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Hell and heliocentricity

Doctor Copernicus by John Banville

Stephen Curry 19 April 2009

Circular reasoning: details from the cover

Copernicus cuts a miserable figure, tortured by anxiety even at the height of his intellectual achievement

Editor's note: aims to review all published works of ‘lab lit’ fiction regardless of age. Doctor Copernicus was first published by W. W. Norton in 1976 and is still available in paperback from Vintage. If you want to review a classic for us, please get in touch.

Nicholas Copernicus was a most reluctant revolutionary. The Polish canon and astronomer espoused enormous respect for the authority of the ancients but was nevertheless drawn by a deep-seated curiosity to tinker with Ptolemy’s geocentric architecture of planetary cycles and epicycles. He had intended only to repair one part and then set the revered cosmic machine in motion again. But his correction, shifting the sun to the centre of the planetary orbits, pulled away one of the struts holding up the creaking, geometry-obsessed view of the heavens and led, almost a century later, to its collapse.

The fictionalized account of the canon’s struggle with his heliocentric theory of the planets is told in John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus. First published in 1976, the novel makes for an interesting companion to his later Kepler – which I have already reviewed – as much for those absorbed by science and astronomy as for readers interested the development of a novelist. Through the character of a brilliant but anguished scientist Banville offers a vivid account of a genuine scientific struggle, not – as many might expect – against the forces of religious authority, because Copernicus’s work was not controversial for the Church in his lifetime, but between theory and knowledge.

The youngest of four children, Nicholas is marked from the beginning as an introverted soul. Deprived of his mother as a young boy he seeks out the company of his remaining parent, “tracking to its source the dark thread of silence that his father spun out behind him”, but cannot tie a knot of connection with the grief-stricken old man. His father dies soon after and the children of the family are entrusted to the care – though that is hardly the word – of their selfish and forceful Uncle Lucas, the Catholic Prince-Bishop of Warmia in Polish Prussia. Nicholas is packed off to university in Krackow with his brother, Andreas, but there is not much of a bond between the boys. Their personalities are diametrically opposed and Nicholas’s passive absorption of the taunts of his wayward brother serve only to intensity Andreas’s bitter contempt. Flayed and mystified by the ordeals of real life, the sole consolation for the young Copernicus lies in a great facility for learning, much of it devoted to cosmology. Gradually, his eyes turn heavenward.

That gaze is kept fixed upward while Nicholas and Andreas continue their studies for several more years in Bolgona and Padua. It is in Italy that his ideas on heliocentricism begin to take shape, initiating a lifelong obsession. But it is an obsession that often has to be played out in the background since Uncle Lucas sets Copernicus up as a canon on his return from Italy, immersing him totally in the temporal affairs of the Church.

Like his astronomical pursuits, Copernicus himself often seems only to exist in the background. It is something of a problem for Banville that he has placed such a cold and colourless individual at the centre of his novel. Copernicus is a black hole around whom much brighter stars flare and burst: Andreas, his churlish, wanton and syphilitic brother; Frascato, the Italian physician and poet with whom Banville imagines a homosexual infatuation for the student Nicholas; the brilliant Dantiscus, poet, diplomat and lover who succeeded Copenicus’s uncle as Prince-Bishop of Warmia; and Rheticus, the mercurial Lutheran student who finally persuades the aging canon to publish his heliocentric hypothesis.

It is the genesis and development of this theory that brings Copernicus fitfully to life. The joyous frenzy of the moment of epiphany is beautifully told. Having fretted day after day over his calculations, Copernicus wakes one morning suffused with brilliant lucidity:

It was as if the channels of his brain had been sluiced with an icy drench of water. Involuntarily he began to think at once, in a curiously detached and yet wholly absorbed fashion that was, he supposed later, a unique miraculous objectivity.

Suddenly it occurs to him, as clear as the day, that “the Sun, and not the Earth, is at the centre of the world, and secondly that the world is far more vast than Ptolemy or anyone else had imagined.”

The canon's demotion of the Earth to the rank of ordinary planet in an immense sun-centred universe immediately explains the motion of the sun, the stars and the odd switchback movements of the planets across the night sky. Copernicus is delighted, thrilled with his discovery: “He turned the solution this way and that, admiring it, as if he were turning in his fingers a flawless ravishing jewel. It was the thing itself, the vivid thing.”

But this glorious instant of shining insight was also blinding: almost immediately the joy of discovery is choked by the details. Copernicus’s retention of uniform circular motions – a fundamental tenet of the Ptolemaic scheme of planetary motion – forces him into painful mathematical contortions. The result is an intricate arrangement of circles within circles that is, if anything, more complex than Ptolemy's construction. Worse still, Copernicus cannot hold the sun at the centre of his solar system. His calculations force him to locate the centre of the planetary orbits at an empty point in space, some three solar diameters from the sun itself. This robs the theory of any mechanistic plausibility and causes Copernicus no end of anxiety: how could such a system be true?

Ahead of his time in his theorizing, Copernicus nevertheless suffers the crippling limitations of 16th Century astronomy: there are no telescopes to bring the planets and stars into sharper focus. It would be another century before Galileo trained his lenses on Jupiter and, seeing its moons orbiting not the earth but the planet itself, produced the first evidence that the timorous Polish canon was right. (Only at this later point did the theory attract the censorious ire of the Catholic Church.)

The agony of uncertainty haunts Copernicus and shapes the tragic heart of the novel. He clings to his theory and believes in it in spite of his doubts, but not enough to let it fly out into the world. In 1503, at the age of 30, he handwrites the Commentariolus or Little Commentary, a six-page text that announces just the basic principles of his system, and circulates it among friends. This slow leakage brings a measure of fame but he remains reluctant to publish the details until the arrival decades later of Rheticus, the devoted acolyte who doggedly pursues his master, yapping at the aged canon to let his completed manuscript be published. Initially Copernicus moves only grudgingly, allowing Rheticus to write in 1542 the Narratio prima (First Account), a personal summary of Copernicus’s great work, before finally releasing his manuscript for publication the following year. By fairly reliable accounts Copernicus sees the printed book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), for the first time on the last day of his life.

The novel initially presents science as a refuge from the trials of earthly life, echoing a theme also found in Kepler. But the reflection on the nature scientific enquiry runs deeper here because we see a scientist truly suffering for his art. Copernicus cuts a miserable figure, tortured by anxiety even at the height of his intellectual achievement because he cannot know if he is right. He castigates the youthful Rheticus mercilessly for his over-enthusiasm about the Copernican heliocentric system:

You do not understand me! You do not understand yourself. You think that to see is to perceive, but listen, listen: seeing is not perception! Why will no-one realize that? I lift my head and look at the stars, as did the ancients, and I say: what are those lights? Some call them torches borne by angels, others, pinpricks in the shroud of Heaven; others still, scientists such as ourselves, call them stars and planets that make a manner of machine whose workings we strive to comprehend. But, do you not understand that, without perception, all these theories are equal in value? Stars or torches, it is all one, all merely an exalted naming: those lights shine on, indifferent to what we call them. My book is not science – it is a dream. I am not even sure if science is possible.”

This moving lament for the spatial and temporal limits on our understanding resonates down through the ages. Banville’s story of the benighted canon yields up a perceptive meditation on our ability through science to comprehend ourselves and our place in the universe, even if it is not always framed quite so eloquently. Banville’s trademark lyrical style, deployed beautifully in Kepler, is evident in many places in Doctor Copernicus, but is more unevenly applied. In this earlier book the authorial voice is less assured; there is an odd shift in the narrative voice in Part 2 to a more chatty mode. A more dramatic dislocation arises in Part 3 when Rheticus, bursting into the book like a door slammed open in a storm, takes up the story bitterly, chaotically and not wholly reliably, for he has a score to settle. Despite the credit due to him for persuading the canon to publish, he is not named or acknowledged in the preface to Copernicus’s book, his Lutheranism and scandalous homosexuality being too much for the old canon, already fearful of the reaction to his theory. This narrative device works reasonably well but I fared better with it once I had re-read Koestler’s historical account (1) of the relationship between the two men.

Elsewhere the various elements of the story seem less well balanced than in Kepler and some of the characters are less fleshy, even though the author mostly adheres closely to the known history of Copernicus. The greatest artifice comes when Banville puts the words of several modern scientists into the mouth of his troubled canon during an exchange with Rheticus. Although the author perhaps intends to elevate the philosophical discussion to a more general plane, it is a rather clumsy anachronism.

Such details are not unimportant but there is still plenty to savour in this engrossing novel. It may be encrusted in some rough-hewn rock, but Doctor Copernicus nevertheless catches the eye and the mind with a certain, shining beauty.


(1) The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe by Arthur Koestler, first published by Hutchinson in 1959.