The Work of the Best and Greatest Artist: A Forgotten Story of Religion, Science, and Stars in the Copernican Revolution

Article excerpt

IN 1576 THE ENGLISH ASTRONOMER Thomas Digges (1546-95) published his English translation of Nicholaus Copernicus's (1473-1543) De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium together with a sketch of the Copernican universe under the heading "A Perfit description of the Coelestial Orbes" (fig. 1). Because Digges's sketch shows the planets circling the Sun, surrounded by an infinite expanse of stars, it is often hailed as a forerunner of the modern, scientific understanding of an infinite universe in which the Earth is but a speck. (1) However, Digges was illustrating not the insignificance of Earth but the greatness of a universe of stars that testified to the omnipotence and magnificence of God. Ideas such as Digges's played a prominent role in Copernican thought, so much so that Copernicans cited Divine Omnipotence to answer one of the most powerful scientific objections to the heliocentric theory. This Copernican use of religion to answer a scientific objection to heliocentrism greatly troubled one of the most prominent defenders of geocentrism, the Italian Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598-1671). The story of Digges, Riccioli, and the stars challenges the modern portrayal of the Copernican Revolution as being a contest of religion versus science: geocentricism versus heliocentrism. It also raises questions about how historians and scientists, and in particular Catholic historians and scientists, could forget such a dynamic part of the history of ideas.

Writers today commonly portray a Copernican infinite universe, such as Digges envisioned, as rendering irrelevant human beings or the Earth or even God--usually with reference to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) being burned at the stake, supposedly for advocating such a universe. Consider, as a very recent example, some quotes from David Wootton's newly published biography of Galileo, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies.

  Galileo was prepared to say that there is no way of telling
  whether the Universe is finite or infinite. This was dangerous
  territory. Bruno had argued that the universe was infinite, and
  that not only were the stars suns, but they were circled by
  innumerable inhabited planets (a view which would imply
  innumerable Christs, for each world would need its own saviour).
  Moreover, it was difficult to see how an infinite universe could
  be the work of a creator: an infinite universe must surely have
  existed (as Aristotle claimed) throughout eternity. (2)

And later:

  Indeed [heliocentrism] offered a view of the cosmos in which
  humankind, and the things that matter to humankind--love and
  hatred, virtue and vice, mortality and immortality, salvation
  and damnation--were irrelevant. Far from embodying a scheme of
  values, far from embodying a telos or purpose, Galileo's universe
  appeared to be indifferent to moral and metaphysical issues, and
  even indifferent to our own existence. ... Galileo's greatest and
  at the same time most disturbing achievement was to recognize that
  the universe was not made for the sake of human beings, and that it
  teaches us nothing about right or wrong, and offers us neither
  salvation nor damnation. (3)

The largest illustration in Watcher, aside from the frontispiece portrait of Galileo himself, is Digges's sketch of the infinite Copernican universe. (4)

The notion that the vastness of the Copernican cosmos indicates purposelessness and insignificance is so common today as to be cliche. Yet Copernicans apparently were of the mind that the vastness of the universe testified to human beings about the power and magnificence of God. Copernicus himself first connects the vastness of the universe to God. In the Copernican theory, the Earth changes position with respect to the stars as it circles the Sun. That motion should reveal itself in the stars, an effect known to astronomers as "annual parallax." Yet no such parallax appears to the naked eye. To Copernicus, this indicates that Earth's motion around the Sun is negligible compared to the distances to the stars, and in those vast distances is seen God's handiwork. …