Monday, October 31, 2016

Essential Thinkers #13: Nicolaus Copernicus, 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium'

Born in Poland and graduate of Cracow University, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) studied Greek philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and theology before becoming a canon of the cathedral at Frauenberg, where he finally settled. Copernicus did more to revolutionize man’s conception of himself and his place in the universe than perhaps any other thinker, before or since. Even if his work would have a profound and negative impact on the Church, he was a man of impeccable orthodoxy. Although he delayed publication of his findings for fear of censure by the Church, it is clear that he believed his views were not inconsistent with his theology.

Prior to Copernicus, astronomers had favoured the view, following both Aristotle and Ptolemy, that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, with both the stars, sun and the moon revolving about it. known as the Ptolemaic system, this view was wholly in keeping with many theological teachings, in which the universe is seem to be created by God for the express purpose of man. The effect of Copernicus’ work was to turn all this on its head.

Probably first posited by Aristarchus of Samos around 340 BC, Copernicus revived the idea that the earth and planets revolve around the sun, which remains in a fixed position. Moreover, he proclaimed that in this system the earth has a twofold motion. On the one hand it turns on its own axis, rotating one full turn every 24 hours, and on the other it completely circumnavigates the sun every 364 days.

This heliocentric (sun-centred) system was vigorously resisted by the Church, which saw it as usurping man’s central place in creationist stories of the universe. By using Pythagorean calculations, however, Copernicus managed to predict and account for various astronomical observations with amazing accuracy.

Although Copernicus claimed his work was no more than hypothetical, eventually the weight of evidence would be too great to be resisted, and before long Copernicus would famously be supported by Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton amongst others. By the end of the following century Copernicus’ idea would be refined to the point of irrefutability. The heliocentric theory was condemned by the [Roman Catholic] Church, but Copernicus was carefully during his life not to incur its wrath, unlike Galileo after him.  Indeed Copernicus even dedicated the work in which he proclaims the heliocentric theory, the De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium, with apparent sincerity, to the Pope. It was only later, in Galileo’s time, that the Church condemned Copernicus’ work as heretical.

So great and profound was the effect of Copernicus’ hypothesis on the intellectual world that philosophers and scientists have since coined the phrase, “Copernican Revolution” to describe world-changing ideas. The effect of the original ‘Copernican Revolution’ on the development of Western thought, both philosophical and scientific is difficult to exaggerate. It gave birth to the scientific age and helped remove many of the superstitious and ignorant beliefs so typical of the time. It would, for better or worse, lead to the decline of the power of the church, and to a new age of scientific inquiry and invention.

[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Copernicus: Mini Biography’]

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