The Intersection

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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.”

Comments

  1. #1 Jon Winsor
    February 16, 2009

    This is a book by a novelist, William Vollman, who I once saw read back when I was an undergraduate:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/product-description/0393059693/

    Vollman mostly does literary fiction. The material I saw him read was somewhat modernist, with all sorts of allusions to scholastic philosophy. I haven’t read his book on Copernicus, but it sounds like an interesting perspective and probably entertaining…

  2. #2 Jon Winsor
    February 16, 2009

    Again, I haven’t read this book. From the comments on Amazon, looks like some people didn’t like his writing style. This kind of book from a somewhat eccentric writer like Vollman might not be for everybody…

  3. #3 Jon Winsor
    February 16, 2009

    Yup, looks like some of the stuff he’s been publishing since I was an undergraduate is pretty eccentric. (I haven’t been paying attention to him that much since then. I just heard him interviewed in a radio show about his book several months back.)

  4. #4 simea mirans
    February 16, 2009

    Regarding your first question: remember that astronomy was one of the seven liberal arts (specifically part of the quadrivium, the mathematical arts), so people like you (and me) who had a good education but had never been taught any astronomy would have been rarer in Copernicus’ Europe.

  5. #5 Ashutosh
    February 16, 2009

    “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”

    Both usurped human beings from their exalted place in the universe. Amen.

  6. #6 James Repka
    February 16, 2009

    Other Copernicus/Darwin similarities:

    -both presented new models that moved humanity away from the center of creation.

    -both ideas were so simple and elegant that they drew immediate adherents from within the scientific community.

    -almost a century after the publication of De Revolutionibus, Galileo was being punished by the Inquisition for advocating its central ideas.

    -150 years after publication of Origin of Species, teachers still have school boards, pastors and politicians trying to dictate their science curriculum (though house arrest, torture and burning at the stake have thankfully become rare).

    -Darwin had a secretary named Copernicus and Copernicus had a secretary named Darwin who… oh wait, nevermind!

  7. #7 llewelly
    February 16, 2009

    1. The book gets really impenetrable at points. I wonder how many contemporaries could actually read and fully understand it.

    That’s answered in Owen Gingerich’s marvelous The Book Nobody Read , in which he summarizes the fascinating history of the copies of De Revolutionibus , who owned them, the sorts of annotations (sometimes very extensive) their owners made in them, and what they wrote about them. Good thing you’ve already ordered it – I was going to recommend it when I read your last post, but I got distracted. It’s a highly enjoyable book; I read it in a single sitting, and a few months later I read it again, also in a single sitting. It has a census of all the known 1st and 2nd edition copies of De Revolutionibus. (If Gingerich is still alive, perhaps you should interview him for your book.)

    As Gingerich shows, in many cases historians can be sure that an owner understood De Revolutionibus because of the content of the annotations they made in their copy (for example, Kepler). In other cases (such as Galileo) historians can show the person had a copy, but put few annotations in it, and never demonstrated the mathematical facility necessary to understand it in depth. (Not that Galileo was a slouch at maths, but De Revolutionibus requires a great deal of intense geometry and algebra.)

  8. #8 Robert Grumbine
    February 17, 2009

    I’ve made it through books 1 and 2 also. But first a digression to some of the comments. It also illustrates a difficult part of doing historical reading. A friend who is a medievalist (sometimes, sometimes a quantum chemist) has pointed out that at the time Copernicus was writing, the center of the universe (world in Copernicus’ use) was not an exalted place. Translated to modern, it’s more in the vein of the center is where the crap falls down to. Heaven, and at least the heavens, was the exalted locale. Here was the center of corruption, sin, and such. The center of the world being exalted is a later construction than Copernicus’ day.

    For the educated reader of his day, Copernicus’ math is pretty straightforward. If nothing else, notice how often he is citing Euclid’s Elements (and get yourself a copy :-) Little of it — as geometry — is fundamentally new to his readers. He’s not inventing new mathematics, rather detailing a few special cases of use in his situation. Modern readers are unaccustomed to using Euclidean geometry, which also makes Galileo and Newton a challenge to read when they get down to brass tacks, but that’s us, not Copernicus or his readers.

    If you open up a modern book on celestial navigation (well, I guess semi-modern as really modern does GPS instead), you’ll see many of the same spherical triangles and mathematics. (I have my grandfather’s book on the topic.)

    Something I remind myself of in looking at medieval math and science: measurement was not a reliable commonplace. If you wanted to make a rigorous statement, it had to be geometric. Rulers were not very reliable, and such. In that vein, Copernicus is devoting a surprising amount of time to measurements. The device he describes is more commonly today called an armillary sphere (one or another variation on one) rather than astrolabe. Devices in that family were central to Tycho’s later works.

    With rulers (etc.) not being a prime tool for drawing reliable conclusions, and geometry being your tool instead, you’re somewhat pushed to some of what Copernicus is doing. Theorems about straight lines, triangles (plane and spherical), circles and spheres are readily at hand from Euclid. We now understand that ellipses are a better representation than circles. (We also know that the ellipses of planetary orbits are pretty darn close to perfect circles.)

    But take on the job of writing a treatise in Copernicus’ day. Start picking up his proofs and try to translate them to situations of ellipses rather than circles, or ellipsoids instead of spheres. I’m not enough of a Euclidean for this to be reliable, but in most cases, it looks to me like the theorem will fail and the ellipse(-oidal) version would not permit one to draw useful conclusions about the locations of the planets or stars irrespective of whether you put the sun or earth at the center.

    His book on the obliquity of the earth changing, and of the procession of the equinoxes, looks more significant to me than you seem to be taking. It’s an implicit argument. That is, if the earth is the immobile center of the world, then the obliquity changing means that the entire heavens are moving. Likewise, the precession of the equinoxes would require that the infinite heavens move. Both are absurd (he does note) and are readily explained by a mobile earth. Not set up in the ‘here’s a hypothesis, our test, and therefore we reject …’ form we’d do today. But closer than we have reason to expect from 1543.

    The precession and obliquity also provide him the opportunity to move people towards more measurement (and trusting measurement more). This is the significance I take from both the star table and the instructions for the armillary sphere. Precession and variations of obliquity are measurements one can make about something central to his idea. Better yet, it can be done in comparison to the ancients — Hipparchos and Ptolemy included. The latter’s table of locations in the Almagest can be compared with the table of locations he gives. Or you can make the measurements yourself with the armillary sphere he describes.

    The table of stars is also interesting to me for a different reason. Namely, though he clearly knows about Arabic astronomy (source of many of the modern star names), he gives surprisingly few names for the stars in his table. Richard Hinckley Allen’s Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning is a good reference on names, their histories, etc. (I happen to have finished it relatively recently.) Bit of a puzzle why Copernicus didn’t use the names that he had to have known (as any astronomer would have) and which were in use in Europe certainly no later than 100 years later.

  9. #9 Chris C. Mooney
    February 17, 2009

    Folks,
    These comments are amazing. I want to react to them after it sinks in more. Thank you!

  10. #10 Wes
    February 17, 2009

    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.

    The notion that circles and circular motion are perfect goes all the way back to Aristotle, at least. Ptolemy also relied on circles, for the same reason. And Galileo never got away from circular motion, either. Kepler was the first (as far as I know) to make a serious challenge to the idea that all heavenly motions are circular.

    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.

    Recall that it is only much later in history that what Copernicus is doing could be called a “revolution”. I actually suspect that the philosophers’ talk of scientific “revolutions” is an instance of what Steven J. Gould calls “retrospective coronation”. Often science moves more gradually, through a halting, stop-and-start, groping process, and what may later turn out to be a truly revolutionary idea might not be seen as such when it was first proposed (think Mendel’s discovery of genes). John Wilkins knows quite a bit about this, as I recall. You might want to ask him to weigh in.

    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.)

    Well, it’s easier to look it up in modern sources because of all the very difficult work that came before. Problems which seem very simple today (after they’ve been solved) were much more challenging in the past (before they were solved) because the resolution wasn’t as clear. I seem to recall some commentators from the 18th century remarking on the fact that problems which stymied even the greatest minds of ancient Greece are taught to grade school children in 18th Century Europe. And, of course, problems which seemed intractable to 18th century thinkers (such as the origin of species), are taught in middle school today.

    But seeing how people originally tried to tackle the problem–and the confusions they encountered–can be very enlightening. It reminds us not to take knowledge for granted. The process of gaining a scientific understanding is very difficult, and that difficulty can be hard to see after the fact. The Earth going around the Sun seems commonplace to us today, but only because we’re so accustomed to that idea, and because all the really hard work was done long, long, long ago. Few of us are aware of how much time and effort goes into finding scientific explanations. (Not to mention the fact that pop culture sci-fi often use science as a sort of deus ex machina–where amazing discoveries are pulled from lone scientists’ asses in a matter of hours, just in time to save the day and defeat the bad guy.)

  11. #11 Chris C. Mooney
    February 18, 2009

    Thanks again for all the comments. I’ve been slammed–we still haven’t put Unscientific America entirely to bed yet–but now that I’ve gotten to read through them carefully, I’m just amazed. It’s like we have a small seminar going on here. I and others have been skeptical about the level of discourse that happens on blogs–but really, it’s what you make of it. And we have some very well read readers here, not to mention people who know a ton more than I do about geometry/astronomy.

    To be a real historian of science, you have to truly understand the scientific issues people were dealing with at the time. I faced this in Storm World–I had to read a lot of meteorology textbooks. D. Graham Burnett, in our class here at Princeton, has a clear mastery of the scientific problems involved in finding out how to measure longitude, or determining whether or not the earth is squat (rather than a perfect sphere). I’m a bit in awe of it, but it shows that I have my work cut out for me. You folks are an immense help.

  12. #12 bob koepp
    February 18, 2009

    As Robert Grumbine notes, the earth wasn’t considered “exalted” even though it was thought to be at the center of the universe. Of course, some people thought that being at the center of everything was still significant, even if it was the “sphere of corruption”. Galileo later turned this on its head, arguing that removing the earth from the center of the universe allowed us to see that it was actually a “heavenly body”. Quite the rhetorician, that guy.

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