than a gloomy irregular shape in the distance. As the hours passed, the weather got better, mocking all forecasts for heavy rain. About one hour before the launch we knew we were on the way to see the take-off. Now only technical problems could stop it. Everything was going smooth even in that area, and for a few minutes my heartbeat quickened and this special kind of excitement I always have before the eclipse arose in me. I started to believe that we will be presented with that wonderful experience against all odds and grim foresights, but when I was gluing my eye to the camera and placing sweaty hands on the remote release at T minus 31 seconds, we heard on the NASA radio that some failure occurred. All the people around us stopped their breath and froze. We knew only a few minutes remained to solve the problem before the start window will close. Voices in the radio started quick and tense information exchange, and even though I couldn't understand everything, I felt tremendous tension and nervousness in those short sentences. No, not at the very end! I thought to myself. And then with great peak of hope I caught a sense of relief in the next communications, and, with cheerful applause of all people gathered around, the countdown resumed and we saw the flames of main engines and solid rocket boosters a few seconds later.

The column of plume rose to the sky and pierced the first layer of clouds. A glimpse of fire appeared one or two times more in the scatterings. The sound reached us long after the last visual contact with the climbing spaceship.

That was the end. We abandoned the Moon and our aspirations for Mars, as well as other ambitious goals in space conquest. Now we canceled the most advanced and versatile spacecraft. Next years will bring us slow degradation and finally sad end of Hubble telescope and ISS unavoidable retirement. No one really believes in loud but empty words about return to Moon and building the base there.

To finish this letter less grimly I want to tell you that in the days after the launch we had great time exploring the main nerve of America and American Dream, as Hunter S. Thompson described it, visiting all theme parks around: SeaWorld, Universal Studios and Disney. We also toured Key West, but the thing I will remember the most (excluding the launch itself, of course) from that short sequel to my holidays will be the night before my birthday spent jogging on the beach with full Moon above and silent ocean silvered by its light below.


On the Index

Recently I had a chance to review the professional index that Walker/Bloomsbury commissioned for my new book about Copernicus. The index arrived by e-mail on a Thursday afternoon, with instructions to look it over and return it with any suggestions for additions or subtractions by Monday morning.

Friends and family members were surprised to hear how I was spending the weekend.

“I thought it was done electronically,” one said. I wonder how many people think that? I mean, think about it. What would an electronically produced index look like, assuming a computer program could create such a thing? I’m picturing the name Copernicus followed by a long string of page numbers. And now I’m picturing a reader with a specific question in mind being thrown off the scent in frustration.

“I’ve always wondered who’s responsible for it,” my neighbor mused, “and how it’s put together, since there are so many different ways to look up things.”


Whenever I evaluate a work of nonfiction I look at the index to see how detailed it is. Indices speak to me.

Imagine my delight, then, at opening the document to find the entry for “Copernicus, Nicolaus” divided into more than thirty sub-categories, such as “birthplace of” and “death of,” plus a note to “See also On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” There was even a cross-reference for: “Koppernigk, Niklas. See Copernicus, Nicolaus.”

Indexing struck some of my family members as “the most tedious job” they could conceive. I countered that an indexer doesn’t merely compile a list of topics, but rises to an understanding of a book that must rival the author’s own. I didn’t think I could categorize the material nearly as well. Given a template, however, I tampered with it.

The draft index ran to 19 pages, double-spaced. My additions stretched it to 21, with at least one major judgment call for each letter of the alphabet. Starting with “A” for “astronomy,” I feared the indexer and I had already come to a philosophical divide. How could she offer only a handful of page references for this subject, when it pervaded the entire text? I was tempted to delete “astronomy,” until I noticed she’d allotted separate listings to “astrology,” “astronomical instruments,” “astronomical tables,” as well as a “Copernicus” sub-head labeled “observation of the sky by,” and I softened.

The first index entry under “I” naturally went to the Index—the Index of Prohibited Books, that is, where On the Revolutions held a place for two hundred years. That Index did not exist when Copernicus wrote his masterpiece, which he dedicated to the reigning religious authority of his time, “Paul III (pope), 179, 180, 181, 192, 216-17.”