Copernicus? Copernicus! February 9, 2008Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
Tags: History 174
I’m not sure how useful or interesting it is to repost the lecture recaps here in full. Presumably if you’re at all interested in this blog, you’ll know the general details, so unless otherwise worthwhile, I’ll go back to saying a few words about the lectures. Thursday’s lecture was on astronomy; it went fast, but I think I gave some more information about what lecture was about upfront, and did some more repeating of concepts (it’s easy to forget that even the most elementary stuff is totally new to this crowd). So, we’re getting there as far as lecture style goes. The title of this post reflects my view that there should be a musical about Copernicus–imagine his name being sung, first as a question, and then as triumphant affirmation and you’ll get the picture (or maybe not). Moving on…
I subtitled my astronomy lecture “From the Copernican Revolution to the Telescopic Revolution”; I’ve never seen the topic framed in just this way, but the themes will be familiar to a history of science crowd. Basically, it addresses the question, if Copernicus’ placement of the sun at the center of the universe was so revolutionary, why did it take 120 years for what we call the “scientific revolution” to really cohere? So, moving between two technical revolutions, I show why the latter revolution seemed to really fulfill the promise of what the former might have implied, and use the intervening period (particularly Tycho Brahe) to illustrate the movement of astronomy from a technical field to one that had something to say something about the universe and how we can come to know about it.
I try and show how Copernicus was cagey about the status of his claim. He believes in the reality of his sun-centered universe, but he’s still an astronomer. He probably doesn’t believe in the reality of his epicycles and epicyclets, but uses them to save the phenomenon as any good astronomer would. And he’s nervous about stirring up the philosophical waters. He uses quasi-philosophical arguments to defend his moving earth (De Revolutionibus, Book 1, Ch. 8), but insists in the dedication to the pope “astronomy is written for astronomers”. 70 years later Kepler, and especially Galileo were after bigger fish, and Galileo paid the price for that–but astronomy was already on a path it could not easily turn its back on. Nothing new here, obviously, but that’s how I’m presenting it to the class–90 years of astronomy history in one big gulp. We must, after all, move on to the self-perceived revolutionaries (my “Galileo, Bacon, Descartes” lecture), and the technical evolution of navigation and mapmaking, this coming week.
Finally, I’ve been at this blog for over a month now and am still having fun, so I’m trying to arm twist a few friends into joining in. Once I figure out what contributors I can get, I’ll probably try and publicize it a little more, and maybe get a decent blog title thought up.