In my last post I remarked on how “radically strange–and yet strangely modern” I expected the 1543 work that kicked off the “scientific revolution” to be. Now that I’ve read the first two books of De Revolutionibus, I can say, boy was I right.
This is the first of several posts about my experience of reading Nicholaus Copernicus in the original (er, translation). So first, let me point out the things I found “radically strange” about the work, with the “strangely modern” to come in the next post:
Radically strange: Instructions for how to build an astrolabe. Vast tables of star locations, and huge tracts of astronomy/geometry that I didn’t understand. I had never done this stuff before; I don’t know how much some people get in high school, but I sure didn’t get any. Eventually I Googled “obliquity of the ecliptic,” and then everything became a lot more clear.
Radically strange: The idea that circles are more perfect, more Godly, and more simple than “eccentric circles and epicycles”; so Copernicus’s way of doing things must be right. God himself justifies this incursion, this attempt to unseat the ancients. Copernicus isn’t throwing off tradition; he’s bringing it back where it went astray. As he puts it: “In the center of all rests the sun. For who would place this lamp of a very beautiful temple in another or better place than this wherefrom it can illuminate everything at the same time?” And again: “All these things proceed from the same cause, which resides in the movement of the Earth…How exceedingly fine is the godlike work of the Best and Greatest Artist!”
Radically strange: This book has no ending; no grand conclusion–no kicker. It delivers its big punch in Book I, and then essentially, all the rest is a technical treatise applying the idea that the Earth moves to recalculating a ton of astronomical stuff. At the close, there is no farewell, no thank you very much, no, “I rock.” It just stops.
Here are some questions I have:
1. The book gets really impenetrable at points. I wonder how many contemporaries could actually read and fully understand it.
2. And when it comes to all the technical stuff about how the planets rotate, the precise degree of the obliquity of the ecliptic and so on, I can find much easier explanations–and probably more accurate figures in some cases–just by Googling. So what is the added value of reading the original text? (Devil’s advocate question.)
Some other observations: There are strong echoes of Darwin here. You might say that The Origin of Species was to natural history what De Revolutionibus was to astronomy; so it is interesting to note that Copernicus, too, waited decades to publish, working and working, strengthening his theory, fretful of upsetting everybody’s worldview. Like Darwin, Copernicus relates that “the scorn which I had to fear on account of the newness and absurdity of my opinion almost drove me to abandon a work already taken.” So this work was kept hidden “not merely for nine years, but for almost four times nine years.”
Another observation in this first blog post on Copernicus: As reading him raises a host of new questions, it has also made me order more books–namely, Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution and Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicholaus Copernicus. Both sound intriguing. I’m waiting for their arrival. Meanwhile, back to the star charts….
P.S. Best phrase from Copernicus so far: “Dare to imagine some movement of the Earth.”