The Intersection

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[Copernicus: Yet Another Pluto Hater?!?]

In my last post, I talked about the “radically strange” in Copernicus; today, let’s go on to catalogue the “strangely modern” aspects of the work:

Strangely modern: The idea that the heavens are immense compared to the puny little Earth. Copernicus put it this way:

I also say that the sun remains forever immobile and that whatever apparent movement belongs to it can be verified of the mobility of the Earth; that the magnitude of the world is such that, although the distance from the sun to the Earth in relation to whatsoever planetary sphere you please possesses magnitude which is sufficiently manifest in proportion to these dimensions, this distance, as compared with the sphere of the fixed stars, is imperceptible.

Speaking of “modern,” I’d argue that pretty much the same message comes across in Monty Python’s “Universe Song,” from The Meaning of Life:


Let’s continue with Copernicus:

Strangely modern: The idea that we have to open our eyes to the reality that’s been around us for a long time, just waiting to be stumbled upon:

For if the annual revolution were changed from being solar to being terrestrial, and immobility were granted to the sun, the risings and settings of the signs and of the fixed stars–whereby they become morning or evening stars–will appear in the same way; and it will be seen that the stoppings, retrogressions, and progressions of the wandering stars are not their own, but are a movement of the Earth and that they borrow the appearance of this movement. Lastly, the sun will be regarded as occupying the centre of the world. And the ratio of order in which these bodies succeed one another and the harmony of the whole world teaches us their truth, if only–as they say–we would look at things with both eyes.

Strangely modern: The acceptance that despite this “revolution,” it’s totally okay to go on with our nonsensical everyday language, because it’s just words, like “God bless you!” when someone sneezes:

…no one should be surprised if we still speak of the rising and setting of the sun and stars, et cetera; but he should realize that we are speaking in the usual manner of speech which can be recognized by all and that we are nevertheless always keeping in mind that: “To us who are being carried by the Earth, the sun and the moon seem to pass over; and the stars return to their former positions and again move away.”

Strangely modern: Pretty much all of Copernicus’s preface and dedication to Pope Paul III. In many ways, this is where the book’s most memorable stuff can be found. It’s here, for instance, that he shows some of his greatest cheekiness vis-à-vis the “ancients”–especially Ptolemy and Aristotle. Copernicus says he “began to be annoyed that the philosophers, who in other respects had made a very careful scrutiny of the details of the world, had discovered no sure scheme for the movements of the machinery of the world, which had been built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of All.” Nearby Copernicus uses an incredible metaphor to describe the Ptolemaic astronomical system:

…even if those who have thought up eccentric circles seem to have been able for the most part to compute the apparent movements numerically by those means, they have in the meanwhile admitted a great deal which seems to contradict the first principles of regularity of movement. Moreover, they have not been able to discover or to infer the chief point of all, i.e., the form of the world and the certain commensurability of its parts. But they are in exactly the same fix as someone taking from different places hands, feet, head, and the other limbs–shaped very beautifully but not with reference to one body and without correspondence to one another–so that such parts made up a monster rather than a man.

Ouch. Elsewhere in the body of the text Copernicus shows much more respect for Ptolemy, but here he’s just teeing off. It’s a bit striking, in that History 293 has trained me to think that especially at the beginning of the “scientific revolution,” these guys were totally dependent on classical models and only beginning to grasp how they went astray–that they saw the world itself through classical eyes much of the time. Yet Copernicus seems in his preface and dedication almost to be saying, “to hell with those primitives.” Later in the text he’s more deferential.

More thoughts when I have them…hope to finish reading Copernicus in the next few days, and then it’s on to Galileo, the Starry Messenger….


  1. #1 Daniel Fischer
    February 17, 2009

    Blogging centuries old astronomical breakthrough books is all the rage these days: here an Australian is reading the Siderius Nuncius and here a German is blogging the Astronomia Nova. Both have just covered the books’ introductions so far.

  2. #2 Lilian Nattel
    February 17, 2009

    Interesting post. I’m glad to be re-acquainted with Copernicus in more detail & great video. Really hit the mark.

  3. #3 Jon Winsor
    February 17, 2009

    Well done with the Python reference…

  4. #4 llewelly
    February 17, 2009

    [Copernicus: Yet Another Pluto Hater?!?]

    He hated Neptune and Uranus too. Claims to have been unable to find them.

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