08 June 2009

The Oprahs of the 16th and 17th Centuries

Admit it. You experienced it, too, during your introductory astronomy course in college. You gritted your teeth through the early-semester lectures on those long-haired astronomers of old. Who wanted to hear about ancient astronomy when more exciting and modern events—black hole formation, colliding galaxies, and the Big Bang—awaited you in weeks to come.

But there’s plenty to keep students both informed and entertained as instructors build that historic foundation, so necessary to understanding current celestial matters. It can be found in the original sources. Back in the 16th century, scientific communication was far more relaxed—it could be quite humorous at times and often confessional. Take Nicolaus Copernicus, for example, the administrative canon who boldly placed the Sun at the center of the solar system (and hence the universe). In doing this, he also put Earth into motion.

But how did Copernicus open his famous work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres? Actually, in a way that would make Oprah proud: “I can reckon easily enough…,” he wrote in 1543, “that as soon as certain people learn that in these books of mine which I have written about the revolutions of the spheres of the world I attribute certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they will immediately shout to have me and my opinion hooted off the stage….The scorn which I had to fear on account of the newness and absurdity of my opinion almost drove me to abandon a work already undertaken.”

You don’t see such candor in the Astrophysical Journal these days. It’s downright refreshing.

Then there’s Johannes Kepler, whose portrait looks like Santa Claus in his youth. Like others, I thought of Kepler as one of those “dead white men” of astronomy. He was the one who proved that planetary orbits are ellipses, not circles, which was crucial to Isaac Newton’s establishing in 1687 his revolutionary theory of gravity. But all the fun is in how Kepler explained his proof in a book titled Astronomia nova, the most unusual (and frank) account of a discovery I've ever seen. With seventy chapters dense with charts, computations, and diagrams, it was written as the noted German mathematician progressed through his tortuous calculations concerning the orbit of Mars. His dead ends and blind alleys are included side by side with his successes.

Chapter by chapter he plugs numbers into his models and with a seasoned wit shares his gripes with the reader. “If this wearisome method has filled you with loathing,” he writes in Chapter 16, “it should more properly fill you with compassion for me, as I have gone through it at least seventy times….” He’s still moving through his myriad computations into Chapter 50: “How small a heap of grain we have gathered from this threshing! But you also see what a huge cloud of husks there is now.”

The struggle became his personal “war with Mars,” his enemy. “And now," he wrote, "there is not much to prevent the fugitive enemy’s joining forces with his fellow rebels and reducing me to desperation, unless I send new reinforcements of physical reasoning in a hurry to the scattered troops and old stragglers….”

Kepler at last won his battle with Mars in 1609, exactly four hundred years ago. For more information on these episodes, I recommend perusing my book Archives of the Universe: 100 Discoveries That Transformed Our Understanding of the Cosmos.

Above photos, from top to bottom: (1) Copernicus with his heliocentric model of the universe and (2) Kepler, a portrait done around 1610 when he was 39.

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