Olympic-grade nerd news

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry has decided on an official permanent name for element 112: copernicium.

Don’t you feel like it would be unbearably intense to be part of that decision-making process? Copernicium doesn’t occur naturally, can only be produced in unimaginably advanced laboratories, and might at best have a half-life of up to nine minutes. But it’s still an element, and thus one of the fundamental building blocks of… well, of everything. When it comes to naming such things, IUPAC’s writ is pretty much law for the species. The name “copernicium” is designed to be independent of any individual language—that is, to outlast the ones used now. Perhaps one day it will, under that name, help power the ships that bring small numbers of Earthlings back to the Old Terra Wildlife Preserve on intergalactic hajj. I’d crumble under the pressure of having such a Book-of-Genesis onomastic responsibility.

By coincidence I just finished William T. Vollmann’s book about Copernicus. Like D.F. Wallace’s Cantor book in the same series, it’s a bit of a disappointment. Actually, that’s an understatement. Wallace’s book is his most elliptical and self-conscious; it went unmentioned by most of his obituarists, and I’m guessing those of us who regard Wallace as The Man would now feel some trepidation about returning to it and possibly finding upsetting pathological sign after pathological sign therein. My quarrel with Uncentering the Earth is simpler: it’s a book about Copernicus that doesn’t have much Copernicus.

Vollmann pursues a post-Kuhnian narrative, writing an extensive apologia for Ptolemaic cosmology founded not on 20th-century relativism but on a sincere conviction that Copernicus was a guy who made one great thought-experiment, and a whole bunch of truly lucky guesses, but who couldn’t possibly have carried Ptolemy’s jock as an observer and measurer. All very interesting, but what one could use is some image of Copernicus the man; compared to other historic figures of similar significance (the very apex of the pyramid—Christ, Socrates, Darwin, Newton), he’s a collection of maybe five or six disconnected facts to most of us. Vollmann raises this issue, but essentially says outright, “I’m not going to fill in the biographical picture of this guy for you. There are other books, good ones, for that; it’s not what I’m interested in.” It’s perhaps not the reader’s place to ask for anything else, but Vollmann’s so good at that sort of exercise—and instead he gives us a breakdown of equants and Keplerian laws and whatnot that would perhaps be best left to, well, David Wallace.