On a paper trail of Copernican revolutionaries

The Book Nobody Read
November 12, 2004

Almost every printed book that existed in 1543 has vanished. But at least 601 copies of De Revolutionibus , Nicolaus Copernicus's revolutionary book that placed the Earth in motion around the Sun, published that year, are still with us out of a total print run of about 1,000 for the first and second editions.

Owen Gingerich, a Harvard University historian of astronomy, tells of his attempt to see them all. Along the way, he teaches us a huge amount about early publishing, the rare book trade and book collecting, as well as the intellectual history that is his real purpose.

His title is a nod to The Sleepwalkers (1959), Arthur Koestler's story of our emerging knowledge of the universe, in which he claimed that Copernicus's book was more respected than read. Gingerich shows Koestler was wrong; just about everyone of importance in European science owned a copy and used it. He knows this because, in that era, people who read a book often annotated it, perhaps because of the high price of paper; their annotations can be used to follow the book's influence across Europe.

Gingerich found Johannes Kepler's annotated copy in Leipzig and, in Leeds, the copy that Isaac Newton probably read. More frustrating was his hunt for copies owned by Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer whose observations underlay Kepler's work. Brahe seems to have been connected to several extant copies, but the annotations in them always turn out to be those of somebody else. Other identifiable copies belonged to Thomas Digges, regarded as the first person to observe the sky with a telescope, to Galileo, and to pioneering cartographer Gerardus Mercator. Galileo was careful to amend his copy to state (as the Catholic Church insisted) that the idea of the Earth moving was a convenient fiction. Most readers in Italy did this, far fewer in France.

Today, De Revolutionibus is a collector's item for information technology plutocrats. Prices for the best specimens are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But one lesson of this book is that, in the end, all the best printed material finishes up in the hands of universities and state collections. Yet although the rich universities and book collectors of the US own Copernicus's book in numbers, many copies are in Europe. Trinity College, Cambridge, has three, one of which it thought of selling.

The research for The Book Nobody Read involved formidable travel, especially in Communist-era Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, including Copernicus's home country of Poland. Not that the arrival of capitalism solved all the author's problems. In 1997 the Pulkovo observatory near St Petersburg in Russia fell victim to an arson attack by Russian mafiosi who wanted the site for a hotel. Its copy of De Revolutionibus vanished, later to reappear at an auction in Munich.

The book's style rambles in a leisurely fashion from 16th-century paper-making to 20th-century book-theft trials. It would make a suitable Christmas present for bibliophiles and history of science buffs.

Martin Ince is contributing editor, The Times Higher .

The Book Nobody Read

Author - Owen Gingerich
Publisher - Heinemann
Pages - 306
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 434 01315 3

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