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

Part III. Aftermath

Chapter 12. An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus

I have compared the editions of 1543, 1566, and 1617. The latter is the best of the three, that of 1566 only a reprint of the editio princeps of 1543. There is only one difference: that of 1543 has an ample errata … which disappears in 1566 without any of the errors being corrected. This is all corrected in 1617 and moreover the text has been rectified in many places; also there are notes by the editor and some very useful examples of calculations. Book lovers can prefer the editio princeps, which is on beautiful paper and which is larger and has more body, with letters on the figures less tiny, but astronomers must use the edition of 1617. This is why I keep two examples. I had the edition of 1566, but gave it up.

TACKED INSIDE A 1566 COPY OF On the Revolutions

The condemnation of Copernicus’s ideas by the Roman Church, which would have devastated the Catholic canon had he lived to hear of it, probably served to make his book more popular. Only one year after the Edict of 1616 connected his name with the crime of heresy, a third edition of On the Revolutions appeared in Amsterdam, under the title Astronomy Renewed. The printer was Willem Janszoon Blaeu, a revered cartographer and globe maker who had apprenticed for six months under Tycho on the island of Hven. Nicolaas Müller, a professor of both medicine and mathematics at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, wrote notes and commentary for this edition, seventy-four years after Copernicus’s death. Numerous commemorative editions followed, including the 1873 in Torun, to celebrate four hundred years since the author’s birth there. From Turin, Italy, in 1943, came a first-edition facsimile on the occasion of the book’s quadricentennial. The 1973 Copernicus quinquecentennial inspired a facsimile of the original manuscript, in two colors of ink on aged-looking deckled pages, reproducing even the accidental smudges and blots. The facsimile lacks only a single detail—the small hole that Copernicus drilled accidentally in his original, by anchoring one leg of his compasses in the same spot, eight times over, to execute the concentric circles for his diagram of the heavenly spheres.

In 1970, while planning how to pay homage to Copernicus for his five hundredth year, Owen Gingerich of Harvard University conceived a unique research project. He had been combing through a cache of rare astronomy books at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, when he turned up a first edition of On the Revolutions. Unlike the few other copies he had seen—and much to his surprise—this one proved “richly annotated from beginning to end.” Gingerich had read Arthur Koestler’s history of early astronomy, The Sleepwalkers, in which On the Revolutions was dismissed as “the book that nobody read.” But the Edinburgh copy had obviously been read with care—studied, in fact. Between the initials stamped on the book’s binding and the distinctive handwriting in the glosses that filled the margins, Gingerich soon identified the original owner as Erasmus Reinhold, senior mathematician at the University of Wittenberg. This very volume of On the Revolutions had conjured the Prutenic Tables. Gingerich wondered how many other significantly scribbled-in copies might be hiding in scholarly libraries and private collections around the world. What he came to call his “Great Copernicus Chase” occupied him for the next thirty years. An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, published in 2002, presents Gingerich’s hard-won descriptions of 277 copies of the first edition and 324 of the second. After finding Reinhold’s copy, Kepler’s copy, Galileo’s, and more, Gingerich could safely say that everybody read On the Revolutions.

If someone were to gather the six-hundred-plus surviving sixteenth-century copies together for a grand reunion in a great exhibition hall, the books would not resemble one another much at all, despite their shared title and text. Because books printed in the sixteenth century were generally sold unbound, each copy is distinguished by its owner’s choice of binding, from expensive calf to cheaper varieties of sheepskin—most often in white, but also black, red, bright red, brown, tan, slate, gray, green, yellow, and orange—laid over boards of oak or cardboard, and stamped with initials or coats of arms in gold, or scenes from the Bible, or saints, or medallions of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. Many such covers once shut tight with ornately carved clasps, or with leather or colored silk ties dyed to match the speckled edges of the pages and complementing some hue in the marbled endpapers. Even its earliest owners considered On the Revolutions a big, important book, well worth some trouble and expense. As Gingerich discovered from the prices noted in a few copies, scholars paid as much as seventeen groschen for it in Wittenberg and Stockholm, roughly double the cost of a university semester’s matriculation fee.

The wide margins of the pages tell another story altogether—a chronicle of interactive education, in which the new astronomy passed from hand to hand and generation to generation. Some copies contain annotations in two or even three different hands, and in several cases whole series of nearly identical notes repeat in numerous volumes, demonstrating the influence of certain teachers.

Among the most extensively and tellingly annotated copies is the one that belonged to Johannes Kepler, now held at the Universitätsbibliothek in Leipzig. It is a first edition, first owned by Jerome Schreiber of Nuremberg, who received it as a gift from the printer. Petreius’s personalized inscription can still be read on the title page (where someone has crossed out the words “of the Heavenly Spheres”). Presumably the two men knew each other through Johann Schöner, who tutored Schreiber in mathematics. Or through Rheticus, who was Schreiber’s classmate at Wittenberg and later his colleague on the faculty. Over the four years Schreiber owned the book, until his death at age thirty-two, he wrote copious notes in it. He corrected every typographical error stipulated on the errata leaf, as well as those in the remaining fifty folios beyond the scope of the errata leaf. These are the same changes that appear in Copernicus’s hand in the original manuscript. Copernicus must have conveyed his final edits too late for Petreius to include them, but still in time for Rheticus to share them with a small circle of friends. Gingerich found only nine copies of On the Revolutions so thoroughly set right.

It was Schreiber, a true insider, who knowingly penned the name Andreas Osiander above the anonymous note to the reader.

Schreiber also copied Rheticus’s marginal notes into his own copy, and mused alongside the text about questions he wished he could have asked Copernicus. On folio 96, for example, Copernicus waffled on whether the center of the universe lay within the Sun or at the empty center of the Earth’s orbit. He said he would take up the matter later, but then never got back to it. Schreiber noted here that Rheticus had decided the point, in the First Account, in favor of the Sun as center. On folio 143, next to Copernicus’s concession that his use of a small epicyclet resulted in an orbit with a noncircular shape, Schreiber jotted a single word, in Greek. Kepler, too, could read and write Greek, and so, when he purchased Schreiber’s copy in 1598 and came across the word image at the end of Book III, chapter 25, he knew that it meant “ellipse.”

“It is very remarkable,” writes Gingerich, fairly shouting in his quiet way, “that of all the possible copies of the book that he might have acquired, Kepler got one with the word ellipse written in the margin by a highlighted passage.”

The binding, in calf with a gilt-decorated spine, reflects the book fashions of the eighteenth century—clearly the choice of a subsequent owner. That unidentified individual took pains, however, to preserve Kepler’s annotations, by instructing the bookbinder to fold in a few selected pages rather then trim them all by the five millimeters required for a neat new finish. Unfolded, those pages display Kepler’s principal comments, in the form of questions, concerning the true center of planetary motions and the need for Earth to vary its orbital speed in the same manner as the other planets.


Kepler’s heavily annotated copy of On the Revolutions identified the author of the anonymous note to the reader, and also contained the word ellipse written as a marginal gloss in Greek.

Referring to a lettered diagram, in which Copernicus had labeled the center of the Earth’s orbit as D, Kepler asked, “For is the orbit really such that D is the Sun, or of a temporary circle wherein D is other than the Sun?” The minuscule scale of Kepler’s writing suggests he leaned in close enough for his nose to almost touch the pen nib. “Does the Earth have a simple or double difference? Therefore are they [Venus and Mercury] nonetheless attached to the irregularities of the Earth? For the very reason, to be sure, that they are moved in other circles than the one eccentric to the Earth (that is, in concentrics and epicycles), they effect this present irregularity.”

Gingerich points out that Kepler’s notes, though sparse, crop up at critical places, uncovering fundamental flaws in Copernicus’s theories. And although Kepler could be trusted to locate those points without help from anyone, nevertheless a trail was marked for him.

If Isaac Newton owned a copy of On the Revolutions, it has not survived. In his student days, he undoubtedly consulted one of the three Trinity College first editions still held by that venerable library. After Newton established universal gravitation as the force that kept the planets in their orbits around the Sun, copies of Copernicus’s book came into the possession of many other giants in astronomy, such as comet namesake Edmond Halley, his successor as astronomer royal George Biddell Airy, computing pioneer Charles Babbage, and twentieth-century cosmologist Edwin Hubble, who was first to appreciate the infinite extent and continuing expansion of the universe.

Now that Copernicus’s text no longer serves to describe the known paths of the planets, it is more highly valued than ever as an icon. The most recent copy of the book offered at auction—a clean, unannotated first edition—sold at Christie’s, New York, in June 2008 (to an undisclosed recipient) for $2,210,500.

The First Account, according to Gingerich, is ten times rarer a find than On the Revolutions. While compiling the Annotated Census, he came across thirty-seven copies of Rheticus’s book, the majority of them in Germany. In 2004, the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology in Kansas City, Missouri, bought a copy of the First Account for $1.5 million. The library has since digitized the entire volume, enabling anyone with an Internet connection to page through it. First-edition copies of On the Revolutions are also available for perusal on several rare-book Web sites.

Copernicus the man has gained iconic status as well. Statues of him proliferate, especially in Poland, where his image has frequently appeared on stamps, coins, and banknotes. His very bones became the goal of an archaeological dig begun in the summer of 2004 under the stone floor of the Frombork Cathedral, where searchers eventually unearthed the skull and several bones of a seventy-year-old man that seemed to answer his description. The skull was just a fragment—the cranium without the mandible—but its age and resting place near the altar of St. Wenceslaus (now called Holy Cross) provided strong clues. Police forensic artists, accustomed to portraiture based on partial descriptions, parlayed the chinless skull into a full face with a big, broken nose and jutting square jaw. After a perpetual Copernican youth fostered by the single image of him in his prime, the sudden weight of years distorted the astronomer’s looks beyond recognition. In the photo released to news services, the old man wore a fur-collared jacket in a red reminiscent of his portrait jerkin.

Subsequent examination of the skull suggests that the dent over the right eye is an arterial depression typical of many skeletons—not a match for the scar depicted in Copernicus’s portrait. No one doubts, however, that the skull belonged to him.

The scant bones underwent DNA analysis, for anticipated comparison with the latter-day descendants of Copernicus’s nieces. The most convincing piece of evidence emerged from a secondary trove of remains—the nine hairs that had worked their way into Copernicus’s oft-consulted copy of a 1518 calendar of eclipse predictions, held in Uppsala with the rest of the books the Swedish Army took from the Varmia library during the Thirty Years’ War.

When Gingerich heard about the hairs found in the Calendarium Romanum Magnum, he imagined they might belong to him, given the number of times he had bent his own head over that same book to study Copernicus’s notations in it. But DNA testing of the four suitable hairs showed that two of them made convincing matches with a well-preserved molar in the Frombork skull. When the scientists reported their results in 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they said that certain genes seen in the remains were typical of blue-eyed individuals. The police photo had depicted Copernicus with brown eyes, the same color as in the Torun portrait, adjusted for age-related fading.


Working from bone fragments, Polish forensic artists imagined the face of their famous countryman as a man of seventy years—Copernicus’s age at death.

The second burial of Canon Nicolaus Copernicus took place in Frombork on May 22, 2010. Unlike the first funeral, the pageantry of this one drew a large crowd, and included a Mass led by the Primate of Poland, the country’s most highly honored bishop. Not since Copernicus’s Uncle Lukasz Watzenrode carried St. George’s head here in 1510 had this cathedral seen a more triumphant procession focused on funerary relics.

A new black granite tombstone with a stylized golden Sun and planets now flanks the earlier memorial installed in the cathedral in 1735 (to replace a still earlier epitaph destroyed during wartime). Beyond such plaques, statues, and other public tributes, his fellow “mathematicians” continue to afford Copernicus their professional recognition. The first cartographers of the Moon named a large lunar crater for him in the 1600s, and Space Age explorers launched an orbiting astronomical observatory called Copernicus in 1972. For the 537th return of his birthday, on February 19, 2010, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced the naming of super-heavy atomic element number 112 “copernicium” (symbol Cn) in his honor.

Every time the Kepler spacecraft, currently in orbit, detects a new exoplanet around a star beyond the Sun, another ripple of the Copernican Revolution reverberates through space. But the counterrevolution that sprang up in immediate reaction to Copernicus’s ideas also continues to make waves. State and local governments still claim the right to control what can be taught of scientific theories in classrooms and textbooks. A so-called museum in the southeastern United States compresses the Earth’s geological record from 4.5 billion to a biblical few thousand years, and pretends that dinosaurs coexisted with human beings.

Copernicus strove to restore astronomy to a prior, purer simplicity—a geometric Garden of Eden. He sacrificed the Earth’s stability to that vision, and pushed the stars out of his way. To contemporaries who doubted the grandiose dimensions of the heliocentric design, Copernicus replied, “So vast, without any question, is the divine handiwork of the most excellent Almighty.”

In the century after his death, the Inquisition struck that line from his text. Although Copernicus clearly meant to express confidence in the Omnipotent’s ability to transcend ordinary proportion, the censors saw the statement as an ungrounded confirmation for an Earth in motion.

When the Earth moved despite the Church’s objections, Copernicus became symbolic of a new fall from grace. Because of him, humanity lost its place at the center of the universe. He had initiated a cascade of diminishments: The Earth is merely one of several planets in orbit around the Sun. The Sun is only one star among two hundred billion in the Milky Way—and relegated to a remote region far from the galactic center. The Milky Way is just one galaxy in a Local Group of neighbors, surrounded by countless other galaxy groups stretched across the universe. All the shining stars of all the galaxies are as nothing compared to the great volume of unseen dark matter that holds them in gravitational embraces. Even dark matter is dwarfed by the still more elusive entity, dark energy, that accounts for three quarters of a cosmos in which the very notion of a center no longer makes any sense.


A small corner of today’s known universe, depicted in this Hubble telescope Deep Field image, is many times more vast than the once-shocking distance Copernicus allowed between Saturn and the stars. To use his word, the extent of his entire cosmos was “negligible” compared with the many millions of light years separating our Milky Way from the galaxies beyond.