Episode 12 of my podcast is here—my review of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus. Click below to listen:
There are few phrases more annoying or more effective than “I told you so.”
This is my second encounter with Thomas Kuhn, and again I emerge deeply impressed. To do justice to an event so multifaceted as the Copernican Revolution a scholar must have a flexible mind; and Kuhn is fully equal to the task. He moves seamlessly from scientific data, to philosophical analysis, to historical context, and then back again. The result is a book that serves as an admirable introduction to the basics of astronomy and a thorough overview of the Copernican Revolution, while raising intriguing questions about the nature of scientific progress.
Kuhn first makes an essential point: that the conceptual schemes of science serve both a logical and a psychological function. Their logical function is to economically organize the data (in this case, the position and movement of heavenly objects); their psychological function is to make people feel at home in the universe. Belief is only necessary for this second function. A scientist can use a conceptual scheme perfectly well without believing that it represents how the universe ‘truly is’; but people have an obvious and, apparently, near-universal need to understand their place in, and relation to, the cosmos. Thus, scientists throughout history have insisted on the truth of their systems, despite the history of science being littered with the refuse of abandoned theories (to use Kuhn’s expression). Even if this belief cannot be justified philosophically, however, it does provide a powerful emotional impetus to scientific activity.
Another question Kuhn raises is when and why scientists decide that an old paradigm is unsustainable and a new one is required. For centuries astronomers in the Muslim and Western worlds worked within the basic approach laid down by Ptolemy, hoping that small adjustments could finally remove the slight errors inherent in the system. During this time, the flexibility of the Ptolemaic approach—allowing for fine-tuning in deferents, equants, and epicycles—was seen as one of its strengths. Besides, the Ptolemaic astronomy was fully integrated within the wider Aristotelian science of the age; and this science blended perfectly with common everyday notions. The fact that the Ptolemaic science broke down is attributable as much, or more, to factors external to the science as to those internal to it. Specifically, with the Renaissance came the rediscovery of Neoplatonism, with its emphasis on mathematical harmonies—something absent from Aristotelianism—as well as its strain of sun-worship.
Copernicus was one of those affected by the new current of Neoplatonism; and it is this, Kuhn argues, that ultimately made him dissatisfied with the Ptolemaic system and apt to place the sun at the center of his system. We often hear of science progressing as a result of new experiments and empirical discoveries; but no such novel observation played a role in Copernicus’s innovation. Rather, the source of Copernicus’s rejection of an earth-centered universe was its inability to explain why the planets’ orbits are related to the sun’s. His system answered that question. But this was only an aesthetic improvement. It did not lead to more accurate predictions—the essential task of astronomy—and, indeed, it did not even lead to more efficient calculations. The oft-reproduced image of the Copernican universe, consisting of seven concentric circles, is a simplification; his actual system used dozens of circles and was cumbersome and difficult to use.
But the most puzzling feature of Copernicus’s innovation is that it achieves qualitative simplification at the expense of rendering it completely incompatible with the wider worldview. Aristotelian physics cannot explain why a person would not fly off of a moving earth. And, indeed, the entire cosmological picture, such as that painted so convincingly by Dante, ceases to make sense in a Copernican universe. For centuries people had understood the earth as a midpoint between the fires of hell and the perfect heavens above. Now, hell was only metaphorically “below” and heaven only metaphorically “above.” Besides that, the universe had to be expanded to mystifying proportions; the earth became only a small and unimportant speck in an unimaginably vast space. Strangely, however, Copernicus seemed blind to most of these consequences of his innovation. A specialist concerned only with creating a harmonious system, his attempt to render it physically plausible or theologically palatable is, at best, half-hearted.
This leads to the irony that one of the greatest intellectual revolutions in history started with a man concerned with technical minutiae inaccessible to the vast majority of the public, who had access to no fundamentally new data, whose system was neither more accurate nor more efficient than its predecessor, and whose main concern was qualitative harmoniousness. Copernicus was no radical and had no notion of upsetting the established authority; he himself would likely have been appalled at the Newtonian universe that was the end result of this process.
Yet this simple innovation, once proposed, had ripple effects. Though the earth’s motion was near universally rejected as a fact, its use in a serious astronomical work kept it alive as an option. And this new option could not be laughed away when, in the next generation under Tycho Brahe, better observations and novel phenomena upset the Ptolemaic world order. The heavens could no longer be seen as perfect and unchanging when Brahe proved that supernovae and comets do not exhibit a parallax (as in, they do not to change location when the observer moves), and thus could not be atmospheric phenomena. Further, Brahe’s unprecedentedly accurate observations of the planets were incompatible with any Ptolemaic system.
This seems to be one of many cases in the history of science when novel observations followed, rather than preceded, a theoretical innovation. us
Granted, this incongruence led Brahe to propose his own earth-centered system, the Tychonic, rather than adopt a sun-centered universe. But this new system used Copernican mathematics, and embodied the Copernican harmonies. In any case it is hard to see how the Tychonic system could ever have been anything but a stopgap, since the jump from Ptolemy to Brahe was scarcely easier than the jump from Ptolemy to Copernicus. Besides, it struck many as dynamically implausible that everything in the universe would orbit the sun except the earth and the moon.
Kepler and Galileo were among those unconvinced by the Tychonic system. The two very different men were both of an independent turn of mind, and their work finally made the Copernican universe unequivocally superior. Kepler particularly made the decisive step with his three laws: that planets orbit in ellipses with the sun at a focus, that they sweep out equal areas in equal times, and that they orbit the sun in a ratio of the 3/2 power (the orbital axis to the orbital time). But in Kepler we find further ironies. Far from the dispassionate lover of truth, Kepler was a Neoplatonic mystic, bursting with occult hypotheses. Many parts of his work strike the modern reader as scarcely more rational than the ravings of a conspiracy theorist. Yet the hard core of Kepler’s astronomical work lifted Copernicanism into a league of its own for accuracy of prediction and efficiency of calculation. If the orbits of the planets were related to the sun in such simple, elegant ways, it was difficult to see how earth could be at the center of it all.
This is my best attempt at summarizing the most salient points of the book. But of course there is far more in here, most of it worthwhile. I particularly enjoyed Kuhn’s chapter on the oft-ignored medieval research into physics, such as the impetus theory in the work of Nicole Oresme. The only weak point of the book was the rather brief epilogue to Copernicus. In particular, I would have appreciated an entire chapter devoted to Newton, since it was his Principia that was, in Kuhn’s phrase, the “capstone” of the revolution. But on the whole I think this is a superlative book, serious yet accessible, informative while brief. Kuhn captures the reality of scientific progress, which is far less neat that we may like to believe. Most striking is how a revolution which was guided by many extra-logical considerations—the Neoplatonic belief in celestial harmonies, the desire for mathematical elegance, the weakening of the religious worldview, the need to feel at home in the universe—fueled a process which, taken as a whole, resulted in a science definitively better than the Ptolemaic system it replaced.
Kuhn makes no mistake about this. Here is what the reputed relativist has to say:
The last two and one-half centuries have proved that the conception of the universe which emerged from the Revolution was a far more powerful intellectual tool than the universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy. The scientific cosmology evolved by seventeenth-century scientists and the concepts of space, force, and matter that underlay it, accounted for both celestial and terrestrial motions with a precision undreamed of in antiquity. In addition, they guided many novel and immensely fruitful research programs, disclosing a host of previously unsuspected natural phenomena and revealing order in fields of experience that had been intractable to men governed by the ancient world view.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
And though all these things are difficult, almost inconceivable, and quite contrary to the opinion of the multitude, nevertheless in what follows we will with God’s help make them clearer than day—at least for those who are not ignorant of the art of mathematics.
The Copernican Revolution has become the prime exemplar of all the great transformations in our knowledge of the world—a symbol of scientific advance, the paradigmatic clash of reason and religion, a shining illustration of how cold logic can beat out old prejudices. Yet reading this groundbreaking book immediately after attempting Ptolemy’s Almagest—the Bible of geocentric astronomy—reveals far more similarities than differences. Otto Neugebauer was correct in calling Copernicus’s system an ingenious modification of Hellenistic astronomy, for it must be read against the background of Ptolemy in order to grasp its significance.
The most famous section of De revolutionibus was, ironically, not even written by Copernicus, but by the presumptuous Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian who was overseeing the publication of the book, and who included a short preface without consulting or informing Copernicus. Knowing that Copernicus’s hypothesis could prove controversial (Luther considered it heretical), Osiander attempted to minimize its danger by asserting that it was merely a way of calculating celestial positions and did not represent physical reality: “for it is not necessary that the hypotheses should be true, or even probable; but it is enough if they provide a calculation which fits the observations.”
Though this assertion obviously contradicts the body of the work (in which Copernicus argues at length for the reality of the earth’s movement), and though Copernicus and his friends were outraged by the insertion, it did help to shield the book from censure. And arguably Osiander was being a good and true Popperian—believing that science is concerned with making accurate predictions, not in giving us “the truth.” In any case, Osiander was no doubt correct in this assertion: “For it is sufficiently clear that this art is absolutely and profoundly ignorant of the causes of the apparent irregular movements.” Neither Ptolemy nor Copernicus had any coherent explanation of what caused the orbits of the planets, which would not come until Einstein.
After this little interpolation, Copernicus himself wastes no time in proclaiming the mobility of the earth. In retrospect, it is remarkable that it took such a long stretch of history for the heliocentric idea to emerge. For it instantly explains many phenomena which, in the Ptolemaic system, are completely baffling. Why do the inner planets (Venus and Mercury) move within a fixed distance of the sun? Why does the perigee (the closest point in the orbit) of the outer planets (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) occur when they are at opposition (i.e., when they are opposite in the sky from the sun), and why does their apogee (the farthest point) occur when they are in conjunction (when they are hidden behind the sun)? And why do the planets sometimes appear to move backwards relative to the fixed stars?
But putting the earth in orbit between Venus and Mars neatly and instantly explains all of these mysteries. Mercury and Venus always appear a fixed distance from the sun because they are orbiting within the earth’s orbital circle, and thus from our position appear to go back and forth around the sun. Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, by contrast, can appear at any longitudinal distance from the sun because their orbits are outsider ours; but if Mars’ orbit were tracked from Jupiter, for example, it would, like Venus and Mercury, appear to go back and forth around the sun. Also note that Mars will appear to go “backwards” from earth when earth overtakes the red planet, due to our planet’s shorter orbital period. And since Mars will be closest to us when it is on the same side of the sun as earth (opposition from the sun), and furthest from us when it is on far side of the sun (conjunction with the sun), this also explains the apogee and perigee positions of the outer planets.
This allows Copernicus to collapse five circles—one for each of the planets, which were needed in the Ptolemaic system to account for these anomalies—into one circle: namely, the earth’s orbit. The advantages are palpable.
Nevertheless, while I think the benefits of putting the planets in orbit around the sun are obvious, perhaps even to a traditionalist, it is not obvious why Copernicus should put the earth in motion around the sun rather than the reverse. Indeed, this is exactly what the eminent astronomer Tycho Brahe did, several generations later. For it makes no observational difference whether the sun or the earth is in motion. And in the Aristotelian physics of the time, the former solution makes a great deal more sense, since the heavens were supposed to be constituted of the lightest elements and the earth of the heaviest elements. So how could the heavy earth move so quickly? What is more, there is no concept of inertia or gravity in Aristotelian physics, and so no explanation for why people would not fly off the earth if it were in rapid motion.
Copernicus takes a brief stab at answering these obvious counterarguments, even offering a primitive notion of inertia: “As a matter of fact, when a ship floats on over a tranquil sea, all the things outside seem to the voyagers to be moving in a movement which is the image of their own, and they think on the contrary that they themselves and all the things with them are at rest.” Even so, it is obvious that such a brief example does not suffice to refute the entire Aristotelian system. Clearly, a whole new concept of physics was needed if the earth was to be in motion, one which did not arrive until Isaac Newton, born nearly two hundred years after Copernicus. It took a certain amount of boldness, or obtuseness, for Copernicus to proclaim the earth’s motion without at all being able to explain how the heaviest object in the universe—or so they believed—could hurtle through space.
In structure and content, De revolutionibus follows the Algamest pretty closely: beginning with mathematical preliminaries, onward to the orbits of the sun (or, in this case the earth), the moon, and the planets—with plenty of tables to aid calculation—as well as a description of his astronomical instruments and a chart of star locations, and finally ending with deviations in celestial latitude (how far the planets deviate north and south from the ecliptic in their orbits). Copernicus was even more wedded than Ptolemy to the belief that celestial objects travel in perfect circles, which leads him to repudiate Ptolemy’s use of the equant (the point around which a planet moves at a constant speed). The use of the equant upset Copernicus’s sense of elegance, you see, since its center is different from the planet’s actual center of orbit, thus requiring two overlapping circles.
Copernicus’s own solution was an epicyclet, which revolves twice westward (clockwise, from the celestial north pole) for each rotation eastward on the deferent. And so, ironically, though Ptolemy is sometimes mocked for using epicycles, Copernicus followed the same path. I also find it amusing that the combined effect of these circular motions, in both Ptolemy and Copernicus, added up to a non-circular orbit; clearly nature had different notions of elegance than these astronomers. In any case, it would have to wait until Kepler that it was realized that the planets actually follow an ellipse.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that Copernicus’s book is not any easier to use than Ptolemy’s as a recipe book for planetary positions. Now, it is far beyond my powers to even attempt such a calculation. But in his Very Short Introduction to Copernicus (which I recommend), Owen Gingerich takes the reader through the steps to calculation the position of Mars on Copernicus’s birthday: February 19, 1473. To do this you needed the radix, which is a root position of the planet recorded at a specified time; and you also need the planet’s orbital speed (the time needed for one complete orbit, in this case 687 days). The year must be converted into sexigesimal (base 60) system, and then converted in elapsed Egyptian years (which lack a leap year), in order to calculate the time elapsed since the date of the radix’s position (in this case is January 1st, 1 AD). Then this sexigesimal number can be looked up in Copernicus’s tables; but this only gives us the location of Mars with respect to the sun. To find out where it will appear in the sky, we also need the location of earth, which is another tedious process. You get the idea.
I read the bulk of this book while I was on vacation in rural Canada. Faced with the choice between relaxation or self-torture, I naturally chose the latter. While most of my time was spent scratching my head and helplessly scratching the page with a pencil, the experience was enough to show me—as if I needed more demonstration after Ptolemy—that astronomy is not for the faint of heart, but requires intelligence, patience, and care.
There was one advantage to reading the book on vacation. For it is the only time of year when I am in a place without light pollution. The stars, normally hiding behind street lights and apartment buildings, shone in the hundreds. I would have seen even more were it not for the waxing moon. But this did give me the opportunity to get out an old telescope—bought as a birthday present for a cousin, over a decade ago—and examine the moon’s pitted surface. It is humbling to think that even such basic technology was years ahead of Copernicus’s time.
Looking at the brilliant grey circle, surrounded by a halo of white light, I felt connected to the generations of curious souls who looked at the same moon and the same stars, searching for answers. So Copernicus did not, in other words, entirely spoil my vacation.