It Started With Copernicus: Vital Questions About Science by Keith Parsons (book review).

On his deathbed in 1543, Nicholas Copernicus arranged for his book, ‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium’ or, in English, ‘On The Revolution Of The Heavenly Spheres’ to be published. Although he wasn’t the first to propose that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun, he was the first into print, even if his second choice printer while the first was away, probably fearful for his life, added an introduction saying it was fantasy. Copernicus saw it as a means to change how we perceived the cosmos and started the chain reaction of change to divide the natural philosophers (the old name for scientists) to agree or disagree and seeking proof of their own. If anything, it put religion out of the equation. The Earth was no longer the centre of the universe which was his purpose.


With this book, ‘It Started With Copernicus: Vital Questions About Science’ by Keith Parsons, there is an exploration not only of these events but why scientists stayed in dogmas. A lot of it can be blamed on Aristotle, mostly because he was right on some things so it was assumed he was right on everything scientific. You would have to be very rebellious and a touch suicidal, considering you could be killed, to disagree with such opinions and this delayed any changes or development in science for centuries. Copernicus promoted evidence to back up any claims and he gave his proof that anyone else could verify. It was revolutionary.

Proving by experiment wasn’t always straight forward as Parsons shows when it came down to the nature of light, where it could be both particle and wave but no one said reality was perfect.

More surprising is that it wasn’t until the 1980s that it was accepted that the end of the dinosaurs happened suddenly because no one would believe there was a damning meteorite crash and an ice age putting the finishing touches to their extinction. If you learn anything else from this book is check for evidence that something is correct and how much time it takes for things to sink in.

Parsons examination of how personality conflicts, let alone which sex (U mean, women as scientists) or religious issues have contributed to hindering scientific development and pointing our many examples. If you think this has eased, he proceeds into late in the last century. If anything, it illustrates scientists have the same problem as other humans in the workplace with claim-jumpers and such. This is something that should be read if you want conflict in your stories as there are lots of variants to choose from.

Something that Parsons points out is how many night sightings of UFOs are misinterpretations or literally tricks of light which is well-known. I wish he’d progressed this to daylight sightings and ignoring the known fakes. Interesting that he raises UFOs a second time with that 1% unexplained but not that they are alien. A single percentage never seems much until it is interpreted as numbers, which he didn’t. I’m only mentioning that here as something Parsons didn’t actually need to include.

If you ever wondered about Aristotle’s logic and how it held on so long, all will be clear from his all-purpose logic of matching things up. Being objective, I can’t help feel that in those days with a more limited set of comparisons that this was probably seen as the only way to go and if something didn’t fit into this pattern, was quietly ignored.

You would think science works in absolutes instead of groping around in the dark sometimes but often it’s often a case of not disturbing the known science rules too much and the hornet’s nest that can bring. Even Einstein treaded carefully from time to time. Never forget that scientists don’t tend to work out from an untried hypothesis but more to make sense of an observation like a prism yielding a rainbow of colours.

I loved Parsons unknowingly comparison to the three R’s of Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmatic with the four F’s, Fleeing, Fighting, Feeding and…er…Reproduction. Seems spelling was always problematic or needed a better thesaurus.

If you’re after the answers to everything, then look to pages 392-393 where he quotes Owen Flanagan and you can’t go far wrong.

Despite its length, Parsons book is actually very easy to read and digest, helped by not requiring footnotes and each bibliography detailed as to why he chose certain books then give an endless list no one is ever likely to read.

What you will learn from this book is how developments in science happened very slowly, having to beat a lot of dogma along the way to where we are today. If you are going to use science constructively in its development in your stories then this is a must read to understanding the obstacles involved. It should make you think if you’re using nascent faster-than-light and time travel amongst other things. Stay focused and don’t have a parallax view.

GF Willmetts

December 2014

(pub: Prometheus Books. 421 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $19.95 (US), $21.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-61614929-1)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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