Tag: Nicolaus Copernicus

Weekly Roundup: On Copernicus and Historical Expertise

This week’s roundup of posts and articles focuses on Copernicus and historical expertise.[1]

Copernicus, the father of the Gold Standard:
While Newton appears frequently in banking and management articles, Copernicus hasn’t enjoyed his day in the financial limelight, until lately. Coperncius is making the rounds lately in the financial papers and blogs, mainly amongst those arguing for a return to a gold standard. Last month Jonathan Decker kicked things off with a post at Forbes, “Nicolas Copernicus Was More Than A Scientific Icon.” Then Ralph Benko followed up with a comparison between Keynes and Copernicus, “Keynes and Copernicus: The Debasement of Money Overthrows The Social Order and Government.” Last week, Nathan Lewis wrote a post for Forbes, “42 Year Into Our Funny Money Experiment…,” which was reposted. All three versions of Copernicus’s treatise on money are available online: Copernicus’s Writings about Money.

Copernicus, a proponent of Intelligent Design:
An Intelligent Design site caught the Copernicus bug in “Copernicus: How much of what you know …,” apparently prompted by a Scientific American post, “The Case against Copernicus” (cf. Michael Shermer and another ID site).

Copernicus, the first string theorist:[2]
What does Copernicus have to say about String Theory uses a realist Copernicus against an instrumentalist Ptolemy—Copernicus explained retrograde motion whereas Ptolemy did not—to justify treating string theory as a science as opposed to mere mathematics.

These uses and abuses of Copernicus for the present (to paraphrase Nietzsche) are just the latest examples of the somebody invoking the authority of the past in a current argument. History seems particularly susceptible to the incursions by non-historians (a fate it seems to share with writing).

Historiann pointed out the interview with Eric Foner at The Atlantic: “You Have to Know History to Actually Teach It.” In her post, Effective history teaching: passion and deep knowledge (and stay classy!), Historiann draws attention to the common denial of historical expertise. She quotes Foner and adds:

You have to know something about science and math to teach them effectively, and that professional training is recognized not just as a nice thing for teachers to have but as a necessity by the principals, superintendents, and school boards who staff our secondary schools. History expertise? Not so much.

Recently, Suzannah Lipscomb has argued for the value of the historian’s expertise particularly in policy debates, an expertise that comes from the specific and rigorous training that historians receive: Practice Makes Perfect. I have worried about the erosion (or more often the denial) of historical expertise a number of times.


  1. Each Monday morning I will post a short note of links to recent articles and posts that I found interesting with some brief commentary.  ↩

  2. Okay, not really but the post’s title seems to imply it.  ↩

Johannes Schöner—Neither Medieval nor Modern

Johannes Schöner will never be a household name, but it’s nice to see him get some attention in John Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox.

John Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox
John Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox

Schöner attracted Hessler’s attention less for his own work than his compliations of material, which included the now famous 1507 Waldseemüller map of the world. Hessler seems to have combed through Schöner’s various Sammelbänden to reconstruct how Schöner put together his intellectual world, from how he read maps and learned to build globes to how he studied the stars. An excerpt from Hessler’s book concludes:

More generally, however, by looking closely at what Schöner thought important enough to preserve in these collections of mathematical, geographical, astrological, and astronomical information, and how he might have utilized it in his work, we will gain deep insights into the epistemological revolutions that occurred at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth. The years between the amazing discoveries of Columbus and Copernicus saw the beginnings of the birth of modern scientific thought and in the chapters that follow we will see Schöner fully engaged in the intellectual transitions from the science of Aristotle and the geography of Ptolemy, to that of Copernicus and Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521). The dates of the materials that Schöner compiled are mostly from 1475 to 1540 and represent a cross-section of central scientific materials from pre-Copernican science. Each of these books and manuscripts is interesting in its own right but taken together they provide a case study for the use and transmission of scientific information in the Renaissance through the eyes of a contemporary consumer of these materials. Schöner’s toolboxes are nothing short of encyclopedic and his use of them helps us understand in a unique way how our modern scientific worldview came into being.

John Wilford reviews A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox in Why is America Called America?. Wilford finds the book generally lucid and facinating, except those pesky parts of the technical chapters that “appear to be written more for the author’s academic peers than for many laypeople.”

In the excerpt and more markedly in the review Schöner becomes an important transitional figure in the development of modern science. Both associate him with modern geography—an understandable point considering this book began in the Waldseemüller map of the New World— and link him to Copernicus and Copernicanism. The reviewer seems to overstate things when he says:

Nothing in the book points up more clearly Schöner’s pivotal place in a world in transition from the medieval to the modern than his residual interest in astrology and his awakening curiosity when he apparently heard reports of a new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric.

Schöner’s interest in that “new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric” probably owed more to his interest in astrology and making astrological prognostications than the modernity we see in Copernicus’s theory. Along with his prognostications and calendars, Schöner also wrote books on astrology before and after Copernicus’s De revolutionibus was published, notably his Opusculum Astrologicum in 1539 and De iudiciis nativitatum Libri Tres in 1545. Schöner might also have been the author of a horoscope cast for Copernicus. Judging from the table of contents, Hessler spends some time assessing Schöner’s astrology.

Copernicus’s horoscope attributed to Schöner (photo of BSB Cod. lat. Monac. 27003 from R. Westman, The Copernican Question, p. 116).
Copernicus’s horoscope attributed to Schöner (photo of BSB Cod. lat. Monac. 27003 from R. Westman, The Copernican Question, p. 116).

Schöner’s interest in astrology shouldn’t diminish our interest in him, but it should, perhaps, prompt us to wonder about the labels “modern” and “medieval” and the work they do for us (on the force of the medieval label, again see Elly Truit’s posts).

Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox looks like it will be interesting and a nice complement to Monika Maruska’s dissertation, “Johannes Schöner — ‘Homo est nescio qualis’.”

It’s About Domains of Expertise

Some great suggestions on Cleaning Up Science but some questionable history of science:

In the long run, science is self-correcting. Ptolemy’s epicycles were replaced by Copernicus’s heliocentric system.

Well, not really.

Copernicus replaced the equant and freely used eccentrics and epicycles for purposes of calculation.

See Robert Westman, The Copernican Question (2011), 215. (Or, see the entry for Nicolaus Copernicus at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Just as a particular expertise is required to make valid scientific claims, so too there is an expertise required to make valid claims about the history of science. Expertise is not fungible.