A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos - Dava Sobel (2011)

Part III. Aftermath

Chapter 9. The Basel Edition

Anyone can rightly wonder how, from such absurd hypotheses of Copernicus, which conflict with universal agreement and reason, such an accurate calculation can be produced.


When Rheticus received his teacher’s finished book—when he realized that Osiander had won his way with it after all—he threatened to “so maul the fellow that he would mind his own business and not dare to mutilate astronomers any more in the future.” But he could neither prove Osiander’s complicity nor deny his own. Had he stayed at the print shop, he might have prevented this outcome. And so, with anger directed perhaps as much inward as outward, Rheticus defaced several copies of the book that came into his hands. First he crossed out part of the title with a red crayon, suggesting that “of the Heavenly Spheres” had been wrongly tacked on as an unauthorized addendum to the intended On the Revolutions—possibly to divert attention from the motion of the Earth. Then Rheticus put a big red X through the entirety of the anonymous note “To the Reader.” The crayon cross did not hide the demeaning message, however. Giese could still read it plainly in both copies of the book that Rheticus sent him, which he discovered waiting for him at Kulm, draped in the news of Copernicus’s death, when he arrived home from the marriage celebrations of Crown Prince Sigismund Augustus and Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria.

“On my return from the royal wedding in Krakow I found the two copies, which you had sent, of the recently printed treatise of our Copernicus. I had not heard about his death before I reached Prussia. I could have balanced out my grief at the loss of that very great man, our brother, by reading his book, which seemed to bring him back to life for me. However, at the very threshold I perceived the bad faith and, as you correctly label it, the treachery of that printer, and my anger all but supplanted my previous sorrow.”

Giese could not decide whether to blame Petreius or someone who worked under him—some “jealous person” who feared that Copernicus’s book would achieve the fame it deserved, thereby forcing mathematicians to abandon their previous theories. Still, Giese insisted that Petreius bear the guilt and be punished for his crime.

“I have written to the Nuremberg Senate, indicating what I thought must be done to restore faith in the author. I am sending you the letter together with a copy of it, to enable you to decide how the affair should be managed. For I see nobody better equipped or more eager than you to take up this matter with the Senate. It was you who played the leading part in the enactment of the drama, so that now the author’s interest seems to be no greater than yours in the restoration of this work, which has been distorted.”

Giese urged Rheticus to demand the opening pages be printed anew, and to include a new introduction by Rheticus, to “cleanse the stain of chicanery.”

“I should like in the front matter also the biography of the author tastefully written by you, which I once read,” Giese said. “I believe that your narrative lacks nothing but his death on May 24. This was caused by a hemorrhage and subsequent paralysis of the right side, his memory and mental alertness having been lost long before. He saw his treatise only at his last breath on his dying day.”

Giese suggested that Rheticus also incorporate in the new introduction “your little tract, in which you entirely correctly defended the Earth’s motion from being in conflict with the Holy Scriptures. In this way you will fill the volume out to a proper size and you will also repair the injury that your teacher failed to mention you in his Preface.”


Rheticus inscribed this copy of On the Revolutions to Jerzy Donner, the Varmian canon who cared for Copernicus in his final days.

Copernicus’s preface, addressed as it was to Pope Paul III, could hardly have acknowledged his Lutheran assistant. But Giese had just seen himself named in the preface as the friend who overcame Copernicus’s reluctance to publish, and he must have felt sheepish receiving the lion’s share of credit for what had truly been Rheticus’s doing. “I am not unaware,” he reminded Rheticus, “how much he used to value your activity and eagerness in helping him. … It is no secret how much we all owe you for this zeal.” It was no secret, and yet Rheticus remained anonymous while the preface touted Giese as “a man who loves me dearly, a close student of sacred letters as well as of all good literature,” who “repeatedly encouraged me and, sometimes adding reproaches, urgently requested me to publish this volume and finally permit it to appear.” The preface thanked only one other person by name—the now deceased Cardinal of Capua, Nicholas Schönberg, whose laudatory, signed letter of 1536 had been exhumed from Copernicus’s files and printed in full as part of the front matter. Alas, Rheticus, who had contributed the most, was lumped of necessity with “not a few other very eminent scholars” whom Copernicus acknowledged in a single nod. Giese stumbled over himself apologizing to Rheticus: “I explain this oversight not by his disrespect for you, but by a certain apathy and indifference (he was inattentive to everything which was nonscientific) especially when he began to grow weak.”

In closing, Giese asked whether Rheticus or anyone else had sent the book to the pope, “for if this was not done, I would like to carry out this obligation for the deceased.”

Rheticus followed all of Giese’s instructions. As a result, the Nuremberg Senate issued a formal complaint against Petreius, but the printer pled innocence. He insisted that the front matter had been given to him exactly as it appeared, and he had not tampered with it. Petreius used such heated language in his statement of self-defense that the Senate secretary suggested his “acerbities” be “omitted and sweetened” before forwarding his comments to the Bishop of Kulm. The Senate, taking Petreius at his word, decided not to prosecute him. And no revised edition of On the Revolutions ever emerged from his press.


Johannes Petreius, citizen and printer of Nuremberg.

Several times that summer of 1543, while Giese and Rheticus sought to defend their friend’s honor, Anna Schilling returned to Varmia. Although she had moved to Danzig after Bishop Dantiscus banished her from the diocese, she still owned a house in Frauenburg. Perhaps, now that Copernicus had passed on, she expected no objection to her presence. Her visits each lasted a few days, allowing her time to remove her belongings and find a buyer. On September 9, she at last sold the property. The next day the officers of the chapter, who had been monitoring her movements all along, reported her to the bishop. They wanted to know whether she should continue to suffer exclusion from Varmia, given that the legal cause of her banishment had vanished at Copernicus’s death. It would seem she planned to leave and never return, having liquidated her last ties to the region, but still the canons posed the question, and Dantiscus rapidly replied.

“She, who has been banned from our domain, has betaken herself to you, my brothers. I am not much in favor, whatever the reasons. For it must be feared that by the methods she used to derange him, who departed from the living a short while ago, she may take hold of another one of you. … I would consider it better to keep at a great distance, rather than to let in, the contagion of such a disease. How much she has harmed our church is not unknown to you.”

From Leipzig, Rheticus sent personally inscribed, red-crayoned copies of On the Revolutions as gifts to his friends at Wittenberg. Their reaction to Copernicus differed markedly from the disciple’s own. Melanchthon, as intellectual leader of the faculty, followed Luther’s lead by spurning the new order of the planets on biblical grounds. One wonders whether Melanchthon ever read “the little tract” by Rheticus that Giese liked so much—the one in which Rheticus “entirely correctly defended the Earth’s motion from being in conflict with the Holy Scriptures.” If he did read it, he was not at all swayed by its arguments. At the same time, however, Melanchthon recognized the value of Copernicus’s contribution to planetary position finding, and commended Copernicus’s improved analysis of the Moon’s motion. The Wittenberg mathematicians—Rheticus’s former colleagues, Erasmus Reinhold and Caspar Peucer—echoed Melanchthon’s response. They skimmed over the heliocentric universe laid out in Book I of On the Revolutions, reserving their careful scrutiny for the technical sections that came afterward. They rejoiced in the way Copernicus righted Ptolemy’s wrongs by returning uniform circular motion to the heavenly bodies, but they rejected the Earth’s rotation and revolution. They ignored the reordering of the spheres, along with all the new idea’s implications for the distances to the planets and the overall size of the universe.

Reinhold immediately began constructing new tables of planetary data, based entirely on Copernicus’s devices. Although Copernicus had provided various tables in On the Revolutions, many of the numbers needed for calculating planetary positions lay scattered throughout the text. Reinhold gathered all this information into convenient form for working astronomers—that is, for astrologers. Melanchthon blessed Reinhold’s effort, then enlisted financial backing for its publication from Duke Albrecht, who obliged. It seemed only fitting that Reinhold name his project the Prutenic Tables, in honor of Prussia, home to both Copernicus and Albrecht.

No one can say what effect Rheticus might have exerted on the Wittenberg scholars had he remained among them, but it seems unlikely he could have defended Copernicus’s cosmos against the criticisms of Luther and Melanchthon. Absent Rheticus, Copernicus’s intent, which had already suffered the undermining of Osiander’s note to readers, underwent further subversions at Wittenberg. Reinhold’s published Tables meshed the planetary models with a stationary, central Earth. Peucer, in his book Hypotheses astronomicae, reinstated the ninth and tenth spheres beyond the fixed stars.

After two years at Leipzig, Rheticus, restless again, left his students without permission in the autumn of 1545 to visit the mathematician and astrologer Girolamo Cardano in Milan. Rheticus took along a gift copy of Copernicus’s book, which he inscribed to Cardano when he arrived.

The two had previously collaborated by correspondence on a collection of genitures (horoscopes) of famous men, published by Petreius in the same year as On the Revolutions. Now Cardano was preparing an enlarged new edition, and Rheticus gave him several detailed horoscopes for inclusion. One concerned Andreas Vesalius, the physician whose 1543 masterpiece, On the Fabric of the Human Body, had corrected ancient misconceptions, thereby doing for anatomy what On the Revolutions did for astronomy. Another geniture sketched the character and life circumstances of the mathematical prodigy Johannes Regiomontanus, who wrote the Epitome of Ptolemy’s Almagest—the book Copernicus had studied so closely in his youth.

Rheticus also delivered Osiander’s horoscope to Cardano at this time. He had come with the hope that Cardano might help him in return, perhaps as a collaborator on the great project Rheticus envisioned about the science of triangles. Instead, Rheticus found Cardano trapped in the triangular compartments of his horoscope diagrams, extracting the most detailed predictions from them, down to the manner of a man’s death and the disposition of his corpse. While these techniques surely fascinated Rheticus, his Milan sojourn soured under Cardano’s personal slights and lukewarm response to On the Revolutions.

That summer, Leipzig summoned Rheticus back to his teaching duties after the year’s unauthorized absence. He left Italy for Leipzig in autumn 1546 but stopped en route in Lindau, where he suffered a mysterious nervous and physical breakdown that deranged him for several months. Fortunately his former Wittenberg classmate Caspar Brusch, the Lindau schoolmaster, looked after Rheticus and later recounted his ordeal in a letter to a mutual friend of theirs:

“He has halfway regained his former state of health (after having been, while here with me, severely ill), though he is not yet fully recovered. … I know that something about an evil spirit has been rumored abroad by commercial travelers. Even if this report is not quite false or devoid of substance, still Joachim is taking it very hard, since he is apprehensive that it could somewhat damage his former reputation.”Rheticus’s mother, a Catholic, also lived in the area, in Bregenz, with her wealthy second husband. She urged her son to seek release from his demons by making a pilgrimage to St. Eustatius’s shrine in Alsace, but he refused.

“He lay ill here for nearly five months,” Brusch continued in his letter of late August 1547, “and every day I would visit, conversing and fellowshipping with him. Throughout this time I made available to him the whole Bible, in both German and Latin, from my library, as well as many of the devotional writings of Luther, Melanchthon, and Cruciger. These he read and reread so diligently that in the end he knew them through and through. However, on particular occasions, with a full heart and most fervent vows, indeed often in tears, he would call upon the Son of God, awaiting deliverance from him alone.”

When his crisis passed, Rheticus further postponed his return to Leipzig by spending the winter in Zurich, still striving to recover his health. While there, he wrote a proposal for improving the triquetrum, now that the observational instrument was enjoying a new vogue in the wake of On the Revolutions. Copernicus had apparently “stimulated certain eminent men to observe the motions of the heavenly bodies,”Rheticus said. He published his triquetrum suggestion in Zurich, in February 1548, but dedicated it “to the teachers and professors of the faculty of arts at the University of Leipzig.” That same month, on February 13, he wrote to them directly, saying he would see them before long. On the sixteenth, he turned thirty-four—surprised, perhaps, to find himself still alive. He spent Easter in Baden, bathing in the thermal springs on his doctor’s advice, and finally reentered Leipzig at summer’s end. As happened when he returned to Wittenberg following his first protracted leave, he found the deanship of the Faculty of Arts thrust upon him.

Despite the duties of administration and teaching, Rheticus rebounded during this period. In October 1549, he wrote to Giese to report progress on several new works relevant to astronomy. He hoped his soon-to-be-published calendar of prognostications for the coming year would sell well enough to fund his private researches on more serious topics. For example, he had just completed a modern scientific commentary on the geometry classic, Euclid’s Elements, and would soon issue his Ephemerides: A Setting Forth of the Daily Position of the Stars … by Georg Joachim Rheticus according to the theory … of his teacher Nicolaus Copernicus of Torun. He never tired of reminding readers that it was Copernicus “whose hand advanced the machinery of this world.” As heir to that tradition, “I have not wanted to backslide from Copernican teaching, not even by a finger’s width.”

Through his resumed communication with Giese, Rheticus discovered Dantiscus had died and ceded the Varmia bishop’s seat to his old rival. But Giese lasted only a year in that pinnacle position, before his own death in October 1550, at age seventy. Then Stanislaw Hozjusz, Dantiscus’s chosen, took over as Bishop of Varmia, and fought so strenuously against the Lutheran heresy—even winning some prominent converts back to Catholicism—that he was elevated to cardinal.

At the start of 1551, Rheticus chose the word canon—reminiscent of Copernicus, but also signifying a code of instructions—for the title of his pamphlet Canon of the Science of Triangles. It offered the best available trigonometric tables—crucial calculation aids for astronomers. Lest anyone miss this slim volume’s relation to Copernicus, Rheticus cemented the connection in a playful introductory dialogue between “Philomathes,” a lover of math, and his guest “Hospes.” When Hospes asks, “What sort of man is this Rheticus?” Philomathes replies, “He indeed is the one who is now delivering to us this fruit from the most delightful gardens of Copernicus. For after his recent return from Italy he resolved to impart freely to students of mathematics everything he learned from that excellent old man, as well as everything he has acquired by means of his own effort, perseverance, and devotion.”

The question “What sort of man is this Rheticus?” came up again in the spring of 1551, when the father of a Leipzig student charged that the professor had perpetrated “a sudden, outrageous, and unchristian” act on his son. After luring the boy, “a minor child” in his father’s eyes, Rheticus allegedly “plied him with strong drink, until he was inebriated; and finally did with violence overcome him and practice upon him the shameful and cruel vice of sodomy.”

The legal punishment for the crime of sodomy was “death by fire.” Guilty or no, Rheticus ran away in April, before the winter term ended or his criminal trial could begin. Rumors placed him in Prague. Numerous urgent letters in fact reached him there, summoning his appearance in court, but Rheticus never returned to Leipzig. After months of fruitless maneuvering, the university sentenced him in absentia to banishment for a period of 101 years. In recognition of his talents, however, and for the sake of decorum, the particulars of his accusation and sentencing were kept confidential.

Rheticus spent that first year in Prague studying medicine at Charles University, and probably the next year as well. Then he continued his medical training in Silesia through 1554. He seems to have seen medicine as the ideal means to guarantee himself an income for as long as he remained unattached to an academic position and without the support of a patron. Then, too, medicine had been his father’s profession, and that of Copernicus as well.

“Doctor” Rheticus moved to Krakow in the spring of 1554. He chose the city for its geographical location, three hundred miles due south of Frauenburg, which connected him to Copernicus by a mapmaker’s meridian. He resided there for nearly two decades (longer than he ever lived anywhere else), pursuing his old career and his new one simultaneously. On July 20 he wrote to a former student, “I have erected a fifty-foot obelisk in a perfectly level field that the marvelous Mr. Johannes Boner has made available to me for this purpose. By this means, God willing, I shall describe anew the whole sphere of the fixed stars.”He shared the work of computing the new, more precise tables he planned to publish with as many as five hired helpers at a time, dividing fractions of angles by a factor of ten billion. Thus engaged in Krakow, Rheticus realized one day that he was past forty, and that he must have erred in forecasting his early demise. The habit of living had gone on for so long, he believed he might reach old age after all. A decade later, in 1563, he “again picked up the work of Copernicus,” he said—referring to his teacher’s book, as opposed to his legacy—and considered “elucidating it with a commentary.”

Heinrich Petri of Basel, a distant relative of Johannes Petreius, published the second edition of On the Revolutions in 1566. It contained, in lieu of any new elucidating commentary by Rheticus, the third printing of the disciple’s original digest, or First Account. If ever Rheticus felt snubbed by lack of acknowledgment in the first edition of On the Revolutions, his role in it was here made manifest.

His face stayed hidden, however, and remains so even now. Any formal portrait of him, any sketch or caricature, must have been lost long ago. Despite his numerous publications and acquaintances, his university affiliations, his several occupations, and the curiosity that carried him to so many doors, he left no impression of his physical appearance.

In 1572, Rheticus moved one last time, south from Krakow to the Hungarian city of Cassovia, where a new patron waited to underwrite him. Rheticus persevered with his great opus on the science of triangles, but he was distracted by his medical interests, hampered by having lost important papers through his various relocations, and daunted by the mountain of calculation still to conquer. In a replay of life events he could never have anticipated, he opened his door one spring day in 1574 to a surprise visitor from Wittenberg, who had read Rheticus’s pamphlet about triangles (the Canon) and heard of his ambition to complete a larger work.

“We had hardly exchanged a few words on this and that,” the youth, Valentin Otto, later recalled, “when, on learning the cause of my visit he burst forth with these words: ‘You come to see me at the same age as I was myself when I visited Copernicus. If it had not been for my journey, his work would never have seen the light of day.’ ”

The similar stories diverge at that point. Although Otto proved the most devoted apprentice, he toiled only a short time alongside his teacher. After a few months, Rheticus sent Otto to Krakow to retrieve records he had left there. Returning November 28 from a harrowing journey through rain and flood (“Twice in one day I was in danger of drowning”), Otto found Rheticus critically ill. He tended to his mentor over the next several days, during which time Rheticus officially transferred to him the right—and the duty—to complete the Science of Triangles. Otto swore he would, and Rheticus died in his arms early on Saturday, December 4, 1574, at sixty years of age.

Spurred on by the great love he professed for Rheticus, Otto struggled through the next twenty years to complete his inherited endeavor. Almost as soon as the fifteen-hundred-page text appeared, in 1596, its many errors and insufficiencies revealed themselves. Otto had already grown senile, however, and could not rectify the text even when its problems were pointed out to him. A more worthy successor to the work later emerged in the person of Bartholomew Pitiscus, chaplain to the Prince Elector Frederick IV of Heidelberg. After Otto died in 1602, Pitiscus pored through the welter of disorganized notes he had accumulated. “I excavated them one page at a time from their state of neglect, filthy and almost putrid,” he said. Through the “irksome” work, he “gleaned many things that have delighted me wonderfully.” Pitiscus saw the final version of Rheticus’s contribution to the Copernican theory published in Frankfurt in 1613. He titled it Mathematical Treasury: or, Canon of Sines for a Radius of 1,000,000,000,000,000 Units … as Formerly Computed at Incredible Effort and Cost by Georg Joachim Rheticus.