Overturners of conventional wisdom – Copernicus and Mary Baker Eddy

History is graced with individuals who have taken a brave stand for new ideas that have gone on to revolutionise the world. Author Dava Sobel is passionate about wanting to tell their stories and last Monday the 1997 British Book of the Year award-winner presented her latest creative venture to an appreciative audience at The Royal Institution.

Using an unusual play within a narrative approach, Sobel has detailed the life of Polish astronomer and mathematician Copernicus.  He famously demonstrated how the earth orbits the sun and in the process overturned the then much cherished view it was the other way round.

In A more perfect heaven: How Nicolas Copernicus revolutionised the cosmos the scripted  drama focuses on the scientist’s pivotal relationship with University student Georg Joachim Rheticus, who was instrumental in convincing Copernicus to publish his revolutionary work. The narrative details the broader context of his life in which the scientific inquiry for which he is renowned was just one part.

Sobel spoke of Copernicus as a man “who could move the planets around, but couldn’t control his own life”.

She also detailed some of her recent travels to relevant locations and shared absorbing insights into associated historical figures.

One myth-shredding insight that emerged was a negation of the notion Columbus had to convince a skeptical world their planet was round and not flat.

Sobel explained that particular geographical nugget would have been known by facts like our ever-altering view of the stars as we move north to south, and the basic curvature of the earth.

Wikiphotos – Copernicus diagram of the planets going round the sun

It was the fact of the earth’s journey around the sun which was the harder nut to crack.

After years of calculations and observations, and at Rheticus’ urgings, Copernicus finally published his findings as De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres).

He had feared the reaction this would elicit from the entrenched religious views of his day but died soon after publication without it having immediately become controversial.

That left Galileo to champion Copernicism and suffer the consequences of doing so in the face of an intransigent Roman Catholic Church. As a result, Copernicus’ work was subjected to a decree in the Church’s Congregation of the Index, suspending it until it could be “corrected”.

It was to take two hundred years before the book was de-indexed and allowed credibility once more, without any changes.

During a lively questions and answers session facilitated by science writer Jo Marchant the author was at her most passionate when asked what drives her choice of book themes. She said she was attracted to people who had a unique view of things and took a stand for what they saw despite the adverse winds that resulted from doing so.

To Sobel this has meant looking into great figures in the sciences.  Yet she also pointed out that Copernicus was a devout Catholic who, referring to his awe at his expanded sense of the universe, wrote  ‘So vast, without any question, is the Divine Handiwork of the Almighty Creator”.

Such reverence for Divinity and its creation occurs throughout the key work Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, who points to the infinite nature of the spiritual dimensions of life in her benchmark work on spirituality and healing.

She also had a unique view of things and took a stand for what she saw despite the adversity this attracted.

I came away from Sobels’ talk thinking how interesting it would be if such an author of standing in science reporting were to some day turn her attention to this 19th century individual who, though not a conventional scientist, certainly had her own Copernican turnaround.

After years of seeking answers to health problems in medicines and alternatives of her day, Mrs Eddy recognised the need for a reversal of the accepted order of putting the body at the centre of health care concerns.  She found it was consciousness which needed to be addressed primarily and she set out and successfully practised her spiritual method for care and cure on that basis.

In 1990, feminist scholar Gillian Gill embarked on a journey to research and write about the life of Mrs Eddy and was surprised just how deeply she came to respect her by the time her biography Mary Baker Eddy was finished in 1998.

It would be wonderful if the same happened to a science writer embarking on a similar voyage of discovery.

“A more perfect heaven: how Nicolas Copernicus revolutionised the cosmos” by Dava Sobel is available from Amazon.co.uk at £8.39.

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Categories: Science and religion, Spirituality and Society

Author:Tony Lobl

I write and speak on spirituality from my perspective as a Christian Science practitioner. I am also an Associate Editor for the Christian Science periodicals. I studied at the University of Surrey earning a BSc Hons Degree in Modern Mathematics before the impact of spirituality on health caught my attention and re-shaped my career.

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