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  • Copernicus and Astrology, with an Appendix1 of Translations of Primary Sources
  • N. M. Swerdlow (bio)
Robert Westman 's massive book—The Copernican Question. Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. xviii + 681 pp. (double columns), 85 b&w illustrations, 7 tables, index—presents a novel thesis and a wealth of material. It is certain to raise questions that go beyond the Copernican. Therefore the Editors are pleased to be able to offer reviews by two people familiar with the documents to which the book refers. The first of these, by Noel Swerdlow, examines the evidence for the book's central thesis: concern for the defense and improvement of astrology caused Copernicus to build his system. The other review, by John Heilbron, considers the workmanship behind the book and related matters, particularly as manifested in its extensive treatment of Galileo.—The editors.

For well over half a century research on Copernicus has been dominated by three scholars compared to whom all others vanish into insignificance. The first is Edward Rosen, for many years the arbiter of scholarship on Copernicus, in countless articles correcting each and every error of those writing on his chosen subject, who, in the fifth novenium of his research, published an English translation of De revolutionibus (1978) to take its place among the two published previously. The second is Owen Gingerich, who, likewise in the fifth novenium of his research, published An Annotated Census of Copernicus' "De Revolutionibus" (2002), descriptions of all known copies of the 1543 and 1566 editions of Copernicus's book with transcriptions of some marginal annotation, the product of countless years of travel to libraries and book collectors, an invaluable guide to anyone interested [End Page 353] in every copy of the 1543 and 1566 editions. The third is Robert S. Westman, who, in articles with countless notes, succeeded Edward Rosen as arbiter of scholarship on Copernicus, and now, in the fifth novenium of his research, has published an immense study, 700 double-column pages, of "Copernicus's Problematic," of astrology and the order of the planets. As testimony to his industry and erudition, there are ca. 2800 notes (pp. 515-604), many of considerable length, and a bibliography, of mammoth proportions (pp. 605-647), containing more books and articles than I have read in my life. Copernicus explained that he cautiously withheld his book until the fourth novenium, and these scholars, waiting until the fifth, have given us books of even greater length. Indeed, in reflecting upon Professor Westman's contribution, my first thought was of the work of Dr. Edward Nares immortalized in Macaulay's essay Burleigh and His Times, which I cannot too strongly recommend to anyone contemplating the reading of this stupendous volume.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with large books on the history of astronomy, after all a large subject with a long history. The six volumes of Delambre's Histoire de l'astronomie (1817-27) remain the most comprehensive and proficient ever written, and are still read for their technical content as well as for the author's custom of improving upon his sources and then lecturing them for their deficiencies. O. Neugebauer's A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy (1975) has every promise of remaining the authoritative history of this large and diverse subject for years to come, and it too is excellently written with great clarity. And to mention something very recent, John North's Cosmos (2008) has taken its place as the finest general history of astronomy and cosmology of our time, and can be read with interest from beginning to end. In the case of Professor Westman's tome, it is not so much the length as the density, what Macaulay called the specific gravity, that distinguishes it from these works. Not that the scientific content is in any way demanding; the astronomy is elementary and without technical details; although astronomy was then the most mathematical of sciences, there is no mathematics; and the astrology, with mathematics of its own and complex methods of prognostication, is likewise elementary. The difficulties are more in the weightiness of the writing. In describing his own work, Professor...


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