In his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn dramatically changed the notion of empirical progress by showing that it was anomalistic events, not incremental improvements, that led to new paradigms in perceptions and thought. One of Kuhn’s examples was the Copernican Revolution, which offered “a promise of better, simpler, solutions that might be developed at some point in the future.”
In the world premiere of Dava Sobel’s And the Sun Stood Still, we revisit the crucial final period of Nicolaus Copernicus’ life, which would determine the fate of his life’s work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). To understand the import of Copernicus’ contribution to the advancement of human reasoning, one must understand the seemingly insurmountable obstacles presented by the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, which insisted—upon penalty of excommunication, heresy, and sometimes execution—that the Earth was the center of the universe.
To make matters worse, even those brave scientists who proposed a heliocentric model—i.e., Protestants, in the wake of Martin Luther, who was still living in Wittenberg, Germany—still envisioned Earth as a stationary planet around which the universe revolved.
Meanwhile, Copernicus had already worked out the proof which showed, in the simplest and most elegant terms, that Earth circled the sun and rotated on its own axis. While we take these parameters for granted today, in his time, Copernicus put his life and the welfare of his loved ones on the line in order to publish his proof.
In Sobel’s compelling adaptation of this historical sequence, we find, through set designer Tina Anderson’s clever use of turntables, the celestial spheres reflected in the earthly interplay between Copernicus (Jim Hunt), Bishop Johannes Dantiscus (Bob Buckley), the visting mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus (Benjamin Bonenfant), Copernicus’ housekeeper and lover, Anna Schilling (Crystal Eisele), and Copernicus’ champion in the Church, Bishop Tiedemann Giese (Sam Sandoe).
Hunt’s well-measured, confident, and mild-mannered Copernicus reveals a man concerned about maintaining his position as a renowned physician and confidant of two bishops—Dantiscus, who wielded ecclesiastical powers like a bludgeon; and Giese, who understood and protected Copernicus’ work—while covertly conducting his breakthrough research, hoping there would come a time when the world would be ready to shed its superstitions and see the beauty of G-d’s creation in scientific terms.
The great tragedy of Copernicus’ life is that his lover, Anna, was forced to leave their home, by Dantiscus, while the final touches on the manuscript by Copernicus and Rheticus were being made. Eisele’s well-tempered portrayal captures both the public formality of Anna and Nicholaus’ relationship, and the deep intellectual and spiritual connections they shared in private.
The manic, near hysteric edge that Buckley brings to Dantiscus is visceral, infusing Copernicus’ life, and the lives of all the folks of Frombork, where he resided, with fear. Sandoe is marvelous as the even-tempered Giese, bringing a strong measure of civility and stability to Copernicus’ life, enabling the great thinker to complete his book and get it published.
The principal catalyst in the publication of (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) was Rheticus, who, as Giese tells Copernicus, was the sign that the time had come to share his text with the world. Bonenfant fills Rheticus with an infectious enthusiasm that gradually brings Copernicus out of his protective shell and reignites his passion for the discoveries he had labored over for so long. Bonenfant also brings a deft and delicate balance of reverence and encouragement, not to mention savoire faire and humility, to Rheticus, convincing us that such an accomplished young man could manage this mission.
While many will take this beautifully told tale as an important step in what they see as the unstoppable march of empirical reasoning, modern science is no less subject to its own dogmas2 and to the machinations of the powers-that-be as it was in Copernicus’ time. Better we see this as a cautionery tale and set to opening our own blind eyes.