A major factor in the transition from ancient science to modern science was the recognition that, with due respects to and admiration for the human species, our earth is simply not the center of the Universe. The person who formally and systematically presented this as a hypothesis was Nicolaus Copernicus (born: 19 February 1473). Copernicus (1473-1543) was born in Poland. He studied mathematics, canon law, astronomy, and medicine, at the universities of Cracow, Bologna, and Padua at various times. He served as canon of the cathedral of Frauenburg, worked on a currency reform for his country, and meticulously searched for a new view of the solar system. He published the fruits of his astronomical investigations in a book which he received when he was on his death-bed. He died without the faintest idea that his book would bring about a revolution of enormous significance.
His monumental work tried to establish that much of the data of observational astronomy could be explained even more simply than the Ptolemaic picture, by imagining the earth, as well as the other planets, to be moving around a fixed sun at the center. Copernicus wrote:
“As a matter of fact, when a ship floats over a tranquil sea, all the things outside seem to the voyagers to be moving in a movement which is in the image of their own, and they think on the contrary that they themselves and all the things with them are at rest. So it can easily happen in the case of the movement of the earth that the whole world should be believed to be moving in a circle.”
It is difficult to evaluate the relative impact of books that have molded and affected human history. On all counts the Copernicus book was surely one of the most consequential. The Vedas, the Bible, the Qur’an, and other sacred works have no doubt formed the minds and sensitivities of millions all over the world. Most of these rested on the implicit assumption that Man and his habitat are central to all of Creation. The Copernican treatise was to wreak havoc on this intuitive conviction. This was not just a book, it was a jolting world-view that would create cultural and spiritual shocks.
Martin Luther, who rebelled against the authority of the Pope, did not applaud the rebellion of Copernicus against the authority of Ptolemy. He declared, upon hearing that Copernicus talked of a moving earth around a stationary sun: “This fool wishes to reverse the entire scheme of astronomy. But sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.”
Fifty years after the publication of Copernicus’s treatise, the Catholic mathematician Christophe Clavius pointed out that the heliocentric doctrine was verging on blasphemy. To be suddenly told that the earth is just another planet was the equivalent, on a much larger scale, of a political superpower being relegated to an ordinary membership in the comity of nations.
When one examines the life of Copernicus and the impact of his work, a number of interesting elements of the modern scientific enterprise emerge. [Am Journal of Physics [41 (1973) pp. 1341-1349.]
February 19, 2011