In 1543, with relatively little heralding or fanfare, the De revolutionibus orbium coelestium of Nicholas Copernicus was published by his disciple Rheticus, and lit a flame that was to explode into one of the most revolutionary of scientific doctrines and the most exciting intellectual heresy of the Renaissance. Reaching with the cosmic reach of astronomical calculation into the whirling maze of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic universe, the Polish priest stopped the sun, eliminated a multitude of planetary movements, loosed the earth from its age-old anchorage at the centre of things, and flung it, rotating and revolving, into space.
When Copernicus died others--and notably such English scientists as John Dee, Robert Recorde, Thomas Digges, and William Gilbert*--picked up the torch he had lit, and carried it forward into those obscure places where the authority of Aristotle and Ptolemy still reigned absolute. But the final blow was not struck until Galileo brought to bear the direct observations of his magical "glass"--the telescope. In 1610, in his Siderius Nuncius, he published the results of his scrutinies of the skies and turned the torch of Copernicus into a veritable beacon that illuminated the new universe for all who had eyes to see and minds to accept.
A man who was possessed, like Donne, of an "hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning," to use his own words, could hardly help following with the greatest____________________