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Jack Oughton - De Revolutionibus - A Book Nobody Read

Jack Oughton - De Revolutionibus - A Book Nobody Read

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Published by: Jack Oughton on Jun 05, 2010
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06/18/2010

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 Jack OughtonDe Revolutionibus - A BooNobody Read?
e Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On The Revolutions Of The Heavenly Spheres)
is the ultimate work of the multi-talented reclusive genius, NicolausCopernicus. It is known as the writing that began the CopernicanRevolution, one of the most significant astronomical paradigm shifts in humanhistory, dislodging the millennia old geocentric hypothesis. It has also been arguedthat this book was the catalyst for the
Scientific Revolution
of the 16
th
century. Thescientific revolution saw massive progress made in everything from biology tochemistry, as the limiting shackles of millennia of religious dogma and persecutionbegan to loosen their grip on thought in Europe.
D
De Revolutionibus’ title page, Second Edition.
Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian born polymath, who immigrated to the UK in the1940s. A driven man, he renounced his Jewish religious heritage, became anoutspoken critic of Communism, was Knighted in the 1970s, and as a lifelongadvocate of voluntary euthanasia; took his own life with his wife by a drug overdoseon March 3, 1983. He wrote many books and novels on subjects varying from socialphilosophy, politics and science. In 1959 he wrote
The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe,
a book concerned with the scientific historyof astronomy, focusing mainly on European contributions during the golden age of the renaissance. In Part 3,
The Timid Canon
, he writes “
The Book of the Revolutionsof the Heavenly Spheres was and is an all-time worst-seller.
" (Koestler, 1959)
i
His argument is definitely convincing, anyone who has read (or tried to read) thebook would agree with Koestler’s statement of its “extreme un-readability”; it is aformidable piece of literature. When given a copy myself I felt a distinct feeling thatI was being assailed by a wall of cold scholarly text and complex geometricaldiagrams
. The book's title page gives fair warning: "
Let no one untrained ingeometry enter here
”, clearly the old Pole either didn’t understand the principles
 
behind making a book aesthetically appealing or remotely readable to most people.Or he probably didn’t care. Inspite of this, Copernicus was definitely no firebrand,and although gifted, appeared averse to creating any sort of controversy. If not forthe enormous amount of encouragement and pressure to have it published byGeorg Joachim Rheticus, chances are that this great work would never have seenthe light of day. In some ways the book reflects how he lived, with the potential forso much more. Some may go as far to say he wrote it in this dense style tominimize the potential audience (and guaranteed social backlash). Copernicuswrote the book in a disorganized fashion, without drawing specific conclusions andmaking claims he didn’t follow through with later on in the text.
Revolutionibus
iscomprised of 6 smaller volumes, and overall they aren’t entirely cohesive;
“It has,so to speak, destroyed itself in the process” 
. Contrary to his claim, it appears thatKoestler has probably read Copernicus’ book, as in
The Sleepwalkers
hesystematically annihilates the entire premise for which the book is praised.Koestler argues that Copernicus was actually the last of the Aristotelians. In BookIII, attempting to reconcile the heliocentric doctrine with observation, Copernicus’system asserts that the earth does
not 
revolve around the sun, but instead around aseparate point in space. The other planets move around in epicycles of epicycles,centered on the abstract point of the earth’s orbit. Thus the centre of the universewas in the vicinity of the sun and the earth was equally important in governingplanetary motions. In light of this, the fact that nobody seems aware that this is nota heliocentric theory, and more a ‘
vacuo-centric
’ theory seems to lend weight toKoestler’s argument. Thomas Kuhn, another expert on historical astronomy,supports Koestler, and argues that Copernicus only transferred
"Some properties tothe sun's many astronomical functions previously attributed to the earth."
Nicolaus Copernicus, circa late 1590s.
 
Koestler also finds examples of supposed experts on the topic, making mistakesthat reveal they weren’t completely familiar with the book. At the beginning of thebook, Copernicus claims to be able to reduce the number of epicycles in the systemto 34, but by the end there are nearly 50! The Astronomer Royal, Sir Harold Jones,fell into this trap of stating that Copernicus had reduced the number to 34, manyother eminent scientific sources have repeated it, among them the authoritive (?)textbook;
 A Short History of Science
and
Science Since 1500.
 till, how can a book revolutionize science if nobody dares or bothers to readit? This was the idea that Dr. Owen Gingerich, a former Research Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science at the prestigious Harvard University ,set out to explore. ." After finding an annotated copy previously owned by ErasmusReinhold, a prominent German astronomer and mathematician, who publishedastronomical tables derived from the information in
De Revolutionibus,
Owendecided to test Koestler’s assumption. His 30 year personal quest took him allaround the world, in his attempts to catalogue and examine all known copies of thefirst two printings;
“I guess I’ve seen about half a billion dollars worth of copies of Copernicus’ book” 
S
Owen Gingerich
Proof of 
De Revolutionibus’ 
popularity amongst academics of the time comes fromthe sheer volume of annotated copies of the books Gingerich came across. Manyfamous men who actively shaped the Scientific Revolution, where found to haverichly annotated their own copies. Among them, Copernicus’s disciple Georg Joachim Rheticus, the esteemed Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe and the infamous

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