Harvard Science Historian Publishes Results of
Unprecedented 30-Year Census of Copernican Masterpiece
Cambridge, MA -- Owen Gingerich, a Research Professor of Astronomy
and of the History of Science at Harvard University and senior
astronomer emeritus at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, has
completed a feat unique in the annals of bibliography-a survey and
census of more than 600 sixteenth-century copies of the landmark book
De revolutionibus by Nicholas Copernicus. Gingerich's survey has led
to new understanding of how scientists communicated in the late
1500s. The survey also has provided new insights into the extent of
the Roman Inquisition's censorship of science in the days of Galileo.
Unique Study of a World-Changing Text
First published in 1543, Nicholas Copernicus' De revolutionibus
orbium coelestium introduced the world to the concept of a
heliocentric, or sun-centered, universe. In it, Copernicus detailed
how the motions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars could be
explained if the earth orbited the sun-a revolutionary idea when most
scientists were sure that all celestial objects revolved around the
Starting in the 1970s, Gingerich began surveying all known copies of
this work from its first two printings in 1543 and 1566. He compiled
his results into An Annotated Census of Copernicus' De
Revolutionibus, which describes the provenances, annotations and
margin notes, and condition of all surviving sixteenth-century copies
of this major Renaissance text. The completed census eventually
included 277 copies of the first edition and 324 of the second.
"I began this census to gain new insights about Copernicus at the
500th anniversary of his birth in 1973, but the project took on a
life of its own as I gradually began to realize how much we could
learn about the early reception of Copernicus' radical ideas. Radical
not for us, but for those 16th-century skeptics, and that's of course
what makes it so interesting," says Gingerich. "The final results of
my census give us new understanding of that scientific revolution in
The compilation of Gingerich's census took three decades; the
worldwide cooperation of librarians, dealers and collectors; and
hundreds of thousands of miles of travel. It will serve as a landmark
reference for scholars, historians, librarians and collectors for
decades to come.
The mountains of data that Gingerich collected enabled him to study
the pattern of Roman censorship and the extent of Papal influence on
the European continent. Interestingly, he found that censorship of
Copernicus' work was more local than might have been expected.
Catholic church authorities were displeased by passages in
Copernicus' text that seemed to contradict Scriptural teachings. But,
the Inquisition decided not to ban De revolutionibus outright because
its observations might be needed in the future to adjust the
Gregorian calendar. Instead, a Papal decree in 1620 demanded
alterations in ten specific places in the text. Those alterations
emphasized that the heliocentric theory was hypothetical and not
intended to be a real description of the physical world.
Gingerich found that about 60 percent of the copies of De
revolutionibus in Italy at the time of the decree were "corrected."
However, virtually none of the copies outside Italy were touched.
Clearly, the rest of the continent viewed the Copernicus controversy
as a local dispute.
A Silent Network
Gingerich also studied notes made in the margins by the books'
original owners, who included many top scientists of the time. He
found a pattern of multiple copies of the most important annotations,
demonstrating the existence of a silent network that connected
"It was the sixteenth-century equivalent of e-mail," says Gingerich.
Trials and Tribulations
The compilation of this census took Gingerich all over the world,
from the Soviet Union just after the fall of the Berlin Wall to the
witness stand in the Federal District Court in Washington. His
testimony at the latter helped lead to the conviction of a thief who
stole a copy of De revolutionibus from a library collection.
"Unfortunately, because of thefts, I hold the dubious distinction of
having seen more copies of the first edition of Copernicus' work than
can now be located," says Gingerich.
Gingerich is now working on a book describing his 30-year quest to
conduct this census. He will account the many trials, tribulations
and adventures involved in the compilation of An Annotated Census, a
few of which are briefly described in a chapter of the 2002 National
Geographic book Beyond Earth. Gingerich's next book will be published
by Walker Publishing.
Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Harvard-Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College
Observatory. CfA scientists organized into six research divisions
study the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.
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