Paperbacks: Uncentering the Earth, by William T Vollman

Phoenix £8.99
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The Independent Culture

There are so many reasons to recommend this energetic, eccentric commentary on the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and his work. Above all it's the kind of book you can actually learn things from.

Copernicus's 1543 On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres advanced the theory of a round earth, though it wasn't until the 1930s that photographs from high-altitude balloons backed the assertion with empirical evidence. However, it was his heretic contention that the sun, not the earth, lay at the centre of the cosmos that could have had him burned at the stake. The original preface to Revolutions, written by a well-meaning Protestant called Andreas Osiander, "sought to smooth the book's way, not only with justifications of its elevatedness, but also with assurances of its irrelevance".

Vollman is a wonderful guide to Copernicus's often cryptic theorising, at one point going so far as to confess that the Pole's reasoning leaves him unimpressed. It's a pity then to notice that Vollman's own thoughts are occasionally unclear. In places this even looks like the result of some bad editing.