Copernicus Flips the Earth

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, November 2014)


The Customer Survey

I was wrong. I admit it. Here I’ve been thinking all this time that the corporations – the big ones that run the retail chains and discount outlets where I take my custom for groceries, sundries, apparel, and sometimes even a telephone, a computer, or a car – were just heartless, even swinish, multi-national leviathans, bottom liners whose executives only answer to their stockholders, their boards of directors, and the litigants who file the liability lawsuits. I thought our relationship was entirely feudal: they are the ruling class, the lords that own the castles, the land, and the tillage with the protective support of the State, and the benevolent blessings of the Church, and I am the helpless serf who plows their fields, dependent on the meager portion of the harvest they let me keep for myself. I thought they didn’t care about small fry like me.

But I was wrong. It seems that they really do care about me personally. They want to know what I think and how I feel and where I live and how to send me information about the marvelous things I can buy from them. Why else would they always ask me to fill out a Customer Survey?

At first, I was only annoyed. How could Lindaniel, the clerk in the orange and purple smock at the discount department store, insist that my participation in the survey was crucial to his next salary bump? When Kutricia rang up my purchases at the supermarket, why did she always draw a circle with a pink Magic Marker on my receipt and beseech me to complete an online form the moment I have packed away the fat free pretzels and instant porridge into my pantry?

How callous I have been! It was never the fault of the people who swipe my credit card that they must implore me to spend 20 minutes on a survey every time I shop for anything. I was just being selfish. I was irked because I thought I was done with homework when I dropped out of school.

I feel better about the surveys now. It’s gratifying that my opinion matters. I’m flattered. In fact, I want to help.

Here is my suggestion: make the survey questions more interesting.

I accept that there are excellent reasons why the surveyors want to canvass my shopping choices with queries about which creams are most efficient in masking my unsightly blemishes, what cleansers I prefer to banish the coffee stains I’ve dripped on my sofa, which remedies I reach for when my bowels disagree with me about my dinner selections, or which lubricants I like to have on hand when I look at naughty pictures on the internet. But, to be truthful about it, these questions are boring the first time they are posed, never mind the nine hundredth time.

I believe I would rush home and remember to charge my laptop if I were asked to weigh in on questions like these:

“If you met an extraterrestrial in the shoe department at Target, what question would you like to ask?”

A. Which actress do you think is hottest?

B. Do you get to ride in the Popemobile?

C. Do you think these moccasins make me look fat?

“If you purchased a table light at Lamps Plus and a genie popped out when you rubbed it, what would you wish for?”

A. That McDonald’s would serve breakfast all day?

B. A lower rate on your auto insurance?

C. A hotter genie?

“If you met the hottest actress while browsing in Bed, Bath, and Beyond, would you ask her…”

A. To buy you a new waffle iron?

B. To recommend a good wetness shield for your mattress?

C. Does this bath towel make me look fat?

“Which of these products would you like to see on the shelves of your local Kroger Market?”

A. Reusable tissues that are good for sneezes, floors, and kitchen counters?

B. A diet pill that reduces fat and builds muscle without exercise or unpleasant side effects?

C. A microwavable soup that would let you see five minutes into the future?

“When you visit Home Depot, what are you most likely to do?”

A. Shop for a bathroom medicine cabinet that refills itself?

B. Admire the area rugs and be amazed at how long it takes to have one delivered?

C. Find a toilet wand that you could wave at barking dogs and egotistical bloggers to make them shut up?

See what I’m saying? Just jolly up the surveys for me and I will cheerfully surrender my time, energy, and the fractional increment in my electric bill to oblige. It’s not as if I have anything better to do. While I’m in between surveys, I think I’ll run over to the discount department store and follow Lindaniel around for a while to see whether he really deserves that raise.