The Intersection

And So it Begins: De Revolutionibus!

i-d5b516b3efa7192df1e25be6a1f51b2a-Copernicus Hawking.jpg

Sane people right now are celebrating Valentine’s Day.

I am holed up trying to read Nicholas Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium). Having been an official student of the history of science for two weeks now, and not feeling particularly satisfied with my progress, I’ve decided it is far past time for me to cast aside Ptolemaic and Aristotelian things, and enter the modern world.

I’ll have plenty more to say about the experience of reading Copernicus once I’ve gotten somewhere. And after Copernicus, it’s Galileo. But for now, here’s an invitation: Anyone care to read along? The image links to the version I’m working from, a paperback with an introduction by Stephen Hawking.

If you ever wanted to experience how radically strange–and yet strangely modern–the granddaddy of the scientific revolution’s great work is, now’s the time!


  1. #1 Paul Schofield
    February 15, 2009

    I’d say get the On the Shoulders of Giants original collection rather than the single text. You can get it used (it’s older than the singletons) for about the same as any one of the texts inside, and it has more extensive commentary from what I can see.

    It includes Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Einstein. My only problem with it is I keep going back to Galileo because he writes so well compared to most of the other texts.

  2. #2 Robert Grumbine
    February 15, 2009

    I’ll see about starting it tonight. Given my reading schedule, you’ll probably finish before me. Still, I have the same copy on hand.

    For Galileo, are you reading Starry Messenger, or Two New Sciences? I’ve read the latter already. The former is on my to-read bookcase.

    Paul: The Einstein I’ve read has been pretty good. Easier to read than Galileo. But Galileo is definitely easier than what I’ve seen of the rest of your list. Different vein, he’s also the first (historically) that I think can be read by a modern without too much difficulty. Not as a matter of writing style, but from how he assembles his arguments.

  3. #3 Chris C. Mooney
    February 15, 2009

    I have bought Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), Two New Sciences, and also Two Chief World Systems. And the Cambridge Companion to Galileo! It was hard to choose. But I guess I’ll start with Starry Messenger for certain, and go for there.

    Just finished Book I of Copernicus. But I skipped a lot of the geometry.

  4. #4 Romeo Vitelli
    February 15, 2009

    I’ve been down on Galileo ever since the Vatican acknowledged that he was right. Since I’m obliged to reject everything the Pope says, that has to include heliocentrism.

  5. #5 --bill
    February 16, 2009

    You might want to pick up Owen Gingerich’s `The Book Nobody Read’. Gingerich is a Copernicus expert, and he tells of his attempts to read all the first editions of De Revolutionibus still extant, and to use the marginalia written by the owners to reconstruct the trajectory of the acceptance of Copernicus’ arguments.

  6. #6 Chris C. Mooney
    February 16, 2009

    I already ordered Gingerich!

  7. #7 Paul Schofield
    February 16, 2009

    Robert: Sorry this is delayed. Einstein is fine but the papers included in the Hawking collection were tough when I hacked through them back in my first year of university. It was less the maths and more the already accepted conventions and terminology that put up something of a barrier. And partly the maths as well, but that came later.

    Galileo’s New Sciences was easily popular level for all the maths you needed going in, and entertainingly written. I have read modern popular books that are less fun and harder to follow. Heck, many of them are worse than most textbooks.

  8. #8 Chris C. Mooney
    February 16, 2009
  9. #9 Robert Grumbine
    February 17, 2009

    Paul: Hmm. I think you’re doing some apples and oranges here, though I confess it’s difficult to avoid.

    For Einstein, though, take a look at his popular-oriented writings — _Relativity_, or _Evolution of Physics_ (latter with Infeld). I’d say as readable as most, and better than many.

    The more general part, and difficulty, is what standards and presumptions you bring to your reading of historical documents. Einstein has more math, and more advanced math, than Galileo did, when writing (when they both were) towards professionals. This is a given. He was writing 300 years later, after the invention of analytic geometry, calculus, and differential geometry (to name some fields he used). He was also writing after more than 200 years of physics having become increasingly mathematized.

    If you read Einstein after being familiar with the mathematics, and after being familiar with what scientific papers of his day looked like, I think you’ll be surprised at how little mathematics he uses. At least I was, in reading “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, and his general relativity paper as collected in a Dover edition of original papers on relativity.

    Galileo was writing in quite a different time, and towards quite different problems. He couldn’t have included as much math as Einstein because it didn’t exist. He also didn’t need even equations to state his relativity principle entirely accurately.

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