Historical novels about famous people from science are currently booming. Just think of Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt. Unlike the author of a research paper, which must come up with solid facts, the novelist enjoys considerable freedom. He does not have to be so precise with the scientific-historical data. But that is not a reproach. The artistic freedom, however, leaves a lot of room for personal feelings, events and settings. Of course, not everything should be fictitious, the essential statements have to be correct. So does the author have it easier here than in a scientific paper?
Probably not, as he ventures into an area that is closely monitored by literary critics. Not (only) specialist knowledge is required here, but full-fledged prose. You have to be able to invent and tell stories. A clear contrast to a specialist publication that is subject to a strict scheme. Nevertheless, the plot should be structured logically, like in a screenplay, and presented in a linguistically sophisticated way. Not only a rich vocabulary but above all creativity and literary skills are required - certainly not for everyone.
Thomas Bührke, coming from the scientific world, ventures a trip into fiction with his latest work "Aristarch von Samos". To say it in advance: The result is successful - as far as the reviewer, as a member of the first-mentioned world, can judge at all (one can indeed be curious about the reactions of the arts pages).
The main character is Aristarchus of Samos; many may only associate the name with a lunar crater. Few know that the Greek astronomer was probably the first to put the sun at the center of the planetary system - about 1800 years before Copernicus! Apparently, this revolutionary worldview has not caught on. If the opposite were the case, where would we be today?
The author has shifted the scene to ancient Alexandria. The important port city on the Egyptian Mediterranean coast with its striking lighthouse "Pharos" was at the time of the action, which took place between 289 and 259 BC. BC plays, in Greek possession. The story told is largely fictitious, as is the appearance of well-known contemporaries such as Euclid, Timocharis, Archimedes or Straton. Artistic freedom allows for casual interaction in meaningful places - and this is used in fun ways. When reading, one quickly breaks free from the strict corset of the history of astronomy and takes part in the everyday life of the protagonists. It must have been something like that in the orbit of the famous (unfortunately later burned down) library of Alexandria.
There is no evidence that Aristarchus actually taught and researched there - but it is definitely a successful idea. From this, many stories develop about the scientific achievements of the ancient scholar, which are only partially historically secured: the determination of the spherical shape of the earth in Syene, mathematical contributions to Euclid's "Elements", the construction of a spherical sundial, the proven (very rough) determination distance from the sun and finally the heliocentric world view.
Especially with this final finding, the author speculates, because there are only indirect sources. Aristarchus's thesis, which means a drastic simplification of the canonical system with its complex spheres, is implemented in an exciting way and culminates in a fictitious disputation with Cleanthes of Assos, a representative of the classical, Aristotelian camp - an interesting parallel to the case of Galileo. The life of the Greek astronomer was at stake: if the new world view had been judged as heresy by the ruler of Alexandria, Ptolemy II, Aristarchus would probably have had to drink the poison-filled "hemlock cup".
Of course, love, suffering and resentment should not be missing in a novel - the reader is sufficiently served here. Loved ones, friends and envious people appear and enrich the story with verve. About 250 pages of the best entertainment came out. In addition to the vivid description of everyday life with its hierarchical structures, one gains interesting insights into Greek philosophy, mathematics, physics, astronomy and medicine.
The book is something for both natural scientists interested in literature and for novel readers with a penchant for the history of science. Thomas Bührke mastered the tightrope walk required in an amazingly professional manner. A book worth reading.