Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Publish, Then Perish

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Publish, Then Perish

Article excerpt

In spring 1543 in Nuremburg, Germany, astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus, 70, held in his quivering hands the first printed copy of his groundbreaking book, De revolutionibus. Documenting a lifetime of conceptual and mathematical explorations, the book would change how we view the universe. Corpernicus, near death, had delayed the publication of his sure-to-be-controversial masterpiece for as long as he possibly could. The danger? De revolutionibus showed that the Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun (as seen in the diagram, at right, taken from the book), challenging the accepted view that Earth was at the center of the universe.

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Copernicus had many reasons to hesitate: fear of the church, doubt about his mathematical proofs, and perhaps a sense that this radical work might better appear only after he was safely in the grave. Such were the ways of scientific communication in Renaissance Europe.

Copernicus's theory was counter-intuitive. It set in motion a seemingly stationary Earth with a mathematical elegance that still amazes. He revised the celestial mechanics of the ancients and gave birth to the model of the solar system that we recognize today.

Although Copernicus didn't live to find this out, his theory was not initially thought dangerous but rather a handy way to calculate eclipses and planetary motions. Trouble would not come for nearly a hundred years, when Galileo Galilei trained his telescope on the phases of Venus, making observations contradicting the ancient Ptolemaic, Earth-centered system and confirming what Copernicus had geometrically suggested. …

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