Tag: Nicolaus Copernicus

The Copernican Revolutionary

Thomas Kuhn, writing under a pretty lame nom de plume, tried his hand at historical pulp fiction. The story of a Revolutionary War-era woman who refused to live by society’s patriarchal norms.

Another book I wish had been written, though I doubt Thomas Kuhn could have written it.

Ok, there’s no way Thomas Kuhn could have written such a book. But it’s fun to pretend.

Science won’t prevail unless …

Science Will Prevail,” Anzar Abbas reassures readers in his recent op-ed. Although the Trump administration “wants to ignore facts and instead believe whatever makes it feel most comfortable,” he is confident that “no matter what an ignorant administration may throw at science and reason, it will prevail. It always has.” To make his case, Abbas surveys key episodes when “ignorance of science and reason” impeded science but ultimately lost out to reason, evidence, and scientific facts. Unfortunately, Abbas ignores facts and believes what makes him feel most comfortable, inviting the same criticism he levels at the Trump administration.[1]

At the heart of Abbas’s op-ed is a story about Copernicus fearing persecution by the Church for his heliocentric theory:

Copernicus knew the Church would not tolerate his work. He knew that he lived in a Europe that would never believe the Earth belonged anywhere but the center of the universe. He knew the persecution he would face if he ever tried to remove Earth from where the Church believed it to be.

We don’t talk as much about the ignorance of the Church anymore, though there was plenty. We don’t talk as much about the resistance that Copernicus faced.

Screenshot of Abbas’s op-ed.
Abbas hits all the major points in his version of Copernicus vs. the Church.

Scientists and science boosters believe this old chestnut because, well, it makes them feel comfortable.[2] But to believe and to traffic in this story requires that you ignore facts.

There is no evidence that Copernicus worried that the Church would condemn him and his work. There is, however, Copernicus’s dedication in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium to no less a Church figure than the Pope, Pope Paul III. Copernicus credits other members of the Church for having urged him to publish his work: Nicholas Schönberg, the Cardinal of Capua, and Tiedemann Giese, the Bishop of Chelmno.

Copernicus’s letter of dedication to Pope Paul III.
Copernicus’s dedication to Pope Paul III. Digital copies of the text are widely available, this particular copy is from the Library of Congress, Nicolai Copernici Torinensis De revolvtionibvs orbium coelestium, libri VI (1543), fol. iiv.

Copernicus did worry about resistance to his theory, as he mentions in the opening lines of his preface, but he doesn’t single out the Church. Instead, he worries about ignorant people who in referring to Scriptures will distort the sacred texts.[3] The Church found Copernicus’s so unremarkable that it didn’t take any official until 1616 when it placed De revolutionizes on the Index of Forbidden Books until it was corrected.[4]

This purported conflict between Copernicus and the Church is largely a fiction, fabricated by pro-science, anti-church polemicists in the 19th century and repeated in lightly edited form for the past 150 years. And even a quick review of historical scholarship will expose it as a fiction.[5]

Scientists’ cavalier disregard for facts, evidence, and reason outside of the sciences reflects their own “unrestrained, unreasonable and willful ignorance,” and makes it difficult to take their complaints seriously. I agree, Abbas, a 21st century scholar ignoring basic truths is appalling. Science might prevail one day, but only if scientists and their boosters stop ignoring facts.

Screenshot of Abbas’s erroneous claim that Galileo was imprisoned in the 16th century.
Galileo’s trial and sentence occurred in 1633, well into the 17th century, not in the 16th. Moreover, Galileo was never imprisoned. Although the initial sentence was imprisonment, it was promptly commuted to house arrest. Alas, Abbas displays “unreasonable and willful ignorance” of both when Galileo was tried and what his sentence was.

  1. To be clear, I am not defending the Trump administration. I am, rather, pointing out how people like Abbas undermine their own efforts by demonstrating an almost pathological disregard for facts outside the sciences and a dogmatic adherence to myths that make them feel good. We lose all moral authority if in calling out the Trump administration’s (and before that the Bush administration’s) transgressions we commit all those same sins.  ↩

  2. According to his LinkedIn account, Abbas is a PhD student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering “studying functional connectivity in the brain in the Keilholz MIND Lab.” He is also the president of Emory Scicomm, “a group of students who are passionate about communicating science to the public.” So he is both a scientist and a science booster.  ↩

  3. Andreas Osiander in writing his well known Ad lectorem might have worried about how people would react to the Copernicus’s book, but those are his own anxieties and concerns rather than Copernicus’s.  ↩

  4. Some Church astronomers presented serious and technical challenges to Copernicus’s theory. See, for example, Chris Graney’s excellent study of the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli: Setting Aside All Authority. Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo (Notre Dame Press, 2015).  ↩

  5. If going to the library and reading a very short introduction on Copernicus is too much effort, the wikipedia page has a section on the controversy, which offers a reasonable description.  ↩

Samuel J. Gummere’s Lecture on Copernicus

In 1862 Samuel J. Gummere began lecturing on astronomy at Haverford College. At that time all sophomores and juniors heard lectures based on John Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy; seniors heard lectures on “practical astronomy” based on Elias Loomis’s text (probably his Introduction to Practical Astronomy) and carried out observations in the college’s new observatory.

The college was quite proud of its new observatory, that cost nearly $7,000 to build and outfit with instruments. (See also the notice in the Haverford College Catalogue. 1862–1863, where they emphasize students using the instruments.)
The college was quite proud of its new observatory, that cost nearly $7,000 to build and outfit with instruments. (See also the notice in the Haverford College Catalogue. 1862–1863, where they emphasize students using the instruments.)

Gummere’s lecture notes survive in Haverford’s Quaker & Special Collections[1] and give a tantalizing glimpse into the nature of astronomy education in the middle of the 19th century. Through the opening two dozen or so pages of Gummere’s notes he covers the history of astronomy from ancient Greece up to the “modern era.” Although his lectures were structured largely by chronology, he detoured into astronomical instruments for at least a lecture.

Unsurprisingly, Gummere thought Copernicus had established modern astronomy. Equally unsurprising is Gummere’s dismissive comment about the Islamic astronomy, whose greatest contribution was to preserve ancient astronomy “through the long ages of darkness, and again restoring [it] to the nations of Europe.”
Unsurprisingly, Gummere thought Copernicus had established modern astronomy. Equally unsurprising is Gummere’s dismissive comment about the Islamic astronomy, whose greatest contribution was to preserve ancient astronomy “through the long ages of darkness, and again restoring [it] to the nations of Europe.”

For Gummere and, consequently, his students, modern astronomy began with Nicholas Copernicus and the publication of his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Whereas previous philosophers had speculated about a heliocentric system, their work had been mere guesses and had failed to persuade anybody. Copernicus, however, grounded his heliocentric system in new observations (according to Gummere) and better mathematics. As a result, those who could understand Copernicus’s arguments were immediately persuaded. Yet many who couldn’t understand the arguments continued to invoke commonsense experience and tradition to oppose Copernicus’s system.

Gummere was quick to point out that neither the Church nor the pope were immediately opposed to the heliocentric system.[2]

Gummere’s discussion of Copernicus sounds much like a basic introductory course and does not instill much confidence in the level of astronomy instruction at Haverford College in the 1860s. Perhaps these were merely background lectures before students confronted contemporary astronomy.[3]

Here, for your reading amusement, is Gummere’s lecture on Copernicus and the dawn of modern astronomy:

We have thus in a few sentences dispensed of many centuries of astronomical history but we have shall henceforth find ourselves embarrassed by the abundance rather than by the scarcity of materials We come now to what is considered the modern era introduced by the reformation in theoretical astronomy brought about chiefly by the researches and the labors of one whose name will always be prominently associated with the establishment of the true system of the universe.
Nicolas Copernicus was born at Thorn in Prussia in the year 1473—While engaged in the study of medicine at the University of Cracow his mind was constantly directed to mathematical subjects—He afterwards went to Italy and received last lessons in astronomy from the celebrated professor Dominic Ferra Maria after which he spent some time in teaching mathematics and in making astronomical observations at in Rome Returning to his native country he devoted himself almost exclusively to the study and the practice of astronomy His dwelling is said to have been situated on the summit of a mountain commanding an uninterrupted prospect of the heavens, and hence most favorably situated placed for his chosen pursuit—The attention of Copernicus was now strongly turned to the prevailing theory in relation to the celestial motions—The absolute immobility of the earth as the central body of the universe was at this time universally admitted—This was supported by the apparent evidence of the senses, by the supposed testimony of scripture and by the authority of such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle—In earlier ages indeed, different systems had been proposed advocated at various times but these systems were mostly based on mere random guesses, and were never seldom supported by any arguments entitled to any attention—
Among the various conjectures as to the celestial mechanism it would be a matter greatly to be wondered at if the Sun had never been selected as the centre of the planetary motions, and indeed there is evidence that many philosophers of little celebrity adopted this view—The name of Pythagoras however is generally associated with this true system of the world as the first man of uni acknowledged eminence through there is some reason to believe that it was first advocated by his immediate followers and not by himself—But the ipse dixit of Pythagora[sic] was not powerful enough to question a system seemingly so paradoxical it fell into oblivion.
Copernicus was disposed to find simplicity and harmony rather than complexity and disorder in the system of the universe, and was thus gradually led to the opinions adopted the Pythagorean doctrine that the sun is immovable in the centre of the system and that his real apparent annual motion is the result of the revolution of the earth as a planet and with the other planets around their common centre: the diurnal motion being produced by the earth’s daily rotation on its axis—
We can scarcely conceive at this day how startling such views assigning not merely a single but a two fold motion to the earth must have been to those whose belief in the earth’s its [sic] absolute immobility resting on the evidence of their senses informed by lay centuries of unquestioning acquiescence—The Prussian Astronomer however was in no haste to divulge his opinions or to gain converts—He resolved to find support for his theory in more accurate observations of the planetary movements than had yet been made—He accordingly constructed a large quadrant with movable radii with which he made an immense number of observations.
Though now fully confirmed in his belief of the correctness of his theory, Copernicus was yet reluctant to shock the prejudices of the world by publishing the work which he had been deliberately preparing to justify his conclusions—One of his friends, however, prepared the way for him by publishing anonymously an account of the new system—About the same time also the author of a work called Theorica novae Planetarum alluded to the want of a second Ptolemy to restore the degenerate science of the age and alluding to Copernicus expressed the hope that such a person would be found in Prussia—
Being thus encouraged in relation to the reception that his views were likely to meet with, Copernicus ventured to publish his own carefully prepared work, which was printed in the year 1543 when its distinguished author had all just completed his three score years and ten—The following was is the title of this celebrated book the publication of which marks an era in astronomical science—“Nicolai Copernici Toriniensii de Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium libri VI. Habes in hoc opere jam recens nato et edito, studiose lector, motus stellarum tam fixarum quam erraticarum, cum ex veteribus tum etiam ex recentibus observationibus institutus[4] et novis insuper ac admirabilibus hypothesibus ornatos[5]. Habes etiam tabulas expeditissimas ex quibus eosdem ad quodvis tempus quam facillime calculare poteris. Igiture eme, lege et fruere.
Copernicus did not live to enjoy the celebrity of his publication of to be disturbed by the opposition which it called forth. He did not even read his own work in print the first copy having been placed in his hands only a few hours before his death—It has been remarked as a singular circumstance that Copernicus the author of so great a reformation in science should have had no sympathy with the great reformer in religion but that on the other contrary the district in which he lived stood alone among the surrounding districts in its hostility to Luther and his doctrines.
The theory of Copernicus was at once embrace adopted by the greater part many of those who were able to understand the fore reasonings by which it was supported, nor did it encounter that opposition from the Church Pope which its author seems to have apprehended —thefrom the Church which had not yet taken alarm at the innovations and heresies of science—
It is no matter of wonder however that the old system should still maintain its ground for a time with persistent obstinacy—Indeed Copernicus and his supporters were not in a position to prove the truth of the new doctrine—The grounds on which alone it could then be supported were its plausibility, its simplicity, and the satisfactory explanation which it furnished of all the celestial motions—the last quality however it only shared with that system which made the earth the centre of the all the celestial motions and regarded the planets as satellites of the sun and attending him in his annual revolution about the earth[6]—It has been said that this latter system though mechanically absurd is yet astronomically correct—and even the adoption of it at this day would not require any change to be made in our tables of or our modes of calculation—The struggle, then, with those who balanced the two theories was between the simplicity of the one, and the weight of authority with the testimony of the bodily senses to the truth of the other—
Many years later Bacon who always opposed the new theory thus argued against it: “In the system of Copernicus there are many and grave difficulties: for the threefold motion with which he encumbers the earth is a serious inconvenience: and the separation of the sun from the planets with which he has so many affections in common is likewise a harsh step: and the introduction of so many immovable bodies into nature, as when he makes the sun and stars immovable, the bodies which are peculiarly lucid and radiant: and his making the moon adhere to the earth in a sort of epicycle: and some other things which he assumes are proceeding, which mark a man who thinks nothing of introducing fictions of any kind into nature provided his calculations turn out well”—
Gilbert who distinguished himself by his experiments and researches in magnetism after weighing the arguments in favor of the Copernican system comes to the conclusion that the system in partly true, that is that the earth revolves on its axis, and this revolution he connects with his magnetic hypotheses, yet he hesitates to admit the annual revolution of the earth—The prevailing uncertainty and indecision in relation to the Copernican theory and its rival is well set forth by Milton in his discourse between Adam and the Angel Raphael…


  1. For those interested, Gummere’s lectures are Call #910F.  ↩

  2. Though he suggests that the Church would before long oppose science. It will be interesting to see what he says, if anything, about Galileo and the Church.  ↩

  3. In another set of notes that treat modern phenomena, e.g., meteor showers, however, he adopts a similar historical-survey approach.  ↩

  4. He glossed it as “founded”  ↩

  5. He glossed it as “supported”  ↩

  6. Here Gummere alludes to the Tychonic system, which he seems to dislike.  ↩

More De Revolutionibus Chord Diagrams

I did some additional fiddling with the information I pulled out of Gingerich’s An Annotated Census of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus. The way I now translate the city location into a country location gives more dependable results. I then separated out the movement of the first and second editions into distinct chord diagrams. I also generated a new diagram for both editions (an updated version of the previous diagram).

Chord diagram showing how first editions of De Rev moved.
Chord diagram showing how first editions of De Rev moved.

As before, these chord diagrams are interactive: you can mouseover (or touch, if you are using a touch device) and get information about each country and each pathway between countries.

The three chord diagrams are available:

And as before, I am indebted to Steven Hall for his tutorials and code. See:

Editions of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus

In 1953 Haverford College purchased a first edition of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus for the Philips Collection. William Pyle Philips had left his collection of rare books to the library as well as an endowment to purchase additional books for the collection. Over the years, the library has added significant works to the Philips Collection. In 1953, they decided to spend $2,750 on a that first edition of De Revolutionibus:

Title page of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus
Title page of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus

This was an extraordinary purchase in various senses. The library understood this to be a special book and was willing to spend quite a lot on it. Tution that year was $675—so the library spent more than four times the tuition on a single book (imagine the library spending $190,000 on a book today!). Another way to look at it: in today’s dollars, that $2,750 would purchase a little more than $24,000 dollars worth of book.

In order to get a better sense of this book, I have been extracting information from Owen Gingerich’s An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus. Initially, I wanted to know how the annotations in this copy compare to other. Gingerich describes them as:

There are some underlinings and a few brief annotations in two old hands at the beginning of f. 10v, again at the beginning of book V, and very scattered marks in [books] II and III.

The annotations range from references to classical poetry to more technical notes. In book I an early reader added a reference to the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Marginal note about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from Book I, fol. 5r.
Marginal note about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from Book I, fol. 5r.

In book V the notes seem more focused on astronomy, jotting in the margin planetary data and making reference to the following tables of data (which also include scattered marks):

Marginal notes record planetary data, fol. 134v.
Marginal notes record planetary data, fol. 134v.

As I am working through Gingerich’s Census, I’ve started to think about other questions, such as: How many times did De Rev change hands? How much did it move around? Did copies of De Rev concentrate in certain cities? So now I’m pulling out of Gingerich’s book the following information:

  • Edition and number (just the number in the Census)
  • Number of owners (based on provenance listed in the Census)
  • Cities where owners have lived (based on provenance notes)

So far I’ve made it a little more than half way through the Census. The information is the Census is not complete so these numbers offer a qualitative picture rather than a quantitative one. That said, I think they suggest general trends. Plotting this information gives the following:

Ownership and Location patterns for 1st and 2nd editions of De Rev
Ownership and Location patterns for 1st and 2nd editions of De Rev

It seems copies of De Revolutionibus don’t move around much. More than half of the first editions and two-thirds of the second editions can only be traced to a single city.[1] A wholly unsurprising pattern of ownership, with most being owned by a just a few people.[2]

Ownership and location patterns for 1st & 2nd editions combined.
Ownership and location patterns for 1st & 2nd editions combined.

I have begun putting together a heat map showing where copies of De Revolutionibus have concentrated. Note, the cities listed are not necessarily a copy’s current location. Rather, these cities reflect the various places owners have lived when they had a copy of De Revolutionibus.[3]

Heat map of locations where copies of De Rev were owned.
Heat map of locations where copies of De Rev were owned.

You can play with this heat map on this page:
De Revolutionibus Heat Map.
You can change the gradient color (I think the blue is easier to see). Because this heat map is a Google maps overlay, you can pan and zoom as you like.

It’s too early see what this tells me about our copy of De Revolutionibus. Perhaps when I finish going through the Census I’ll be able to say something.


  1. N.B., that these numbers reflect the positive identification of a city in the provenance notes, i.e., cities where owners have lived. They do not reflect the cities copies passed through in the hands of rare book dealers or auction houses.  ↩

  2. Again N.B., these are owners who are identified in the provenance section. There are surely some owners who left no evidence of ownership and, consequently, do not appear in the provenance section. Further, Auction houses and rare book dealers are not counted as owners.  ↩

  3. Yet another N.B., these cities surely under record the places owners have lived. Moreover, these concentrations do not reflect the fact that often more than one owner lived in the same city. So, for example, two different owners in Wittenberg are not counted as a single instance in Wittenberg. This was an artifact of how I started pulling information out of the Census.  ↩