Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A revolutionary idea about revolutions

Nicolaus Copernicus, remember him?  He's the guy who challenged the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe, and that the Sun, the planets and all the stars rotate around it. His book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), published in 1543, put the Sun at the center.

Way back in the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy had published a set of tables and formulas that would allow one to estimate the positions of the planets at any time in the past or future. His book, The Almagest, was indispensable for any astrologer. It's right up there with the Da Vinci Code on the New York Times list.

Copernicus saw the complicated system of circles on circles that Ptolemy had described and said "there's gotta be a better way". He hit on the idea that putting the Sun at the center would eliminate a lot of the complication. He saw this, not just as a computational artifice, but as reality. He developed the theory, he developed the tables, and published it.

One of Coperniucus' early attempts

In his preface to De revolutionibus, Copernicus expressed his fear at being “hissed off the stage” for proposing that the Earth moves. Based on the reaction that the book received, his fears were well founded. Protestant leaders quickly started hissing. The Catholic church took it’s time to respond, but joined the hissing.  There were philosophers on either side, and even the scientists of the day were generally not kind.

Copernicus versus the Bible

Copernicus' book was destined to run afoul of "the authorities", since the whole heliocentric thing ("the Sun in the center with the Earth going around") contradicted a whole lot of verses from the Bible. There are a number of verses that make it clear that the position of the Earth is fixed: 

The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
I Chronicles 16:30

[The Lord] has established the world; it shall never be moved.
Psalms 93:1

The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
Psalms 96:10

You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken.
Psalms 104:5

And the whole foundation thing -- that the Earth is on some sort of holder -- comes up a lot. We see it in Job 38:4, 2 Samuel 22:16, Psalms 18:15, Psalms 82:5, Proverbs 8:29, Isaiah 24:18, Isaiah 40:21, Isaiah 48:13, Isaiah 51:13 and 16, Ecclesiastes 10:16, Ecclesiastes 16:10, Jeremiah 31:37, Micah 6:2, Zechariah 12:1, Mathew 13:35, and Mathew 25:34. Now, being a math guy, I'm not so good at counting, but I think there are almost 20 places where the Bible tells me that there is something physically holding up the Earth.
Actual satellite image of the Earth on it's foundation

Other verses in the Bible state that the Sun is the one that is doing all the moving:

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hidden from its heat.
Psalm 19:4 - 6

The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
Ecclesiastes 1:5

On the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Lord; and he said in the sight of Israel, ‘Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.’  And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in mid-heaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.
Joshua 10:12-13

So, I think it's pretty clear. If you take these verses literally, then heliocentricity is just dumb.

Reaction from the religious sector - Protestant

The Protestant religious leaders seem to unanimously regard Copernicus as sacrilegious. Andreas Osiander was the Lutheran minister who supervised the printing of De Revolutionibus. Osiander felt compelled to put his own spin on the book, just to make it clear that the Earth doesn't spin. He added a forward that made it clear that taking the Earth away from the center of the universe was just an artifice used to make calculations of the positions of the planets easier:
For these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable. On the contrary, if they provide a calculus consistent with the observations, that alone is enough.

Copernicus' Revolutionibus and Kesey's Revolution Bus

As another example, Martin Luther, who led the Protestant Reformation, had this to say about Copernicus (1539):

[Copernicus] wishes the turn the whole of astronomy upside down. But I believe in the Holy Scripture, since Joshua ordered the Sun, not the earth to stand still.

Melanchthon was a close friend of Luther’s, and his comrade in arms in the protestant revolution. He wrote the following in 1549:

The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the Earth moves; and they maintain that neither the eighth sphere nor the Sun revolves. … Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it.

John Calvin, another protestant reformer was equally disdainful in 1554. He was reported to have said

Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?

That’s what Calvin was supposed to have said, anyway. He probably never said it. Just someone said that he said it.

Reaction from the religious sector - Catholic

Originally, the Catholic church was receptive to Copernicus' idea and urged him to complete the tables and get the book published. But this excitement waned after the book came out. The Catholic church felt threatened by the Protestants, but not nearly so much as they felt threatened by a heliocentric universe. Pope Paul V (1616) was pretty clear in his denouncement:

[The Copernican theory is] more scandalous, more detestable, and more pernicious to Christianity than any contained in the books of Calvin, Luther and of all other heretics put together.

Cardinal Bellarmine was quite succinct:

[The Copernican theory is] false and altogether opposed to Scripture.

Pope Paul V placed De Revolutionibus on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1616. A Catholic faced excommunication for reading this seditious work. The pope did make a revised version of the book available, however. The revised version of the Revolutionibus was careful to state that this was all just a hypothesis.
Books can be used for enlightenment

... and from the philosophers

Even the philosophers weren't all that tight with Copernicus's revolutionary idea about revolutions. In 1597, the philosopher Jean Bodin ridiculed Copernicus:

No one in his senses, or imbued with the slightest knowledge of physics, will ever think that the Earth, heavy and unwieldy from its own weight and mass, staggers up and down around its center and that of the Sun; for at the slightest jar of the Earth, we would see cities and fortresses, towns and mountains thrown down.

Pierre Gassendi, who we have to thank for the phrase "aurora borealis", was a bit more encouraging. He held that the Copernican system was an interesting hypothesis, but lamented that it was inconsistent with scripture.

The poet John Donne was also encouraging. In his satirical book Ignatius His Conclave (1611), he has Copernicus pounding at the gates of Hell, and yelling to Lucifer to be admitted. 

... and lastly, from the scientists

Copernicus was originally not well accepted among the astronomers, either. The most prominent astronomer of the time, Tycho Brahe, obstinately held on to his own model of the universe. The Tycho universe has the Sun, the Moon, and the stars all going round a fixed Earth, but the planets all make their way around the Sun.
Tycho Brahe doing something scientific on some sort of scientific thing

Thomas Blundeville, an English astronomer was one of the more positive of the astronomers:

Copernicus… affirmeth that the Earth turneth about and that the Sun standeth still in the midst of the heavens, by the help of which false supposition he hath made truer demonstrations of the motions and revolutions of the celestial spheres, than ever were made before.

Christopher Clavius, a contemporary of Galileo, was known in his day as one of the most revered astronomers. Today, he is known for two things: his steadfast refusal to accept the heliocentric model, and for the irony of having a crater on the Moon named after him. (Clavius did not believe Galileo's account of craters on the moon.)

You will recognize the name Marin Mersenne from the prime numbers that were named after him. This mathematician  published a paper in 1623 that pointed out the difficulties in the Copernican theory.

Descartes (from whom we get the phrase "I think, therefor I am", and "Cartesian coordinates") probably believed in the Copernican theory, but was carefully mute on the subject.

Even Copernicus’ pupils, Georg Joachim Rheticus and Erasmus Reinhold, both adherents to the heliocentric model, were forbid by Wittenberg University to teach Copernicanism.

Adherents to Copernicanism

It is stated by A. R. Hall (The Scientific Revolution 1500 - 1800) that there were only six people in the time between 1543 and 1560 who were adherents to Copernicanism. Among these were the disciple Rheticus, a bishop and a small group of mathematician / astronomers in England including John Dee, Thomas Digges, John Field and Thomas Recorde.

Giordano Bruno was a mystic philosopher who was a forceful advocate of heliocentricity. Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. There are some accounts that say that he was executed for his Copernican views. While he did raise a ruckus in advocating the Copernican universe, there were more serious heresies that were his downfall.

Bruno preached that the universe is infinite, whereas, Copernicus had firmly held to the Aristotelian notion of a finite sphere of stars. But, the Copernican view falls out quite naturally from an infinite universe, since an infinite universe can have no center; and thus no special place for the Earth. Another consequence of an infinite universe is that there would be an infinite number of worlds just like the Earth, some of which may have people!

The displacement of the Earth from the center of the universe was difficult enough for the Church to accept, since it diminished the glory of Man. The idea that there are other children of God was just too much to take. 

Galileo was another early adherent to Copernicus' idea of placing the Sun at the center. His persecution by the Catholic Church is grist for another blog post.
"We shall sell no doctrines about heliocentricity before their time." [1]

A Preponderance of evidence

Speaking of Galileo, he built a telescope and pointed it into the skies. There he saw that Venus had phases, much like the phases we see of the moon. Whether this contradicts the Ptolemaic model is confusing, but it does show that Venus does not produce its own light. This in itself was heresy, just like Galileo's report of craters on the moon.

The next person to bring forth evidence against geocentricity was Kepler. He developed a set of three laws that pretty much require a heliocentric view of our dear solar system. The path of Mars, for example, is very neatly described as an ellipse instead of the complicated Spirograph curve of Ptolemy.

A Do-It-Yourself Ptolemaic Universe Kit

And then came Newton and his great colligation [2]. Newton brought together the laws of physics, the art of calculus, Kepler's laws and this new concept, the inverse square law of gravity, to describe the motions of the planets. A beautiful thing it was. Alexander Pope penned this epitaph for Newton:

"Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said Let Newton be! and all was light."

And yet... 

There are still some religious naysayers:

"This site is devoted to the historical relationship between the Bible and astronomy. It assumes that whenever the two are at variance, it is always astronomy—that is, our "reading" of the "Book of Nature," not our reading of the Holy Bible—that is wrong."

"Observation and correct mathematics have proven geocentricity - that the earth is the center of the universe, with the sun revolving around the earth once each day."

"Many attempts were made to prove that heliocentricity was true and geocentricity was false, right up until the early 1900's. All such attempts were unsuccessful."

"Dr Walter van der Kamp ... decided to examine the scientific evidence that the earth is not, indeed stationary at the centre of the universe. Perhaps to his surprise he found none. He found only flawed reasoning and experimental failure."

I have a simple message for you guys. You have a choice between giving up the notion that every single word in the Bible must be treated as literal fact, or giving up all the beautiful physics that has occurred since the time of Galileo.

[1] For those who didn't catch this, the image at the left is Galileo. At the right is Orson Welles, who made a commercial for Paul Masson in which he said in a very Orson Wellesian voice "We will serve no wine before its time". Too bad it wasn't Gallo-leo wine.

[2] Colligation means "to subsume (isolated facts) under a general concept". Here are a few other definitions:

"Colligation, according to Whewell, is the mental operation of bringing together a number of empirical facts by “superinducing” upon them a conception which unites the facts and renders them capable of being expressed by a general law."

"The ancient Greek, Ptolemy developed a set of equations that could be used to predict the positions of the planets at any time. The equations were based on a lot of wrong assumptions like the Earth is in the center, and all the rest of the celestial bodies move in circles that revolved around circles. The model worked, at least to an extent.

"A millennium or so later, Copernicus decided that the Sun belonged at the center. (I hope everyone celebrated his birthday yesterday?) Then Kepler came along and decided that ellipses made the whole thing simpler, and then Newton provided the big colligation. The inverse square law of gravity was the grand unifying theory that explained the whole enchilada."

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