April 30, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Lutherans Helped Copernicus

Every once in awhile, we are confronted to reconsider things we “know” are true, only to find out the truth is closer to the opposite. The usual spin on Nicolaus Copernicus is that he was a brave scientist who threatened the church with his discovery that the earth orbits the sun, not the sun the earth. He was too afraid to publish his “heretical” notions till on his deathbed. Carl Sagan, in the TV series Cosmos, reiterated an urban legend that the views of Copernicus were mocked by the Lutherans. All these notions are wrong.

Harvard astronomer-historian Owen Gingerich has devoted much of his life to setting the record straight. In his previous book, An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (see 08/15/2002 entry), Gingerich published his results of a30-year project in which he located every known copy of the original prints, and meticulously analyzed hundreds of marginal notes made by contemporary readers to show that the book was widely disseminated and discussed throughout Europe. Now, Gingerich has made his results available in “a more entertaining and accessible form” in a new publication, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (Walker, New York, 2004). The book was reviewed in Science1 April 28 by Peter Barker. (Gingerich took his title from a claim by Arthur Koestler that De Revolutionibus was “the book nobody read,” a claim he shows is false.) Here are some corrections to the urban legends, from Barker’s review:

  • Copernicus entrusted his manuscript to a young Lutheran mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus.
  • The book was published in Nuremburg by a Lutheran printer.
  • A Lutheran cleric added an unsigned preface to the work.
  • The Duke of Prussia was a Lutheran and a patron of the circle that published De Revolutionibus.
  • “Why did an aging Catholic consign his astronomy book, dedicated to the Pope, to a bevy of Protestants?” Barker asks. “The expertise of Nuremberg printers was certainly a factor. Perhaps Copernicus also needed the Duke of Prussia to protect him from a local bishop,” he hints, suggesting that Catholic opposition to Copernicus may have been localized.
  • Lutheran mathematicians eagerly acquired the book, studied it, wrote in it, and passed copies to their friends. Many Lutherans still held to a stationary earth, but largely accepted and appreciated Copernicus’ model.
  • Tycho Brahe, a Lutheran, owned many copies of the book. A “major surprise” of Gingerich’s research, Barker says, is that Brahe apparently got his geo-heliocentric alternative model from Paul Wittich, a gentleman-traveler.
  • “Ptolemy’s astronomy did not fail because it became overloaded with epicycles,” Barker says. Actually, “astronomers before and after Copernicus used simple, single-epicycle systems, sometimes augmented by a minor epicycle used by Copernicus himself.”
  • Copernicus’ model was not strictly heliocentric. “In fact, it is quite difficult to tell what point counts as the center of his system.” The model was more mathematical than observational.
  • “Another unexpected finding,” Barker states with surprise, “is that in the aftermath of the Galileo affair,” (see Galileo biography at this site), “the Church’s attempt to correct Copernicus’s book was largely ineffective.”

There is little evidence that books were actually destroyed, a point reinforced by Gingerich’s estimate that the original print run of De revolutionibus was between 400 and 500 books, of which 277 survived to appear in his Census. And outside Italy, few copies show Church-mandated corrections, even in Catholic countries.

Barker praises Gingerich’s “astronomical sleuthing” to get at the truth about the epochal book that began to change our perception of our place in the universe. “His account will interest booklovers and anyone curious about the history of early modern science.”

1Peter Barker, “A History Recorded in the Margins,” Science Vol 304, Issue 5671, 686, 30 April 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1097380].

Dr. Gingerich has done a great service to history to bring these corrections of the urban legend to our attention.   case can surely be made that the opponents of 16th-century scientific advance were not the Lutherans or the Catholics, but the Aristotelians. Incidentally, the urban legend that Luther called Copernicus a fool is doubtful. Whatever Luther said or meant was not recorded till years afterward and could have been mistaken in meaning; see an analysis by Donald Kobe on Leadership U.

Whether De Revolutionibus should have led to our modern Copernican principle is another question. Up till recently, astronomers extrapolated Copernicus’ model to the ultimate, claiming the earth holds no special place in the cosmic scheme of things. This view is challenged by a new book that could be just as revolutionary as De Revolutionibus itself: The Privileged Planet by Gonzalez and Richards (see website). We’ll have to see what marginal notes this one gets on chat rooms around the web, or whether the Church of Darwin succeeds in marginalizing the book.

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