Science in Christian Perspective

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From: PSCF 39 (June 1987):  109-110.

Nicolaus Copemicus (1473-1543) was born in German Thorn; he was the youngest of four children-his sister became a nun. His f~ther was a wealthy burgher and town official. At ten, upon the death of his father, he was adopted by his uncle Lucas Waczenbrode (1447-1512). At eighteen he entered the century-old university in the capital Cracow, where he studied astionomy under Albert Brudzewski; he was good in mathematics. Three years later he went to Ermeland, where his uncle had been made bishop of one of the four dioceses of East Prussia; he lived in the bishop's palace at Heilsberg (Lidzbark Warminski).

In 1496 he went to study law at the University of Bologna. While there, he also assisted the astronomer Domenico Novarro of Ferrara (1454-1504). He spent the great Jubilee Year (1500) in Rome, where he taught mathematics privately and gave a public lecture on astronomy. Meanwhile, at twenty-four he had been designated a canon of the cathedral at Frauenburg. After a trip back there he returned to receive his doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara and to study medicine at the University of Padua. At thirty he became secretary and later physician for his uncle. Six years later he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Cracow; he published a translation of a minor Greek poet. Copernicus was truly a Renaissance humanist. He acted as advisor and physician to his uncle until his death in 1512, remaining at the cathedral in Frauenburg.

At Frauenburg he employed his leisure studying cosmology, making some astronomical instruments, and taking some planetary observations; there are about sixty records of data (he was not a good observer). At forty-one, however, he did receive a request from the Lateran Council to reform the Julian calendar, which he declined to alter, being of the opinion that the known solar and lunar positions were too inaccurate for calculations. Two years later he was assigned responsibility for administering the temporal and spiritual affairs of outlying estates of the Chapter so that he had to live in the castle at Allenstein, the capital of Ermeland. In 1519 the whole territory was besieged by the Teutonic Knights; Copernicus arranged for its successful defense and restoration. In 1522 he recommended a new money system for the Prussian Landtag; he conceived the law credited later to Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579). He is regarded as the founder of Polish economics. At fifty he was appointed Administrator General for the diocese during a six-month interregnum between two bishops. He was truly a man of affairs; he served public needs. Yet he would take the time to travel north from Heilsberg to K6nigsberg to treat a man that was ill.

Copernicus never practiced astrology. There is no unanimous agreement as to his real contribution to astronomy per se. Some would extol him as the perfecter of antiquity; others, as the harbinger of modern astronomy. He did, of course, put old wine in new bottles. The ancient goal in astronomy was "to save the appearances"-a mathematical task. (Greek mathematics [learning] consisted of the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music-no natural philosophy.) Copernicus did restore the methods and parameters of practical astronomy, but he himself was more mathematically inclined. Since, in his manuscript sketch, "Commentariolus" he visualized only 34 epicycles being requisite for planetary motions, as contrasted with the 80 required by Ptolemy, many have concluded that his system is simpler. Actually it is more complex. What is more, the data available at that time would not have been sufficiently accurate to discriminate between the two models.

What is evident from Copernicus's point of view is the order and harmony of the planetary system, their relative distances from the sun-a matter of aesthetic insight based upon a mathematically different reference point. Nevertheless, the model was real to him. There was no radical discontinuity with the past; rather he sought to restore the purity of celestial circular motion in lieu of Ptolemy's ad hoc equant. The so-called Copernican revolution was a matter of degree, not of kind. There was, to be sure, some natural philosophy contrary to Aristotle, vide licet, his insistence upon no "fire-filled" space beneath the moon, his placing of the earth in the circular-motion aether, his assignment to each planet of its own gravitational attraction, his claim that "the earth is in the highest degree akin" to the moon. Book I of De Revolutionibus does deal generally with cosmology, but the major part (five books) is concerned exclusively with mathematical astronomy, that is, planetary motions, including those of the earth and moon. The final acceptance, however, of the Copernican theory was not made until Newton's physics was applied to Kepler's laws. But the great revolution in celestial physics had been ignited by Copernicus.

Whether Copernicus ever took priestly orders is problematical. His harmonious universe was certainly not in conflict with the Christian belief in an intelligent, creative God. After all, Aquinas had associated reason with theology. He had no compunction about dedicating De Revolutionibus to Pope Paul III. Nevertheless, the long delay in its publication is indicative of his fear that some Aristotelian theologians might be averse to his viewpoint. In the letter of dedication he wrote, "It may happen that certain exegesis, ignorant of mathematics, may feel privileged to pronounce judgment on my work by reasons of this or that scriptural passage twisted to this purpose. Should any such person criticize my meaning, I take no account of them." It so happened that the first theologian to attack it was Luther--on the basis of common sense. The first vigorous attack on Biblical grounds was by an astronomer, Tycho Brahe. The decentralizing of man was not a concern of either Copernicus or Galileo; in fact, one could commend it for making religion less anthropocentric and God less provincial.

Copernicus had worked for years on De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, (Book I completed in 1519, the whole in 1530), based upon the Alphonsine Tables; he was finally persuaded to publish it by a young professor of mathematics from the Lutheran University of Wittenberg, who visited him in 1539. A year later this professor, Georg Joachim von Lauchen (Rh5ticus, 1514-1576), published a summary of Copernicus' work, entitled Narratio Prima de Libris Revolutionum. Copernicus then entrusted his own manuscript to a fellow-member of the Cathedral Chapter, Tiedemann Giese, for its publication under Rhdticus' supervision in Nuremberg by the printer Johann Petrius. A printed copy was given to him on May 24, 1543, the day of his death. It is now commemorated by some Lutheran churches in the United States.

The opus had an unsigned introduction by a Lutheran mathematician of Nuremberg, Andreas Osiander (14981552), who had been entrusted with the supervision of its publication when Rh5ticus went to Leipzig. This non-Catholic felt it necessary to qualify the radical model by insisting that any scientific hypothesis may be true or only probably or even false-purely a fiction "to save appearances"-not at all Copernicus's point of view!