Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium
Nicolaus Copernicus (February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543) began to write De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres) in 1506 and finished it in 1530, but did not publish it until the year of his death, in 1543. He believed that the Ptolemaic system was too complicated, and wanted to offer a simpler and more accurate explanation. The book is dedicated to Pope Paul III, and is divided into 6 parts (books):
- The first part contains a general vision of the heliocentric theory, and a summarized exposition of his idea on the World.
- The second part is mainly theoretical and describes the principles of spherical astronomy and a list of stars (as a basis for the arguments developed in the subsequent books).
- The third part is mainly dedicated to the apparent movements of the Sun and to related phenomena.
- The fourth part contains a similar description of the Moon and its orbital movements.
- The fifth and the sixth parts contain the concrete exposition of the new system.
De Revolutionibus starts with an anonymous foreword stating that the whole work is only a simple hypothesis, implying that it might only be fantastic speculation. It is misleading to understand hypothesis in its modern sense, a proposed law or principle that is to be tested by experiment. Rather, the word hypothesis should be understood as a convenient bit of mathematics not necessarily related at all to reality. The foreword was generally regarded as Copernicus' own idea, until Johannes Kepler showed that it was an addition by the Lutheran philosopher Osiander.
In his system Copernicus argued that the universe is made up of eight spheres. The outer, eight sphere consisted of motionless, fixed stars with the sun motionless at the centre. The planets revolved around the Sun in the order of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The moon however, revolved around the earth. Moreover, according to him, what seemed to be the movement of the Sun and fixed stars around the earth, was really explained by the daily rotation of the earth around its own axis. Even with all of his advances, he retained the circular orbits, because of which he was forced to also retain the epicycles of the Ptolemaic system to prove his calculations correct. Nevertheless, the shift from an earth-centered, to a sun-centered system was very important and raised serious questions about Aristotle's astronomy and physics, despite Copernicus' adherence to Aristotle.
The book caused only mild controversy at the time, and provoked no fierce sermons about contradicting holy scripture; Osiander's preface, therefore, may have had some success. In 1546, however, a Dominican, Giovanni Maria Tolosani , wrote a treatise denouncing the theory and defending the absolute truth of scripture. Tolosani also claimed that Bartolomeo Spina , the Master of the Sacred Palace, had intended to condemn the theory but had been unable to press the issue because of ill health.
It has been much debated why sixty years would pass before Copernicus' work would come under serious attack. The alleged reasons range from the personality of Galileo Galilei to the availability of actual evidence (such as observations with the telescope) which could make it practical for the first time to settle the truth or falsity of the theory. Whatever the reason, in 1616 Cardinal Bellarmine gave Galileo an order from the Pope to take the position that the system was purely hypothesis. After that, De Revolutionibus was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books along with two less important works (but none of Galileo's, at that time). It was not formally banned but merely withdrawn from circulation pending corrections, so called, which would clarify the status of the theory as having nothing to do with reality. In fact, though such corrections were prepared by Francesco Ingoli and others, and were formally approved in 1620, the book was never reprinted with these changes, and was available in Catholic jurisdictions only by special request of suitably qualified scholars. It remained on the Index until 1835.
A few years after the death of Copernicus, Erasmus Reinhold developed the Prutenische Tafeln (that is, Prussian Tables), based on Copernicus' observations. Reinhold's Prussian Tables were used as a basis for the calendar reform instituted under Pope Gregory XIII. The tables were also used by sailors and sea explorers, who during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had used the Table of the Stars by Regiomontanus.
- O. Gingerich: An annotated census of Copernicus' De revolutionibus (Nuremberg, 1543 and Basel, 1566). Leiden : Brill, 2002 ISBN 90-04-11466-1 (Studia copernicana. Brill's series; v. 2)
- O. Gingerich: The book nobody read : chasing the revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. New York : Walker, 2004 ISBN 0-8027-1415-3
- E. Zinner: Entstehung und Ausbreitung der coppernicanischen Lehre. 2. Aufl. durchgesehen und erg. von Heribert M. Nobis und Felix Schmeidler. München : C.H. Beck, 1988 ISBN 3-406-32049-X
- R.S. Westman, ed.: The Copernican achievement. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1975 ISBN 0-520-02877-5
- N.M. Swerdlow, O. Neugebauer: Mathematical astronomy in Copernicus's De revolutionibus. New York : Springer, 1984 ISBN 0-387-90939-7 (Studies in the history of mathematics and physical sciences ; 10)
English translations of the De Revolutionibus:
- On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres [translated] with an introd. and notes by A. M. Duncan. Newton Abbot : David & Charles; New York : Barnes and Noble, 1976 ISBN 0-7153-6927-X (David & Charles) ISBN 0-064912-79-5 (Barnes and Noble)
- On the revolutions ; translation and commentary by Edward Rosen. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 ISBN 0-801-84515-7 (Foundations of natural history) (originally published Warsaw, 1978)
- On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres ... transl. by C.G. Wallis. (First published Annapolis : St John's Bookstore, 1939. Later republished in v. 15 of the series Great Books of the Western World (Chicago : Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952) and in the series of the same name published by the Franklin Library, Franklin Center, Philadelphia, 1985 and also in 1995 by Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY.) in its Great minds series - Science (ISBN 1-57392-035-5)
- De Revolutionibus, 1543 first edition - Full digital facsimile, Lehigh University.
- De Revolutionibus, autograph manuscript - Full digital facsimile, Jagiellonian University.
- Text from De Revolutionibus - English translation.
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