Perhaps no revolution in science has been more far-reaching than the Copernican Revolution. It led to the modern Copernican Principle, the idea that the earth occupies no preferred place in the cosmos (though the cosmos of Copernicus was very different from that revealed since the invention of the telescope). Revisionist history has portrayed Copernicus as a secretive scientist hiding his views from the church for fear of being condemned as a heretic. We are told also that Protestants of the Reformation scorned his views. In recent years, however, that revisionism itself is being revised, thanks largely to the research of historian and astronomer Owen Gingerich of the Harvard– Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
What did Gingerich find about Copernicus the man, his views, his readers and the church’s reaction? And what new discoveries are calling into question the central claim of the Copernican Principle, that Earth occupies no special status in the grand scheme of the cosmos?
It’s time for myths about Copernicus to be corrected. He did not set out to revolutionize all of astronomy and science. He did not seek to cast doubt on the Scriptures, or attack the church. He was not fearful of being persecuted as a heretic. And his writings were not uniformly condemned by Catholics or Protestants; in fact, many embraced the new idea that the earth moved around the sun, and it was Lutherans especially who enabled the publication of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Finally, Copernicus is not responsible for what has become known as The Copernican Principle.
Copernicus was born into a wealthy family, and studied astronomy, mathematics and philosophy at the University of Krakow in Poland. He was appointed a canon, but never took orders to become a priest, preferring instead to continue his studies in Italy, where he learned literature and medicine. On return to Poland, he became personal physician to his uncle, a bishop, a comfortable job that left him time to pursue astronomy as a hobby. Later, he worked for the church in an official capacity in matters regarding war and reform of the currency…..
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