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Book Nobody Read [Paperback]

Owen Gingerich
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 22 2005 0143034766 978-0143034766 1
Part biography of a book, part scientific exploration, part bibliographic detective story, The Book Nobody Read recolors the history of cosmology and offers a new appreciation of the enduring power of an extraordinary book and its ideas. Prodded by Arthur Koestler’s claim that when it was first published nobody read Copernicus’s De revolutionibus—in which Copernicus first suggested that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe—renowned astro-historian Owen Gingerich embarked on a three-decade-long quest to see in person all 600 extant copies of the first and second editions of De revolutionibus, including those owned and annotated by Galileo and Kepler. Tracing the ownership of individual copies through the hands of saints, heretics, scalawags, and bibliomaniacs, Gingerich proves conclusively—four and a half centuries after its publication—that De revolutionibus was as inspirational as it was revolutionary.

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From Publishers Weekly

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer and "Catholic canon at the Frauenburg [Poland] cathedral," published De revolutionibus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), one of the world's greatest and most revolutionary scientific works, explaining that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than the reverse. Yet many have wondered if this dense and very technical book was actually read by the author's contemporaries. Arthur Koestler, in his bestselling history of astronomy, The Sleepwalkers, called it "the book that nobody read." Gingerich, a Harvard astrophysicist and historian of science, proves Koestler wrong. Gingerich went on a quest to track down every extant copy of the original work, and he does a fabulous job of documenting virtually everything there is to know about its first and second (1566) editions, conclusively demonstrating the impact it had on early astronomical thought. As thoroughly engaging as a good detective story, the book recreates the excitement Gingerich himself felt as he traveled the world examining and making sense of centuries-old manuscripts. There is a rich discussion of techniques for assessing treasures of this sort. Handwriting analysis of marginalia, for example, enabled Gingerich to determine who owned many of the copies and to document how critical new ideas spread across Europe and beyond, while an examination of watermarks and glue helps demonstrate whether books have been altered. Providing great insight into 16th-century science, the book should be equally enjoyed by readers interested in the history of science and in bibliophilia. 8 color, 35 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Little did Harvard astrophysicist Gingerich know that the day he happened upon a heavily annotated first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' seminal work, De Revolutionibus, or On the Revolutions, a 30-year obsession was born. Although dubbed "the book nobody read" by Arthur Koestler, clearly this copy of the tome that placed the sun, rather than the earth, at the center of our spot in the cosmos, was read with singular avidity. Were other copies as full of marginalia? And if so, who was writing what on these highly technical pages? As cogent and companionable as he is erudite, Gingerich renders even the most esoteric details clear and compelling as he vividly chronicles a quest that took him all over Europe, what was then the Soviet Union, Egypt, China, and Australia in pursuit of 600 original copies of this world-altering book. Ultimately, he uncloaked the "invisible college," a coterie of scientific pioneers including Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo, who carefully annotated Copernicus' text. Gingerich also clarifies exactly what Copernicus got right and wrong and why, and offers fascinating insights into sixteenth-century book production, the religious reception of heliocentrism, and the dark side of the rare-book world in an unprecedented and enlivening tale of scholarly sleuthing, scientific revolution, and purposeful bibliomania. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
What an amazing tale of history and intrique. The years and research that went into this book are almost unbelievable. If you are interested in the life and times of Nicholas Copernicus, and one of the most famous books to change the direction of science/astronomy, "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres", this book is a must read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus May 18 2007
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 50 REVIEWER
In 1970, Owen Gingerich set out to survey every surviving copy of Copernicus's book. His journey took him around the world and, eventually, took thirty years to complete.

This book is the story of that journey. In equal parts, Gingerich provides us with the biography of a book, some knowledge of the scientific knowledge it contains, an insight into the people who owned it and some fascinating information about 16th century book publishing. We also see some of the dark side of the rare book trade.

A great 'book about a book'.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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5.0 out of 5 stars Copernicus for Bibliophiles June 23 2004
In the year of my birth, Arthur Koestler threw down a gauntlet when he labeled Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus [arguably the greatest science book of the last few thousand years] "the book nobody read." Owen Gingerich, astronomer and bibliophile, picked up that gauntlet and did battle with Koestler in the way a scientist must do battle - find empirical evidence that the book had been read. The Book Nobody Read is Gingerich's popular account of his decades long effort to track down every extant copy of the first and second edition of De revolutionibus to look for evidence of use [mainly using the marginalia left by the readers/owners]. The book flap blurb nails the book when it calls The Book Nobody Read "part biography of a book, part scientific exploration, [and] part bibliographic detective story." The blurb writer could have tossed in adventure story, too. I enjoyed the book immensely, especially the excellent way in which The Book Nobody Read illustrates the use of the scientific [empirical] method for what many folks would perceive as a non-traditional use. As a bibliophile and science teacher, I'm probably a member of the perfect audience for this book. I include the previous statement as a caution, because at least one of the reviewers seems to have misjudged what the book was about. If you are interested in traditional biography and want a book on Nicolaus Copernicus, The Book Nobody Read may disappoint. If you like books on books and have an interest in history [especially the history of science], I think you'd rate this book a classic.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The book everyone read June 28 2004
If I wish to determine who has read my publications or US patents, I can go to on-line sources of information. I can quickly get an idea of the influence of my work through the citations in subsequent publications. However, even citations do not necessarily assure that a work has been read. In order to find the influence of Copernicus' famous book, the author has spent decades tracking down the six hundred surviving copies of "De Revolutionibus" in the libraries of the world. He has used the marginal writings in these books to connect the books with their owners and groups of sixteenth century astronomers and mathematicians. Yes, Copernicus' book was read and analyzed by scientists throughout the western world.
Gingerich's book may be of more interest to library scientists than to astronomers. However, I did find the chapter on the geocentric Ptolemaic system vs. the Copernican heliocentric system fascinating. The author dispels the myth that the Ptolemaic system needed an unmanageable number of epicycles to match calculations with observations.. He shows that the two systems yielded equivalent predictions using about the same order of complexity. As a physicist, I would argue that you can work in any coordinate system that you choose, even one in which the Earth is stationary. However, the Copernican system did simplify the calculations and more importantly does more closely express the physical reality of the solar system. The work of Copernicus paved the way for Kepler's laws including the discovery of the elliptical nature of planetary orbits. Both the geocentric and heliocentric models were based upon the theory that the orbits of celestial bodies were fundamentally circular. This was a good first approximation for matching the precision of the existing observations. It was another century and a half after Copernicus that Newton formulated a theoretical basis for explaining planetary mechanics.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Scholar's Story of Treasure Hunt April 12 2004
By A Customer
A respected historian of science, Owen Gingerich provides not only a fascinating introduction into the reception of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus but also a terrific narrative about the production of scholarship. The end result is both an engaging chapter in the history of science and an amazing foray into the history of reading more generally.
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