Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Nicolaus Copernicus Reorganizes (the map of) the Universe

Nicolaus Copernicus Reorganizes (the map of) the Universe

Photograph via Wikipedia

[quote]Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind.


It was, quite literally, a revolutionary idea. “The earth is not the centre of the universe,” wrote Polish astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik in his Commentariolus, or “Little Commentary.” Going on to propose a sun-centered alternative, Kopernik and his momentous idea not only changed the West, it changed the universe—or at least our concept of it.{{1}} Meanwhile, the theory’s impact on science was rivaled, if not surpassed, by its philosophical implications. No, mankind. You are not that important.

Ultimately, Kopernik’s proposal ushered a scientific revolution into the Western world. As a result, his discovery allowed our modern society to develop.

Mikolaj Kopernik—since Latinized to Nicolaus Copernicus—was born in 1473 Poland to two merchants who afforded him an education at the University of Krakow. Fluent in Latin, German, and Polish with a working knowledge of Greek and Italian, Copernicus matured in an era of renewed intellectualism. The medieval world gasped for air as the Renaissance closed in from every direction.{{2}}

Copernicus’s lifetime spanned what was perhaps the most momentous 70-year period in Western history. During his 1473 birth, the newly invented and hugely important printing press was spreading to all corners of Europe. When Copernicus was 19, a Genoese explorer named Christopher Columbus sailed the Atlantic for a recently united Spain. Two decades later, the Florentine artist Michelangelo completed the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Five years after that, in 1517, Martin Luther of Saxony posted his “Ninety-Five Theses” before starting the Protestant Reformation. Four years later, as Luther refused recantation at Worms, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was leading the first voyage to circumnavigate the planet. Copernicus, meanwhile, was only 48 and still had 22 years to go.

Throughout this historic era, the once omnipotent Roman Catholic Church was under siege by powerful monarchs, satirical writers, humanist philosophers, and Protestant reformers, Christians all.{{3}} As Copernicus bore witness to this era of immense change, he probably had no idea that his crowning achievement would hammer yet another nail into the increasingly sealed coffin of an all-powerful papacy.

That crowning achievement was his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”). He allowed its publication in 1543, the year of his death at the age of 70. Rightly fearing retribution from resistant traditionalists across Europe, he sat on the manuscript for years before, as the tale goes, seeing the first copy on his deathbed.

Those traditionalists clung to the accepted second century Ptolemaic model of the universe: it was geocentric; Earth was at the center.{{4}} The apparently misshapen, direction-changing orbits of the visible planets—caused, as we now know, by them actually orbiting something else entirely—were owed to retrograde “epicycles,” or loops in the opposite direction before continuing on their way.{{5}} In the ancient world, these seemingly indecisive drifters earned the Greek name for wanderers, planetes, giving us the term “planets” today.

[pullquote_right]He sat on the manuscript for years before seeing the first copy on his deathbed.[/pullquote_right]

The late Roman Empire and Catholic Church adopted geocentrism as its universe of choice. What better place to put God’s creation than at the center of everything? Scripture even seemed to support it.{{6}} Consequently, geocentrism, like Catholicism, effortlessly dominated Western culture.

And why not? For millennia, those who weren’t well-versed in astronomy could be forgiven for their assumption that Earth was at the universe’s center.{{7}} After all, we cannot feel the earth spin or travel through space at thousands of miles per hour. Moreover, we observe the stars revolve around us as if they’re painted on a rotating planetarium ceiling. Indeed, we still say that the sun “rises” in the east and “sets” in the west.{{8}} Frankly, from a perceptual point of view, it does feel like we stand at a fixed, immobile center of the cosmos.

But Nicolaus Copernicus observed something quite different, and he didn’t even need a telescope, which was invented over 60 years after his death, to do it. De revolutionibus’s proposal was based on years of naked-eye observation and mathematical calculation. This empiricism helped Copernicus realize that the peculiar Ptolemaic model was aesthetically inferior to a heliocentric (Greek for sun-centered) model.{{9}} A middle-aged Copernicus shared his ideas with friends in his Commentariolus, written sometime before 1514, which posited that Earth rotates on its axis once every 24 hours, that only the moon revolves around Earth, and, most revolutionary, that the planetes, Earth included(!), revolved around the sun.

Commentariolus made its way around elite European circles and quickly found its way to Rome, where it was given a mixed reception. Luckily for Copernicus, the pope at the time, Leo X, was as humanistic as popes came. He allowed Copernicus to continue.{{10}} Copernicus treaded carefully for three decades while quietly constructing the larger De revolutionibus, publishing only when death closed in on him in 1543.

Predictably, De revolutionibus faced rebuke from religious contemporaries. Few things united the rival Protestants and Catholics of the era, but this heretical idea was one of them. Martin Luther, the liberal conservative (not a typo, as we’ll see when we get to my Top 10), was among the first to rip apart the sacrilegious concept of heliocentrism.

[quote]People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. . . . This fool wishes to reverse the entire scheme of astrology; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.[/quote]

Another major Protestant reformer, John Calvin, echoed those sentiments, citing the 93rd Psalm: “‘The world also is stabilized, that it cannot be moved.’ . . . Who will venture to place authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?”

The Catholic Church certainly didn’t venture it. De revolutionibus was eventually banned by the Church, which placed the work on its Index of forbidden books until 1758.

The resistance from the multiple wings of Christianity was understandable. Copernicus’s proposition was not just a scientific proposal; it was a metaphysical one as well. Along with geocentrism comes a certain egomania. Indeed, the words “geocentrism” and “egocentrism” are almost identical.{{11}} Think of what it entails to accuse someone of thinking he’s “at the center of the universe,” or that the “world revolves around him.” The West suffered from that arrogant affliction for nearly its entire history. God created us. We are important. He made the universe for us. We are His most precious creation. With that line of thinking, we naturally felt like we were and should be at the center of the universe.

[pullquote_left]If we’re not at the center, where are we?[/pullquote_left]

However, removing Earth from the universe’s epicenter triggers many aftershocks. If we’re not at the center, where are we? How did we get here? Why are we so far from the center? Is there a center of the universe? What is the universe? How big is it? Does anything lie beyond it? Are there other planets with life out there, just as unimportant as we are? Did God create them in six days, too?

As science has developed since 1543, we’ve not only confirmed that we are not at the center of the universe, but we’re actually just one of eight planets (R.I.P. Pluto) orbiting around the sun, which itself is just one star of two hundred billion that are part of this galaxy, which itself is just one galaxy of two hundred billion galaxies. The numbers boggle the mind, and with the thousand exoplanets found in the last few decades, we start to realize that the probability for other life out there is all but certain. We’ve realized that we are merely a speck of dust in a vast ocean.{{12}} Even the concepts of up and down lost all meaning.

Copernicus forced us to rethink our position in the universe. No, mankind. You are not that important. Copernicus never says such a thing, but his proposal screams it.{{13}} Luther, Calvin, and the Catholic Church did their best to snuff the voice, but they were on the wrong side of the facts and on the wrong side of history.

Metaphysics and philosophy aside, Copernicus clearly marks a new era of astronomy in the West. Few people in history have a “revolution” attached to their name, but with the Copernican Revolution, the Polish astronomer has just that. Copernicus shattered our concept of the universe. Future astronomers, if they wanted to be taken seriously, needed to adopt his model.{{14}} In 1605, Johannes Kepler proposed a much more accurate solar system, which included elliptical orbits and changing speeds instead of the perfectly round orbits and steadily paced planets proposed by his Polish predecessor. Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei also improved upon the Copernican model, among other contributions, and eventually Isaac Newton explained how and why it all worked.{{15}}

Importantly, these astronomers’ improvements on Copernicus’s universe start to explain why Copernicus isn’t higher on this Top 30 list. Indeed, other similar lists of important historical figures usually have him somewhere in their top 10. If he proposed an accurate universe and was the first to do so, he would have probably landed in my top 10 as well. However, for my list (which, of course, is the definitive word), he’s relegated to “only” #28 for several reasons.

First, as stated, his system, though an enormously important step forward, was seriously flawed. He refused to abandon perfectly circular orbits and the one-speed motion of the planets, and he therefore needed to build in his own epicycles to make his system work. He also supported the mystical explanation of celestial spheres keeping the heavenly bodies in space, which would soon grow archaic. Frankly, it was not until Kepler that we had a remotely accurate map of the solar system. In fact, no astronomer ever fully accepted Copernicus’s model; his reactionary contemporaries tried to return Earth to the center, while by the early seventeenth century, Kepler, Galileo, and their successors obliterated each of Copernicus’s proposals, save heliocentrism. Copernicus may have put the sun at the center, but he did little else to advance astronomy.

What’s more, Copernicus wasn’t even the first person to propose heliocentrism. A fourth century B.C. Greek, Heraclides Ponticus, proposed that day and night were not caused by a circling sun but a rotating Earth; other Greeks of the day, mostly followers of Pythagoras, joined him. The following century, the first outright heliocentrist in Western history, Aristarchus of Samoa, truly made the breakthrough which too many award to Copernicus. Later, Seleucus of Seleuica may have used trigonometry to prove Aristarchus correct.{{16}}

[pullquote_right]Copernicus may have put the sun at the center, but he did little else to advance astronomy.[/pullquote_right]

Another mark against the famed astronomer might be his field of study. Some people could well argue that, “It’s just astronomy. Who cares?” When comparing the relevance of astronomy to the more practical and useful sciences—physics, biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, computers, and others—one sees how relatively unimportant astronomy is in our daily lives. It is just astronomy. Who cares?{{17}}

In this particular case, everyone should care. Now that I’ve spent four paragraphs arguing against Copernicus’s importance, it’s time to do what he did—put things in perspective. I’ll tell you right now: I left off many scientists and inventors who had more practical inventions and ideas than Copernicus did.{{18}} These difficult eliminations kept me up at night.

However, I could never get past the notion that the innumerable technological and scientific advancements of the last five centuries were made in a universe where the brilliant minds behind them knew that the earth was not at the universe’s center, that Catholic doctrine was not infallible and their reach not limitless, and that individuals, properly equipped with facts, figures, and observation, could advance our body of knowledge. Few people can say they created a universe that encourages science, individualism, and the advancement of man, but Copernicus did exactly that.

It is no accident of historiography that the West’s “Scientific Revolution” begins in 1543, the year of Copernicus’s publication.{{19}} Copernicus not only gave us modern astronomy—his paradigm shifting model was far more important than Kepler’s refinement of it—but he also demonstrated that science must be a servant to facts, not dogma. Aristarchus and heliocentrism were lost to the West for nearly two millennia, but when Copernicus brought it back and showed the irrefutable arithmetic, the door opened for so many others in so many fields to do the same. I’m not too sure that a world where Bell invents the telephone or Watson and Crick discover DNA is possible without a post-Copernican West to foster and embrace their contributions. The Scientific Revolution was first necessary, and Copernicus let it happen.

Given the wealth of scientific achievements since Copernicus, like venturing away from Earth and into (and out of!) his solar system, perhaps we can now say that mankind turned out to be pretty important after all. That significance, however, does not stem from God placing us at the center of His universe. If we are important creatures, we’ve proven it not through an unswerving faith in that importance, but through our individuality, our intellect, and our body of work. Copernicus ushered in the era where individuality and intellect shined like never before. For these reasons, Nicolaus Copernicus is the 28th most influential figure in Western history.

[[1]]I was tempted to say, “literally changed the universe,” until I realized that he literally only changed the map, not the universe. Count the misuse of “literally” as a pet peeve. Whenever someone says, as they recount a surprising moment, that they “literally died,” I want to “literally” throw a book at their face.[[1]]

[[2]]To learn about the beginning of that process, read last month’s entry on Philip IV of France.[[2]]

[[3]]Surely it longed for the good old days of needing only to prosecute and crusade against Jews and Muslims.[[3]]

[[4]]The universe of Ptolemy, an Egyptian and citizen of the Roman Empire, was an offshoot of Aristotle’s, which also premised geocentrism. Aristotle’s universe was one of his many mistakes, but as mentioned in January, that fallibility does not call into question the man’s brilliance.[[4]]

[[5]]That sentence had two useful links. The first shows just how screwy Ptolemy’s solar system looked, while the second helps wrap our heads around why the planets follow different patterns in our sky than the stars do.[[5]]

[[6]]Joshua 10:12 writes about God holding still the sun (rather than the earth) in order to postpone nightfall. Psalms 93:1 talks about our immovable world. The creation of heaven, Earth, and man in Genesis was interpreted as God’s main focus, which can imply geocentrism.[[6]]

[[7]]Note that there were some ancients who were well versed in astronomy. Copernicus wasn’t the first person to come up with heliocentricity. More on that below.[[7]]

[[8]]Which I’m totally cool with. I’d rather avoid saying, “Earth’s rotation gave our meridian the angle to observe the sun at 6:17 this morning.”[[8]]

[[9]]The prevalent geocentric theory of the time was so accepted that Copernicus, after realizing a heliocentric model of the universe seemed to make more mathematical sense, checked and rechecked his figures. The notion that Earth was moving seemed absurd on the face of it, even to him. In this case, truth was indeed stranger than fiction.[[9]]

[[10]]The fact that Martin Luther was about to give Leo all he could handle probably helped Copernicus off the hook. Later, heliocentrists like Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake, and Galileo Galilei, who was tried by the Church as a heretic, forced to recant, and imprisoned for life, were not so lucky.[[10]]


[[12]]Perhaps no piece of art or literature better puts that realization in perspective than Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot,” with a nice YouTube interpretation here.[[12]]

[[13]]Later that century, in a correspondence between scholar Jerome Wolf and astronomer Tycho Brahe, Wolf wrote, “No attack on Christianity is more dangerous than the infinite size and depth of the universe.”[[13]]

[[14]]The afore-footnoted Brahe was probably the last legitimate astronomer to entertain geocentrism, and his Tychonic system offered to merge Ptolemy and Copernicus’s models into a sort of hybrid universe. In essence, Earth would still be at the center, but the other planets would still revolve around the sun, which in turn revolved around Earth. It was a good try, but far too conservative given Copernicus’s breakthrough. Brahe earned an eponymous crater for his efforts.[[14]]

[[15]]You better believe we’ll be seeing his name again. Don’t hold your breath, though; 2015 is an awfully long ways away.[[15]]

[[16]]If we leave the West behind and venture elsewhere, we’ll find Indian and maybe even Egyptian scholars who also beat Copernicus to the punch. But I would no sooner leave the West behind than I would wander into a foreign forest at dusk. I’ll stick to familiar, well-lit surroundings, thank you very much.[[16]]

[[17]]I don’t mean to be overly critical of astronomy as a science, and that was more a straw-man argument. I think few sciences engage young people as much as astronomy and its awe and wonder, which is probably critical in developing the future scientists of the world. Moreover, there have actually been practical applications to astronomy. Many crucial advances in biology, chemistry, navigation, communications, and physics were impossible without studying the universe.[[17]]

[[18]]Very tough cuts— inventors and scientists like William Harvey, Antoine Lavoisier, Alexander Fleming, Joseph Lister, Nikola Tesla, William Gilbert, Eli Whitney, the Curies, Jonas Salk, Alexander Fleming, Michael Faraday, William Shockley, Alexander Graham Bell, Max Plank, Charles Babbage, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Dmitri Mendeleev, Neils Bohr, Gregor Mendel, Watson and Crick, Werner Heisenberg, Samuel Morse, Robert Fulton, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Newcomen, and Benjamin Franklin. If you think I’m crazy for leaving them off, consider that I just listed 30 names right there, and I still have 27 other names after Copernicus. THIS LIST WASN’T EASY, OKAY?![[18]]

[[19]]Not to be forgotten is Andreas Vesalius’s landmark De humani corporis fabrica—“On the fabric of the human body”—also published in 1543, which set the foundation for modern anatomy.[[19]]