Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres


I have been trying to spend less time on Instagram lately, so now I only have a few things on my phone including a copy of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. I expected it to be extremely boring, and full of equations. If you're not up to speed on Copernicus, this is a scientific paper that is also a letter addressed directly to the Pope. This is the paper where he reveals his findings that the Universe is actually Heliocentric. I wasn't expecting it all to be so relatable.

First off, like all of us lately, Copernicus was absolutely obsessed with Mercury in retrograde. He was also deeply apologetic about his discoveries. He spends about a quarter of the paper explaining that with his theory of Heliocentrism, he is in no way trying to be dramatic. He talks about our collective understanding that things that are unmoving and unchanging are divine, whereas things that move and change are chaotic and lesser. The whole paper seems to be an attempt to sooth the reader into being open to his ideas.

Writing directly to the Pope has two purposes. He talks about his belief that scientific discoveries should be communicated through writing instead of through word of mouth between scientists. This prevents elitism from spreading and from knowledge only belonging to a few.

My personal take away from reading it was just how simple the discovery was. Planets outside of Earth in the solar system follow a regular orbital motion in the sky, whereas Mercury and Venus do a little loop every now and then and appear to us to start traveling backwards. This is due to them having a much shorter orbit than Earth's orbit, (and is the reason why emotionally you had such a weird month last month). It's not like people didn't already know that Mercury and Venus had this weird motion, so from a modern perspective, it seems so obvious that the next logical conclusion would be to draw out what that weird motion would actually creating. I'm not trying to act like I could have done it, but it just seems baffling that such a simple discovery absolutely upended society.

When I think about other great leaps forward, they all to me have actually been understated in how impressive they are. Gutenberg for instance, didn't just think about pressing ink to paper, he invented different types of metal alloys for effectively forming the metal letters and their casings. Or Homer didn't just write something nice, he (or she) wrote the two greatest poems ever written, but not even written, they just kept memorizing the entire poem for generations, and that's how we know about it today. No offense to Copernicus, but his findings almost seem obvious. Also, I would like to also point out that Heliocentrism was discovered independently of Copernicus almost 18 centuries earlier, in a book that no longer exists. So clearly the information was out there in the ether somewhere.

One thing I found shocking that Copernicus mentions almost in passing was the immense distance of the firmament of the sky. He explains that the stars outside our solar system must be vastly, infinitely far away. I'm not sure why that struck me so much. I'm no Pope, but it seems like it's one thing to say that the Earth spins in little circles, and another to introduce the infinite unknowable vastness and emptiness of the universe. As if the spinning would shake your faith, but the other thing wouldn't.