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.


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.