Skip to comments.An Old Urban Legend: Confused by the Copernican Cliche
Posted on 09/09/2003 11:40:31 AM PDT by Mr. Silverback
Dr. Dennis Danielson, professor of English at the University of British Columbia, has some advice: Don't believe everything you read in textbooks.
Speaking at the meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation in July, Danielson noted that the conventional wisdom says that when scholars thought the earth was the center of the universe, then humans were the king of the cosmic hill, creatures in God's image. But when Copernicus discovered Earth orbited the Sun, man concluded that he was a mere animal -- or so the story goes.
After nearly a decade of research, however, Danielson, who has specialized in linking the humanities and science, has debunked that story.
As a student, Danielson learned that when Copernicus discovered that Earth orbited the Sun, this demoted our planet. Instead of the center of the universe, Earth became one planet in a myriad. This "standard interpretation" is generally assumed to be historical fact. But Danielson has called it "the great Copernican cliche."
First, the cliche misstates what thinkers before Copernicus believed. Though they believed the earth was the center around which the universe revolved, they didn't think that position put Earth at the top of the cosmic heap. To the contrary, they had a low view of the center of the universe. The fifteenth-century philosopher Pico called it "a dung heap."
Instead, Earth orbiting the Sun was seen as a promotion for the earth. Copernicus's student Rheticus wrote, "The globe of the earth has risen, while the Sun has descended to the center of universe."
So why did scholars resist the evidence that Earth moved around the Sun? Danielson found, "It was objected to because it ran counter to centuries of established astronomical tradition . . . [and] because it involved the absurd idea that terra firma was in motion."
Then where did textbook writers get the idea that moving Earth from the center of the universe gave Earth and humans inferior status? Danielson's research indicates that one hundred years after Copernicus, a writer of satire -- not a scientist -- started the story. Bouvier de Fontenelle wrote satirically that Copernicus had "humbled the vanity of mankind," whose arrogance had imagined himself as the center of the universe. This interpretation caught on and became the "unquestioned version of the Enlightenment."
In our lifetimes, the late astronomer Carl Sagan spoke of "billions and billions" of stars in the universe, with Earth being a small speck. Danielson notes an even "larger pattern" of demotion that appears in all of Carl Sagan's books.
Danielson summarizes: The "stage version of this transformation features the dark forces of religion and the Church locked in mortal combat with the enlightening power of science. Science has demonstrated the insignificance of mankind and the universe overall, and it has established -- you guessed it -- the centrality and importance of scientists in showing us how cosmically unimportant we are."
It's a convenient story for scientists and naturalists alike, but the Copernican cliche is nothing but an urban legend. Debunk it the next time you hear it.
It is mighty strange (apologies that some of the following is off-topic) how the folks who call for a more humble foreign policy refuse to eat their crow and how they constantly act like they are the saviors of all mankind who would solve everything if Americans would just get with the program. It is mighty strange how so many of those who think we're just random mutations riding on a speck can think themselves so big and important, and similarly see themselves as the saviors of the species.
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Few modernists realize that in medieval cosmology the center was as far from Heaven as possible - which is why medievals like Dante placed Hell in the center of the Earth.
Boy, I've really missed out on the Classics. When i think of all the crap I learned in High School, it's a wonder I can think at all. ;-)
The French surrender once again.
This is not to say that there couldn't be some merit to this guy's theory, but let's not jump the gun here, either.
In classical mechanics though the Earth going round the Sun is not a truth. It is just more convenient for the math.Bingo! The only ancient who posited anything other than the earth as the center of the universe was Pythagoras, to whom Copernicus dedicated his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.
According to the Bible, Joshua made the sun stand still (Joshua 10.12-14, quoting from the lost Book of Jashar). Obviously the Copernican theory is wrong, because it conflicts with the Scriptures.
I kept shouting at the tv, what about Copernicus? My friend who was watching picked up one of his encyclopedias and saw that Galileo worked from Copernicus' text.
The gist of the "documentary" (which had some historical recreations without dialogue) was that Galileo challenged the Church (practically giving them the finger).
I got tired of the hyperbolic presentation of such documentaries and never watch them (but ocassionally I'll see them on when I'm at some friend's who thinks he's watching educational tv).
Actually, the centrifugal force associated with the Sun rotating around the Earth would be HUGH! Even Einstein can't help you here. Newton had the Earth and Sun rotating around their common center of Gravity.
Kostler gives more or less the same view as this author.
Koestler also claims that the Galileo's "Dialogues Concerning Two Sciences" was bad astronomy and bad physics. For instance, he explained the tides are resulting from the Earth's rotation, rather than - as Kepler urgently suggested - the effect of the Moon's gravity. Galileo's contribution was in the inventing the science of dynamics.
Ptolemic astronomy worked as well or better than Coperican for predicting the positions of the planets and was simplier to apply. It also fulfilled the intuitive need for a mechanism - the nested crystalline spheres - to carry the planets along. Until Tycho's painstaking observations, no one had any better model for planetary motion consistent with observations.
Kepler was captivated by the smoother trajectories that the Copernican model afforded. Ptolemic trajectories superimposed the Earth's orbit on top of the orbits of the planets, causing a funny spiral trajectory, compared to the oval shapes resulting from Copernius' epicycles. When Kepler attempted to fit Tycho's observations of Mars to the Copernican model, he found they would not comply and hit upon the ellipse.
Newton's Laws perfectly explain Kepler's orbits and a great number of other things as well. (Such as tides and the precession of the equinox.)
It wasn't until Maxwell invented electrodynamics, that inconsistencies between E/M and mechanics lead to relativity. (The precession of the perihelion of Mercury had been noticed prior to the theory of relativity, but did not lead to it. Rather, it is one of the three classical tests of General Relativity. The other were only observed afterwards: Gravitational red shift and Deflection of starlight during an eclipse.)
I seem to remember that in the forward to Copernicus's book, he says just that (I believe the experts are still debating whether he meant it to deflect criticism from Rome).