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Copernicus? Copernicus! February 9, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in 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.



1. Brad - February 11, 2008

Did you mention that one of the biggest problems Copernicus had was not the theological controversy, but moving the only known massive object in the universe away from the universe’s center of mass! The theological controversy became a big deal a few decades later.

2. Will Thomas - February 12, 2008

Hey Brad, thanks for keeping up with the history of science blog. (Brad’s a friend of mine from college). And it’s a great question. Aristotelian theory demanded that all objects made of “earth” (one of the four elements) proceed to the center of the universe. By removing the Earth from the center, that caused problems for Aristotle.

Copernicus didn’t have any big theological problems (as you point out). Of course, he died shortly after his views were published in full. But, more to the point, philosophers simply didn’t care about astronomers. The goal for astronomers was to predict future locations of sun, moon, and planets. Copernicus dedicated his book to the pope to protect himself from attacks from outside the astronomy community–but these never arose, because no one pressed the point. (In his unauthorized preface to the book, Andreas Ossiander insisted the book only contained mathematical hypotheses, not philosophical claims).

As for the astronomy community, they were not overly wedded to philosophical concerns (after all, they were constantly willing to use all kinds of unrealistic geometric fixes to come up with the right numbers). One of their main problems was, if the earth moves, why don’t the stars change position as the earth revolves? Copernicus thought it was because the sphere containing the stars was really far away. In the end, some astronomers accepted his position, while others did not, but most thought Copernicus’ mathematical hypothesis was a nice one.

Galileo, however, later insisted upon the relevance of Copernicus’ theory (and his own confirming observations, such as seeing the phases of Venus through a telescope) to philosophical debates, and, of course, eventually ran afoul of the higher ups in the church. That was part of today’s lecture.

3. John Ptak - February 28, 2008

I would have to say that Copernicus did indeed have a major developing and potentially disastrous problem with the Catholic Church–he not only challenged the position of the Earth but also the very nature of the structure of intelligence itself with his (new) rigorous mathematical approach. I think that he escaped the issue of condemnation via the insertion (by whomever) in the introduction of the Revolutionibus that the cosmological realm was not that of the astronomer (“the hypotheses contained within made no pretense to truth that, in any case, astronomy was incapable of finding the causes of heavenly phenomena’), in effect I think allowing the importance of the philosophers’ universe to be happily maintained. (Wasn’t C around to fix the calendar for the church?) In any event I think that Copernicus was both coy and cautious in dealing with his heavenly fathers–for one tiny example, C never really uses any Christian writers as sources. I do agree of course that it took ’till 1633 for his work to finally come to a head with the church; but Copernicus certainly set that mathematical ball rolling. (Perhaps one of the other major upsetting elements to the church that occurred during the reign of Copernicus’ Pope Paul III was the introduction of the Jesuits?)

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