The Work of the Best and Greatest Artist: A Forgotten Story of Religion, Science, and Stars in the Copernican Revolution
Graney, Christopher M., Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
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)
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. …