Copernicus and the Modern Scientific Revolution

Nicolaus Copernicus (A.D. 1473-1543) introduced the revolutionary scientific advance that changed our concept of the universe and helped usher in the Modern Scientific Revolution. At a time when the earth was considered the center of the universe, Copernicus presented the idea that the earth, in fact, revolved around the sun. Indeed his pivotal book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres), was published just before Copernicus’ death and is often cited as the catalyst for the explosion of scientific advances that led to the Scientific Revolution. His work started as a white paper known as the Commentariolus, or Little Commentary, in which he first described his heliocentric hypothesis. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory replaced Ptolemy’s (A.D. 90-168) long-standing geocentric theory which placed the earth at the center of the universe.

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Copernicus’ theory posited that the universe was composed of eight spheres. The outer sphere, he argued, was made up of motionless stars with the sun, also motionless, at its center. Copernicus argued that the planets, each with their own unique sphere of orbit, revolved around the sun. One exception is the moon, which does indeed revolve around earth. He argued that what people had observed as the apparent daily movement of the sun around the earth was in fact the earth’s rotation on its own axis. Despite this revolutionary idea, the first printing of Copernicus’ opus did not cause much of a stir. It wasn´t until 1546, when Giovanni Maria Tolosani wrote a treatise defending the truth of the Biblical scriptures over Copernicus’ revolutionary scientific advance that controversy surrounding the heliocentric model began to erupt. By 1616, Galileo had been ordered by the Church to condemn the theory as mere hypothesis, simply an alternative concept of the universe. Galileo, however, did not renounce Copernicus’ ideas. On the contrary, he supported them and as a result was convicted of heresy in 1633 and placed under house arrest for not supporting the Catholic Church’s call to question the validity of the heliocentric model. Copernicus’ book was placed on the list of forbidden volumes and withdrawn from publication for “correction”. Copernicus’ idea so rattled the foundations of religious thinking at the time that his “corrected” tome was not made available to the general public for some time. Rather it was only available to qualified scholars by special permission. More than one hundred years would pass before then Pope Benedict XIV removed the volume from the list of forbidden works and allowed circulation of the uncorrected version.

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