Thursday, March 24, 2022

Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus

 Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus.  The title comes from a 1959 Arthur Koestler book.  It turns out, yes, lots of people read it.

This is not a book for everyone.  It is rated N for Nerd.  Many of you are like me: fascinated by science and history.  Gingerich is an astrophysicist turned historian of science.  He got it into his head to find every surviving 1st or 2nd edition of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus, which first promoted heliocentrism.  This an idea which has still not filtered down to everyone.  A 2001 survey of Americans and Europeans found that about 75% of Americans got this right compared to about 65% of Europeans.  (Yes, you read that right; Europeans were behind Americans on this basic scientific fact.  See p. 7-16.)   I guess we are not the ignorant rubes our overlords think.  Of course, this may have changed.  Heliocentrism and science are so fiercely white and racist.  They are also behind us on "All radioactivity is man-made."

Gingerich started out trying to create a census of surviving copies, as I have mentioned, but he also wanted to see how many owners made marginal notes that would suggest that they read it, at least with enough interest to scribble on it.  The answer was, lots.  Many of them were prominent scientists, some clergy, and general intellectuals.

Along the way, this became a weird detective story.  How did this copy go from East Germany to the Soviet Union after World War II.  (I think you can figure that one out.)  Who owned a copy now in Scotland and how did it get there?  The FBI called him on a couple of stolen copy cases, where his extensive collection of notes and photographs allowed him to identify where a particular copy was last located before it disappeared into the fairly sophisticated underworld of rare books.  Yes, there is a meaning to "sophisticated" in the rare book trade that was new to me.

Fascinating, especially adventures behind the Iron Curtain.

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