By SAM KEAN
Published: January 6, 2012
Few scientists die secure in the knowledge that their greatest discoveries will outlive them, but some of those who missed out make you wince. Gregor Mendel and Johann Friedrich Miescher discovered, respectively, genes and DNA in the 1860s, yet both died obscure and unappreciated. Alfred Wegener’s fundamental theory of plate tectonics drew scorn until the 1950s — two decades after he died. Last year, the biologist Ralph M. Steinman died just three days before winning a Nobel Prize.
Nicolaus Copernicus escaped a similar fate — but only barely. He devised his theory of a sun-centered universe in about 1510, and then rebuffed all pleas to publish (beyond a frustratingly sketchy outline he distributed) for three decades after. Then, in 1539, an enigmatic Lutheran mathematician and aspiring astrologer named Rheticus showed up, unwanted, at Copernicus’s door in Varmia, in modern Poland, after crossing illegally into Catholic territory. (It was the Reformation.) For months Rheticus begged Copernicus to make his full heliocentric doctrine public — and somehow prevailed. Copernicus sent a manuscript to the printers in 1542.
No one knows how Rheticus succeeded, since virtually no evidence of their discussion survives. But rather than sigh over this lacuna, as most historians do, Dava Sobel came up with an odd but artful solution: She wrote a two-act play to dramatize the encounter, and sandwiched it between 150 pages of nonfiction narrative. “A More Perfect Heaven” is the amalgamated result.
Structuring the book like this lets Sobel sidestep a common complaint about historical dramas — that readers don’t know what’s fact and what’s artistic license. Like a long playbill précis, the narrative sandwich enables her to lay out the evidence, however meager, for some of the play’s more startling moments. At times, you can almost see her imagination seize some small fact and spiral outward into a subplot about, say, Copernicus’s concubine or Rheticus’s young male lover.
Theater turns out to be a good medium for probing the scientific controversies as well. Though contemporary hit plays like “Copenhagen” and “Photograph 51” have revived the genre, science drama traces its roots back at least to Galileo, who took up Copernicus’s cause by writing dramatic dialogues. Galileo wrote dialogues for a simple reason: If you want to know how to analyze ideas and weigh evidence and refute objections — in short, how to persuade — then for most people dramatizations are superior to scientific papers.
Sobel is especially successful at animating a crucial debate in the mid-1500s: How serious was Copernicus? In her telling, Rheticus, like most scholars, saw heliocentrism as a convenient mathematical tool for casting horoscopes and calculating the date of Easter, little more. Copernicus must convince the 25-year-old scholar that he does indeed want to rearrange the heavens — that the earth really moves. Sobel’s playlet is satisfying because readers can feel Rheticus’s anguish, and wonder if we too would have the courage to rearrange our worldviews.
Minus Rheticus, Copernicus could have become another Pierre de Fermat or Pythagoras — someone who teased us with whiffs of big ideas, but died leaving more questions than answers about what he actually understood. Almost 500 years later, no one knows what argument or plea or even taunt made Copernicus face himself and say, I must publish. But Sobel supplies a plausible, and stirring, version of his transformation. And thankfully, her play hews true to the ending that makes Copernicus’s life story so poignant: While waiting to see his manuscript, Copernicus suffered a stroke and began drifting in and out of consciousness for months. He held on just long enough to die, at peace, clutching the pages that made him immortal.