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What Copernicus really thought… not your usual lecture room platitude

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From astrophysicist Paul Sutter at LiveScience:

1) What we now call science, philosophy and theology were all mixed up together.

2) Early (proto-)scientists made claims and arguments that would sound totally bananas today.

I’ll leave Copernicus’ motivations to another article, but he did indeed publish a book in 1543 detailing his new cosmology with the sun at the center of the universe. While it did have some advantages over the en vogue geocentric model (like neatly explaining the precession of planetary orbits and requiring fewer circles-within-circles), it did have weaknesses (how, exactly, does something like the Earth move?), and the reaction among the literate community — including the Catholic clergy — was neither hostile nor supportive. At the time, the cosmology of Copernicus simply wasn’t very compelling. More.

And Kepler, who straightened out the mess to a great extent, was an astrologer.

This bears repeating: It is not true that our forebears in science shunned facts. More often, the sets of facts they were dealing with were much messier than pop science today usually portrays them to be.

Put another way, they did not have a set of Right Answers they were refusing to accept. They had people like Copernicus who happened to turn out to be right. And any number of others who turned out to be wrong. It’s to our ancestors’ credit that they managed as well as they did.

See also: It’s amazing how much good science started out as mistakes… Scerri: Rather than a hyper-intellectual, alien activity practiced by a remote priesthood, science is hit and miss, the ever-changing product of less-than-brilliant people, just like every other human activity.

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One Reply to “What Copernicus really thought… not your usual lecture room platitude

  1. 1
    PaoloV says:

    The true Copernican principles:

    Evidence-based science: best inference regardless of its implications

    Humble perspective: it’s not about the creatures, but their Creator

     
    NICHOLAS COPERNICUS’ PREFACE TO HIS BOOKS ON THE REVOLUTIONS:

    …as soon as some people hear that in this volume, which I have written about the revolutions of the spheres of the universe, I ascribe certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they will shout that I must be immediately repudiated together with this belief For I am not so enamored of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. I am aware that a philosopher’s ideas are not subject to the judgement of ordinary persons, because it is his endeavor to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by God. Yet I hold that completely erroneous views should be shunned.
    Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heaven as its center would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves. Therefore I debated with myself for a long time whether to publish the volume which I wrote to prove the earth’s motion or rather to follow the example of the Pythagoreans and certain others, who used to transmit philosophy’s secrets only to kinsmen and friends, not in writing but by word of mouth, as is shown by Lysis’ letter to Hipparchus. And they did so, it seems to me, not, as some suppose, because they were in some way jealous about their teachings, which would be spread around; on the contrary, they wanted the very beautiful thoughts attained by great men of deep devotion not to be ridiculed by those who are reluctant to exert themselves vigorously in any literary pursuit unless it is lucrative; or if they are stimulated to the nonacquisitive study of philosophy by the exhortation and example of others, yet because of their dullness of mind they play the same part among philosophers as drones among bees. When I weighed these considerations, the scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken.

    But while I hesitated for a long time and even resisted, my friends drew me back. Foremost among them was the cardinal of Capua, Nicholas Schönberg, renowned in every field of learning. Next to him was a man who loves me dearly, Tiedemann Giese, bishop of Chelmno, a close student of sacred letters as well as of all good literature. For he repeatedly encouraged me and, sometimes adding reproaches, urgently requested me to publish this volume and finally permit it to appear after being buried among my papers and lying concealed not merely until the ninth year but by now the fourth period of nine years. The same conduct was recommended to me by not a few other very eminent scholars. They exhorted me no longer to refuse, on account of the fear which I felt, to make my work available for the general use of students of astronomy. Ile crazier my doctrine of the earth’s motion now appeared to most people, the argument ran, so much the more admiration and thanks would it gain after they saw the publication of my writings dispel the fog of absurdity by most luminous proofs. Influenced therefore by these persuasive men and by this hope, in the end I allowed my friends to bring out an edition of the volume, as they had long besought me to do.

    …how it occurred to me to venture to conceive any motion of the earth, against the traditional opinion of astronomers and almost against common sense. I have accordingly no desire to from Your Holiness that I was impelled to consider a different system of deducing the motions of the universe’s spheres for no other reason than the realization that astronomers do not agree among themselves in their investigations of this subject. For, in the first place, they are so uncertain about the motion of the sun and moon that they cannot establish and observe a constant length even for the tropical year. Secondly, in determining the motions not only of these bodies but also of the other five planets, they do not use the same principles, assumptions, and explanations of the apparent revolutions and motions. For while some employ only homocentrics, others utilize eccentrics and epicycles, and yet they do not quite reach their goal. For although those who put their faith in homocentrics showed that some nonuniform motions could be compounded in this way, nevertheless by this means they were unable to obtain any incontrovertible result in absolute agreement with the phenomena. On the other hand, those who devised the eccentrics seem thereby in large measure to have solved the problem of the apparent motions with appropriate calculations. But meanwhile they introduced a good many ideas which apparently contradict the first principles of uniform motion. Nor could they elicit or deduce from the eccentrics the principal consideration, that is, the structure of the universe and the true symmetry of its parts. On the contrary, their experience was just like some one taking from various places hands, feet, a head, and other pieces, very well depicted, it may be, but not for the representation of a single person; since these fragments would not belong to one another at all, a monster rather than a man would be put together from them. Hence in the process of demonstration or “method”, as it is called, those who employed eccentrics are found either to have omitted something essential or to have admitted something extraneous and wholly irrelevant. This would not have happened to them, had they followed sound principles. For if the hypotheses assumed by them were not false, everything which follows from their hypotheses would be confirmed beyond any doubt. Even though what I am now saying may be obscure, it will nevertheless become clearer in the proper place.

    For a long time, then, I reflected on this confusion in the astronomical traditions concerning the derivation of the motions of the universe’s spheres. I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles of this world. For this reason I undertook the task of rereading the works of all the philosophers which I could obtain to learn whether anyone had ever proposed other motions of the universe’s spheres than those expounded by the teachers of astronomy in the schools. And in fact first I found in Cicero that Hicetas supposed the earth to move. Later I also discovered in Plutarch that certain others were of this opinion. I have decided to set his words down here, so that they may be available to everybody:

    Some think that the earth remains at rest. But Philolaus the Pythagorean believes that, like the sun and moon, it revolves around the fire in an oblique circle. Heraclides of Pontus, and Ecphantus the Pythagorean make the earth move, not in a progressive motion, but like a wheel in a rotation from west to east about its own center.

    Therefore, having obtained the opportunity from these sources, I too began to consider the mobility of the earth. And even though the idea seemed absurd, nevertheless I knew that others before me had been granted the freedom to imagine any circles whatever for the purpose of explaining the heavenly phenomena. Hence I thought that I too would be readily permitted to ascertain whether explanations sounder than those of my predecessors could be found for the revolution of the celestial spheres on the assumption of some motion of the earth.

    Having thus assumed the motions which I ascribe to the earth later on in the volume, by long and intense study I finally found that if the motions of the other planets are correlated with the orbiting of the earth, and are computed for the revolution of each planet, not only do their phenomena follow therefrom but also the order and size of all the planets and spheres, and heaven itself is so linked together that in no portion of it can anything be shifted without disrupting the remaining parts and the universe as a whole. Accordingly in the arrangement of the volume too I have adopted the following order. In the first book I set forth the entire distribution of the spheres together with the motions which I attribute to the earth, so that this book contains, as it were, the general structure of the universe. Then in the remaining books I correlate the motions of the other planets and of all the spheres with the movement of the earth so that I may thereby determine to what extent the motions and appearances of the other planets and spheres can be saved if they are correlated with the earth’s motions. I have no doubt that acute and learned astronomers will agree with me if, as this discipline especially requires, they are willing to examine and consider, not superficially but thoroughly, what I adduce in this volume in proof of these matters. However, in order that the educated and uneducated alike may see that I do not run away from the judgement of anybody at all, I have preferred dedicating my studies to Your Holiness rather than to anyone else. For even in this very remote comer of the earth where I live you are considered the highest authority by virtue of the loftiness of your office and your love for all literature and astronomy too. Hence by your prestige and judgement you can easily suppress calumnious attacks although, as the proverb has it, there is no remedy for a backbite.

    Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent of despising their criticism as unfounded. For it is not unknown that Lactantius, otherwise an illustrious writer but hardly an astronomer, speaks quite childishly about the earth’s shape, when he mocks those who declared that the earth has the form of a globe. Hence scholars need not be surprised if any such persons will likewise ridicule me. Astronomy is written for astronomers.

     

    De Revolutionibus (On the Revolutions), 1543 C.E.
     
    NICHOLAS COPERNICUS’ REVOLUTIONS
    Book One
    INTRODUCTION

    Among the many various literary and artistic pursuits which invigorate men’s minds, the strongest affection and utmost zeal should, I think, promote the studies concerned with the most beautiful objects, most deserving to be known. This is the nature of the discipline which deals with the universe’s divine revolutions, the asters’ motions, sizes, distances, risings and settings, as well as the causes of the other phenomena in the sky, and which, in short, explains its whole appearance. What indeed is more beautiful than heaven, which of course contains all things of beauty? This is proclaimed by its very names (in Latin), caelum and mundus, the latter denoting purity and ornament, the former a carving. On account of heaven’s transcendent perfection most philosophers have called it a visible god. If then the value of the arts is judged by the subject matter which they treat, that art will be by far the foremost which is labeled astronomy by some, astrology by others, but by many of the ancients, the consummation of mathematics. Unquestionably the summit of the liberal arts and most worthy of a free man, it is supported by almost all the branches of mathematics. Arithmetic, geometry, optics, surveying, mechanics and whatever others there are all contribute to it.

    Although all the good arts serve to draw man’s mind away from vices and lead it toward better things, this function can be more fully performed by this art, which also provides extraordinary intellectual pleasure. For when a man is occupied with things which he sees established in the finest order and directed by divine mana gement, will not the unremitting contemplation of them and a certain familiarity with them stimulate him to the best and to admiration for the Maker of everything, in whom are all happiness and every good? For would not the godly Psalmist (92:4) in vain declare that he was made glad through the work of the Lord and rejoiced in the works of His hand s, were we not drawn to the contemplation of the highest good by this means, as though by a chariot?

    The great benefit and adornment which this art confers on the commonwealth (not to mention the countless advantages to individuals) are most excellently observed by Plato. In the Laws, Book VII, he thinks that it should be cultivated chiefly because by dividing time into groups of days as months and years, it would keep the state alert and attentive to the festivals and sacrifices. Whoever denies its necessity for the teacher of any branch of higher learning is thinking foolishly, according to Plato. In his opinion it is highly unlikely that anyone lacking the requisite knowledge of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies can become and be called godlike.

    However, this divine rather than human science, which investigates the loftiest subjects, is not free from perplexities. The main reason is that its principles and assumptions, called “hypotheses” by the Greeks, have been a source of disagreement, as we see, among most of those who undertook to deal with this subject, and so they did not rely on the same ideas. An additional reason is that the motion of the planets and the revolution of the stars could not be measured with numerical precision and completely understood except with the passage of time and the aid of many earlier observations, through which this knowledge was transmitted to posterity from hand to hand, so to say. To be sure, Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, who far excels the rest by his wonderful skill and industry, brought this entire art almost to perfection with the help of observations extending over a period of more than four hundred years, so that there no longer seemed to be any gap which he had not closed. Nevertheless very many things, as we perceive, do not agree with the conclusions which ought to follow from his system, and besides certain other motions have been discovered which were not yet 2 known to him. Hence Plutarch too, in discussing the sun’s tropical year, says that so far the motion of the heavenly bodies has eluded the skill of the astronomers. For, to use the year itself as an example, it is well known, I think, how different the opinions concerning it have always been, so that many have abandoned all hope that an exact determination of it could be found. The situation is the 1 same with regard to other heavenly bodies.

    Nevertheless, to avoid giving the impression that this difficulty is an excuse for indolence, by the grace of God, without whom we can accomplish nothing, I shall attempt a broader inquiry into these matters. For, the number of aids we have to assist our enterprise grows with the interval of time extending from 2 the originators of this art to us. Their discoveries may be compared with what I have newly found. I acknowledge, moreover, that I shall treat many topics differently from my predecessors, and yet I shall do so thanks to them, for it was they who first opened the road to the investigation of these very questions.

     

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