An Outline of The Copernican Revolution

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An Epochal Revolution

In 1543, with the publication of his work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Polish Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus set in motion a chain reaction that would lead European society, and indeed, mankind, to an epochal revolution that would transform forever the way in which we see ourselves, our universe, and our place in the scheme of the cosmos. In this work, Copernicus advanced a heliocentric theory of universal motion, turning on its head centuries of tradition and dogma built up around the Ptolemaic model. Although the Scientific Revolution in general can be attributed to a number of different elements of that era, such as advances in the fields of medicine, art, cartography, and the educational ethic of such religious organizations as the Catholic church, the specifics of the cosmological transformation set in motion by Copernicus leave one wondering if his thesis, the first significant advancement of the study of the heavens since the advent of the Ptolemaic system, remains the key event in the overturning of Papal authority. Certainly, the Catholic church has never fully recovered, having only issued a proclamation of pardon for poor Galileo (the archtypal Copernican) scarcely a decade ago. But beyond the cosmological and theological ramifications of this even, perhaps an examination of how Copernicas’ heliocentric model of the universe gained acceptance can show us something about ourselves; about the way we learn, the way we change, the way we move forward; perhaps we can take something timeless and universal about human nature from the story of Copernicas and his Revolutionibus. If there are yet other cosmological revelations to take place, perhaps Copernicus’s story has shown us how they are likely to happen.

De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium

Copernicus was a famous physician, astronomer, currency expert, and cartographer by 1525, as well as a clergyman. He led a distinguished life. He worked on his book, De Revolutionibus, for decades. It was intended as an astronomical reference guide. It advanced the startling theory that the earth moved about the sun, and not vice versa... a rather unexpected conclusion for anyone with any sense at all to arrive at. It was completed in 1532, but remained unpublished for a while... Copernicus seemed reluctant to challenge public opinion. Still, reports of his research had been circulating amongst his colleagues since at least 1515.
Controversy over his theory during his lifetime generally took the form of dismissal or mockery, as if someone in today’s age had advanced some outrageous theory about aliens or what not. To many, Copernicus represented the lunatic fringe of academia. However, several fellow clergymen supported Copernicus in his theory; for instance, Cardinal Nicholas Schonberg of Capua entreated Copernicus to communicate his theory to scholars of the day. Copernicus' pupil, Georg Joachim von Lauchen, or Rheticus as he was publically known, was the one who saw to it that De Revolutionibus was published. De Revolutionibus saw publication in 1543, the same year as Copernicus’ death. Hearsay has it that Copernicus received his first printed copy of the work on his deathbed.

Gradual Infiltration

So it was that De Revolutionibus fought its earliest and most important battles without help from its author. It achieved victory in these battles through infiltration. A mathematical text comprehendible only by erudite astronomers of the age, it gradually won them over to its camp without large-scale layperson opposition developing. As it turns out, the publication of De Revolutionibus was an event eagerly awaited by many others. Even cohorts skeptical of his heliocentric theory were forced to acknowledge De Revolutionibus as the first text to rival Ptolemy’s Algamest in scope. By the late 1500’s, De Revolutionibus was a standard reference for advanced astronomers. Even so, most ignored its central thesis, while borrowing its diagrams and methods. The earth’s supposed ‘motion’ was treated as a mathematical fiction, useful for computation alone, much like the imaginary circles used by Ptolemy in Algamest... such an approach was promoted by men such as Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian who urged this on readers in an anonymous preface. Thus the book continued to gain in popularity despite its outrageous central thesis, serving to gradually temper the conviction of the astronomical community that such a concept was absurd. In 1551, Erasmus Reinhold issued the “Prutenic Tables”, a set of astronomical references based on Copernicus’ works, which soon became indispensible to astronomers and astrologers alike. This was the first significant update to astronomical reference works in 300 years.

Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) is acknowledged as the greatest astronomer of the latter half of the 16th century. He was a staunch opponent of Copernicanism. Brahe, however, is noted not for his cosmological insight, but for creating new techniques of observation and new standards of accuracy in measurement. Perhaps something of a nutcase, Brahe was noted for spending 30 years of his life measuring the movements of stars carefully and precisely with the naked eye. Based on his research, he also came to a rejection of the traditional harmonics of the Ptolemaic system, and set out to come up with a compromise solution that updated Ptolemy and Copernicus, and incorporated both models into one overall system. The result was a mathematical system almost identical to Copernicus, with the important omission of any reference to a heliocentric universe. This was a palatable compromise to many astronomers, and managed to win far-reaching acceptance of the academic repudiation of the Aristotalian-Ptolemic universe, without all that ugly heliocentric nonsense to get in the way. This proved to be a crucial point in the gradual acceptance of Copernicanism; it did away with the old worldview in a popular fashion, and made more room for ridiculous theories like Copernicus’. If anything, this serves to illustrate that after the publication of De Revolutionibus, even staunch opponents of Copernicanism could scarcely help using its mathematics to promote major reforms in astronomy.

An Outrageous Notion

As the book became more and more standard, public clamour over the book’s thesis gradually became more pronounced, though it was slow in starting; largely because the public did not possess the level of knowledge or literacy to understand Copernicus’ book for themselves. This clamour was loudest in the camp of protestant reformers, who favoured biblical literalism as a counterargument against the new cosmology. Copernicans, as they were called, were openly mocked in plays and poems and editorial letters. Even relatively atheistic radicals like Jean Bodin, whose writings were banned by the Catholic church, dismissed Copernicanism out of hand. By the early 1600’s, debate had become more bitter and intense. The issue became a particularly vicious one, and Copernicans were labeled atheist or infidel. For an example of the sort of logic that was prevalent at the time, we can note that as early as 1539, Martin Luther himself had dismissed Copernicanism, by quoting Joshua 10:13 (Joshua commanded the sun to move, not the earth) as evidence against it. This sort of literalism was typical of the most vocal opponents of the Copernican movement. Other significant members of Christendom known to oppose Copernicanism on similar grounds were Melanchthon (Ecclesiastes 1:4-5) and Calvin (Psalm 93).
To Protestants, works like De Revolutionibus likely represented the sort of esoteric dialectic subtleties that the Catholics had (in their view) been using for centuries to obfuscate pure Christian theology as represented by the biblical literalism of men like Luther and Calvin. Even to the layman, Copernicanism was seen as utterly destructive to the fabric of society. Because cosmology, morality, and theology had for centuries been interwoven in Christian orthodoxy, a proposed change to any part of the system was seen as destructive to the entire system. For example, if earth is not the center of creation, but rather one of many planets, would there not then probably be men on these other planets? Do we humans then lose our status as unique and special in God’s creation? What about original sin and salvation; did God have such a plan for each and every world or are we singled out to bear the brunt of His wrath? If the universe is infinite and unbounded, where then are God and His throne located? Questions like these were more than enough to cause the average citizen of the 1600’s a loss of ontological equilibrium from which there could be no recovery save a retreat to the safe, familiar cosmology espoused by orthodox Christianity.
Copernicanism, then, required a complete transformation of man’s view of morality, God, the universe, and mankind’s place in the scheme of it all. John Donne summed this up best when he said simply in 1611, “The new philosophy calls all in doubt.”

The Problem of Planets

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), was a lifelong Copernican. His book, Cosmographical Mystery, in 1596, opened with a lengthy defense of the Copernican system. An avowed heliocentrist, Kepler was nevertheless critical of Copernicas’ particular system, and he repeatedly emphasized that Copernicus hadn’t realized the gold mine he had been sitting on, that he hadn’t taken his theory far enough, and had stuck too closely by Ptolemy in developing the tables in De Revolutionibus. Kepler finally solved the “problem of planets” by adapting Copernicus’ Ptolemaic maths and following Tycho Brahe’s observations to the letter. The new cosmology was very nearly complete. From this point on, opponents of Copernicanism were on the defensive; far from seeming nonsense, heliocentric models of the solar system gained increasing acceptance amongst the educated from this point on.


In 1610, the Catholic church officially joined the battle against Copernicanism, and the charge for such a criminal form of thinking became official heresy. This shocked many people, including many members of the clergy, as it was a reversal of the church’s previous position. De Revolutionibus was still taught at Catholic universities up to 60 years after Copernicas’ death. The Prutenic tables were used by Gregory XIII in his reformation of the calendar (the 'Gregorian' calendar still in use today). In fact, De Revolutionibus was itself a product of the latitude given to members of the clergy to study and understand nature. It seems likely, then, that the Catholic church’s reaction to Copernicanism was in all likelihood a reactionary political maneuver to gain ground against the Protestant reformation. Appropriately, the net result of this action was a loss of prestige for the Catholic church, culminating in the infamous trial of Galileo Galilei.

And Yet It Moves

It was 1609 when Galileo used the first telescope to look at the heavens. This provided the first qualitatively new data for astronomers since antiquity! This was the death knell for anti-Copernicans from the point of view of any astute observer. Galileo found evidence of Copernicanism everywhere: new stars were found, proving the fallacy of the Ptolemaic model. Craters and mountains were seen on the moon, proving that it, too, was a world, and so Terra lost its unique status as the one and only firmament. Most strikingly, observations of Jupiter revealed four moons which orbited about it, providing a ready real-world concrete example of Copernican modelling. Opponents of Copernicanism, sensing the turning of the tide against them, fell back to critiquing the new cosmology with such thoughtful witticisms as, “If God had meant men to use telescopes, He would have created us with telescopic eyes.” Galileo was eventually brought before the dreaded Catholic Inquisition in 1633. He was humiliated and forced to recant his life’s work as heresy. He is supposed to have been heard saying under his breath as he left the courtroom, “And yet it moves!” It was evident to all, however, that the Catholic Church was grasping at straws. From this point onwards, the role of Christian institutions in matters of scientific authority was seriously undermined, a crucial turning point in the Scientific Revolution.

History Repeats Itself

Here we are now in the 21st century, in an age undreamed of by Copernicus and his contemporaries, and yet perhaps early advocates of Copernicanism would recognize the debates and contests of ideologies that are playing themselves out today. It was Aristotle who advanced a notion of “quintessence” as being the fundamental force from which his spheres were built... and that term is being used today by cosmologists to describe the estimated 73% of the universe which can be identified as neither atoms nor as “dark matter”. Echoes of the Catholic church’s folly can be seen in other similar endeavours such as the Scopes Monkey Trial of the early 1900’s; indeed, dogmatic Protestantism as practiced on this continent continues to react with paranoia and suspicion to uncomfortable ideas, going so far as to suggest teaching 15th century cosmology in the 21st century classroom.
Most telling, perhaps, is that we are in the mid to late stages of a cosmological revolution initiated by such thinkers as Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Bell, Heisenberg, and others of that ilk. Special relativity, the concept of ‘finite yet unbounded space’, itself a controversial modification of Newtonian physics, is at direct odds with the predictions of quantum theory and its observer-participancy paradox; and yet, because both systems yield useful results in specific applications, scientists have adopted them as ‘useful fictions’, and they have fast become indispensible tools to anyone in the field of advanced physics. Scientists like Fritjof Capra and Nobel prize winner David Bohm point to similarities between “the new physics” and eastern mystical traditions; others, like Stephen Hawking, attempt mathematical solutions, seeking the Holy Grail of unified field theory, hoping to do for relativity theory what Kepler did for heliocentrism. And while physicists ponder these staggering issues in journals and at conferences, we laypersons go about our lives, having perhaps some notion of Newtonian mechanics or some other orthodoxy, but beyond that mostly ignorant, unaware, and convinced that we understand what the universe is about.
And so, if history does repeat itself, it seems an interesting conjecture that should one want to know the future, what it holds, what people will think, what they will know that we don’t... perhaps one should begin with the heretics, the fools who insist on saying what noone wants to hear. They just might see something the rest of us don’t.

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