13 December 2001 CfA Colloquium

Title: The Copernican Revolution Revisited

Speaker: Owen Gingerich


The rapid pace of modern astronomy seems driven by technological advances: larger telescopes, new detectors, a wider spectral range, more powerful computers. In contrast, the revolution in astronomy initiated by Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus seems slow and unrelated to any new observations; it was an idea "pleasing to the mind." On aesthetic grounds but without empirical proof Copernicus argued for 1) the perfection of the circle, and 2) the elegance of the heliocentric plan.

This colloquium will argue that in fact the slow acceptance of Copernicus' radical heliocentric cosmology resulted primarily because Copernicus was far in advance of the technological developments needed to test his hypotheses. Once the new instrumentation opened the way for observational tests, Copernicus' insistence on the uniform, circular motion fell by the wayside, but his other grand aesthetic vision, the heliocentric cosmology, found relatively rapid adoption.

The lecture will include vignettes from our three-decades-long search for annotated copies of Copernicus' book, leading to the census of 601 copies of the two sixteenth-century editions.

References for students:

Gingerich, THE EYE OF HEAVEN, pp. 3-51, "Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler."

Lunch with the students will be on Thursday, December 12.