The Intersection

Man, Copernicus has been kicking my butt. All the star tables, geometry, etc were turning me in to a pumpkin. So I pulled down a secondary source–Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution–and night became day. I honestly think one of the reasons that Kuhn’s later and more famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, had such a dramatic impact is that the author wrote and expounded so clearly.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Copernicus, but Kuhn’s book (so far) helpfully explains the relationship between the highly technical and the broad and general in the Copernican Revolution. As he puts it:

The Copernican Revolution was a revolution in ideas, a transformation in man’s conception of the universe and of his own relation to it. Again and again this episode in the history of Renaissance thought has been proclaimed an epochal turning point in the intellectual development of Western man. Yet the Revolution turned upon the most obscure and recondite minutia of astronomical research. How can it have such significance?


It’s the “obscure and recondite” in Copernicus that has been bringing me down. But Kuhn gives me a paradigm through which to think about it–he explains in detail the nature of the “two sphere” model of the universe of pre-Copernican times, and by the end I myself had temporarily ceased to be a heliocentrist, for so powerful and sweeping is the prior worldview once you get inside it. It works pretty darn well. It predicts the solar and star movements and seasons, and is in many ways more aligned with common sense.

I’m still waiting on Kuhn’s precise explanation of how the “obscure and recondite” in Copernicus brings it all toppling down–but I know it involves the planets. Anyway, it’s a little disappointing to need a secondary source to grasp the original, but I’m not proud. More soon…


  1. #1 Ashutosh
    February 19, 2009

    “I myself had temporarily ceased to be a heliocentrist, for so powerful and sweeping is the prior worldview once you get inside it”

    Hence religion and creationism. They are powerful and sweeping too and for many people the very symbol of logic. The difference is that we have actually evolved away from geocentrism whereas…

  2. #2 MPH
    February 19, 2009

    Give Kepler some love – everyone always talks about Copernicus and Galileo, but skips poor Kepler. I know it’s the “Copernican revolution” but Copernicus still had circular orbits, and epicycles, and didn’t make predictions much better than Ptomely. So, at some point give Kepler a post. Elliptical orbits, FTW.

  3. #3 Peter Lund
    February 19, 2009

    Or Brahe. Kepler would have gotten nowhere without Brahe’s measurements. Think of him and Uranienborg/Stjerneborg as a one-man Big Science Project.

    Physics need data to distinguish between theories 🙂

  4. #4 Oliver
    February 20, 2009

    Don’t feel bad about the secondary source. Yes, good historians always want to go for teh primaries: but it’s obviously not easy to get into a 500 century old mindset and read them. For original research that effort is clearly necessary, though not always reqarding, but for learning it seems to me that secondary sources are an aid not to be sniffed at.

  5. #5 Oliver
    February 20, 2009

    Or even just five centuries (at 500 centuries the primary record tends to be very poor)

  6. #6 Sean McCorkle
    February 21, 2009

    It seems whenever I try to solve a difficult math or programming problem, I always blunder through a very complicated route at first. Then later, I’ll find a simpler solution. Sometimes there’s several iterations of that process. I always assumed this is the human condition, which is reflected in our history.

    I used to think that the vector formulation of Maxwell’s equations that I learned as an undergraduate was complex, until I saw that in his treatise didn’t use vector calculus at all, instead writing in triplets of three cartesian coordinates!

    And just to add to the precession of Copernicus, Gallileo, Brahe and Kepler: we should remember that Newton destroyed the separation of the Heavens from the Earth: the same physics that holds the Moon and the planets in their orbits is the same physics that we experience on the ground. How critical that was! Since then, we don’t bat an eyelash at claiming that the same chemistry and laws of physics that apply here in our labs also applies in galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away.

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