Friday, February 22, 2008

A Revolution of Revolutions

For centuries, astronomy had been a science in which errors of a few degrees in planetary position on the sky were acceptable. But to Copernicus, Kepler, and others who would follow, errors of that magnitude indicated that something was seriously wrong in our understanding of planetary motion. They were driven to discover their origin.

Now we turn to the details of Copernicus’s model. The first of the six sections of De Revolutionibus sets out some mathematical principles and rearranges the planets in order from the sun: Mercury is closest to the sun, followed by Venus, Earth (with the Moon orbiting it), Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

The second part applies the mathematical rules set out in the first to explain the apparent motions of the stars, planets, and sun. The third section describes Earth’s motions mathematically and includes a discussion of precession of the equinoxes, attributing it correctly to the slow gyration of the earth’s rotational axis. The last three parts of the book are devoted to the motions of the moon and the planets other than Earth.

While Copernicus’s purpose in reordering the planetary system may have been relatively modest, it soon became apparent that the new theory required the most profound revision of thought.

First: The universe had to be a much bigger place than previously imagined. The stars always appeared in the same positions with the same apparent brightness. But if the earth really were in orbit around the sun, the stars should display a small but noticeable periodic change in position and brightness. Why didn’t they? Copernicus said that the starry celestial sphere had to be so distant from Earth that changes simply could not be detected.

Building on this explanation, others theorized an infinite universe, in which the stars were not arranged on a celestial sphere, but were scattered throughout space.
The second required revision, while not as obvious, was even more basic.
Why do things fall? Aristotle explained that bodies fell toward their “natural place,” which, he said, was the center of the universe.

That explanation worked as long as the earth was considered to be the center of the universe. But now that it wasn’t the center, how could the behavior of falling bodies be explained? The answers would have to wait until the late seventeenth century, when Isaac Newton published his Principia, including a theory of universal gravitation.

Profound as were the astronomical and other scientific implications, the emotional shock of the Copernican universe was even greater. Suddenly, the earth, with humankind upon it, was no longer at the center of all creation, but was instead hurtling through space like a ball on a string. Why did we stay on the ball? What was the string? These were all unanswered questions that must have been very unsettling for those who thought about them.

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