Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dava Sobel's "A More Perfect Heaven"

Dava Sobel is the bestselling author of Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, and The Planets, coauthor of The Illustrated Longitude, and editor of Letters to Father. She lives in East Hampton, New York.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos, and reported the following:
Before I knew that Ford Madox Ford endorsed this method for judging a book by its inside, I came up with my own version of the technique: I open a potential next book at three random places, start to read, and see whether the style and content pull me in. It never fails me. But until now I had never tried it on one of my own books.

Page 99 of A More Perfect Heaven landed me in Act One, scene 3 of the play-within-the-book, called "And the Sun Stood Still." Since the book started out as a stand-alone play to explore the events that made Copernicus publish his crazy idea, this page indeed reveals the whole.

The two characters arguing with each other on page 99, Copernicus and Rheticus, are the real historical figures who introduced a shocking new cosmic order to an unreceptive public in the mid-sixteenth century. The rest of the play imagines the lost content of their actual collaboration. The rest of the book -- the non-fiction narrative that surrounds the play -- tells the story of Copernicus's life, the genesis of his ideas, and the impact of his seminal book down to the present day.

The page-99 dialogue includes mention of Wittenberg, the German city where Rheticus taught mathematics at Martin Luther's own university. Rheticus's faith made his presence illegal in Copernicus's part of Catholic Poland, where the angry bishop had banned all Lutherans from the diocese. This is why Copernicus, having only just allowed Rheticus in, is already desperate to get rid of him.

A stage direction notes that when Copernicus opens the door to send Rheticus away, "daylight floods the room." This is the true Sun's cameo appearance, which causes Copernicus to hide Rheticus till dark, rather than expose him to the risk of arrest. Events of that day compel Copernicus to keep his unexpected visitor in residence, regardless of the consequences.

Another telling word on page 99 is "Heaven," uttered as part of an expletive ("Oh, for Heaven's sake!"), but summoning all the astronomy, astrology, and theology that collided when Copernicus made the Earth move.
Learn more about the book and author at Dava Sobel's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue