Those who wish to date the genesis of the European Scientific Revolution are at liberty to point to several likely moments in history. The revolution was a confluence of many streams of thought and endeavor, some of which had prehistoric origins, all of which developed gradually over the course of centuries. Consensus among historians of science often settles around 1543 AD, the year Nicholas Copernicus published The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.
Copernicus was born in 1473 at Thorn on the Vistula River, the son of a copper trader. He studied in universities at Cracow and Bologna, taking his doctorate at Ferrara. He spent the last 34 years of his life in the quiet Prussian province of Varmia. A man of diverse interests and abilities, he was a mathematician, a country doctor who fashioned his own medications, a canon of the Catholic Church, and an astronomer. He recorded only 27 observations of the sky; he never once glimpsed the planet Mercury. His book was published by Andreas Osiander, a German Protestant, and presented to Copernicus on his deathbed.
Having completed his work 67 years before Galileo’s telescope magnified the heavens, Copernicus had only his own observations, those of past astronomers, and his insight to work with. His book asserted that, contrary to appearances, the cherished ideas of Aristotle, Ptolemy’s comprehensive Almagest, and the entrenched authority of the Church, the earth was not the center of the universe around which everything in the firmament revolved. He stated, and proved to his own satisfaction with intricate demonstrations of plane geometry, that the sun stood at the center and that the earth revolved around it.
The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was an unlikely treatise to launch a revolution. Although Galileo was later to prove him right about the relationship between the earth and the sun, Copernicus had been wrong about two central premises he had assumed from Aristotle and Ptolemy: that everything in the sky must be composed of a material different from the four elements known on earth, a perfect fifth element, a “quintessence”, and that the planets, being perfect, must necessarily move in perfect orbits, circles. These concepts confounded his attempt to reconcile celestial appearances with his geometry. Furthermore, his proofs were abstruse, comprehensible only to those well acquainted with both Euclid and the astronomical tables used for navigation and calendar calculations – in his day, a very select few, mostly clergymen committed to defending the Church.
Today, after so many centuries of observation with increasingly sophisticated technology and the exploration of space itself, the reach of astronomy has so far surpassed the grasp of Copernicus that his revolutionary work is rarely read by anyone other than scholars. As Arthur Koestler wrote, “It is one of the dreariest and most unreadable books that made history.” The casual reader would find The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres exceptionally daunting. Fortunately, William T. Vollman has undertaken this task for us and written a splendid book about it.
Uncentering the Earth (2006) recapitulates Revolutions chapter by chapter, decrypting the language and logic of Copernicus, identifying his antecedents, placing his ideas in the context of their time, describing the man himself and the world he inhabited, and reminding us how courageous it was to challenge the doctrines of the Catholic Church at a time when it was reacting vigorously against Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation by means of the Inquisition.
No doubt anticipating that Copernicus was begging trouble, Osiander had added a preface to Revolutions that invited readers not to take it literally, but to regard the work as hypothetical musings cast into the sky to make celestial mechanics conform to terrestrial mathematics. When Copernicus read it, he was furious because he very much intended that his book be taken as a literal explanation of natural phenomena. His apoplectic rage may have been a contributing cause of his death.
Vollman writes about an arcane subject in an entertaining, conversational manner, with humor and self-deprecating admissions of his own inadequacies. He admires his subject, but withholds worship. He quotes Copernicus, “If I could bring my computations to agree with the truth to within ten degrees, I would be as elated as Pythagoras must have been when he discovered his famous principle.” Vollman notes, “That was Copernicus for you. As the saying goes, he didn’t ask for the moon.”
With regard to the rudimentary tools at hand for Copernicus and his contemporaries, Vollman says “…the narrow limits of observation were merciful and forgiving to their theories.”
The instruments Copernicus had for measurement – astrolabe, torquetum, and parallacticon – were the same as those used by Ptolemy when he had produced his Almagest in 151 AD, which in their turn had not much improved since the days of Hipparchus of Rhodes or Aristarchus of Samos in the 2nd and 4th centuries BC. Ptolemy had written, appreciating the labors of his predecessors, that they were “The work for another’s love of wisdom and truth.”
About all such labors – the work of scientists – and cognition itself, Vollman remarks, “The purpose of conceptualization is to transform reality’s perceptual randomness into patterns.”
“What is reality?” he poses. “The history of science, not to mention life itself, teaches us to suspect that more will always exist than we have yet apprehended.” Later he adds, “Reality is what we perceive now. What a pathetic, parochial definition! But it is the truth.” And, “Truth, at least of the scientific kind, is arrived at (approximated, I should say) only in increments of ghastly drudgery.”
Uncentering the Earth provides 20 helpful diagrams to illustrate the various concepts of celestial mechanics and projections of the celestial sphere imagined by Ptolemy, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler, as well as our present day perspective.
William Vollman has compressed the “ghastly drudgery” of 25 centuries of astronomy into an illuminating book that is, indeed, an excellent “work for another’s love of wisdom and truth.”
(Review posted on Amazon.com, November 2014)