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An Old Urban Legend: Confused by the Copernican Cliche
BreakPoint ^ | 9 September 03 | Chuck Colson

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.


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; News/Current Events; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: astronomy; charlescolson; copernicus; galileo; pythagoras; science
Will do!

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.

1 posted on 09/09/2003 11:40:33 AM PDT by Mr. Silverback
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To: agenda_express; banjo joe; Believer 1; billbears; ChewedGum; Cordova Belle; cyphergirl; DeweyCA; ...
BreakPoint/Chuck Colson Ping!

If anyone wants on or off my BreakPoint Ping List, please notify me here or by freepmail.

2 posted on 09/09/2003 11:41:12 AM PDT by Mr. Silverback (Airman, bring me 5 gallons of prop wash, 20 feet of flightline and 2 gallons of striped paint.)
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To: Mr. Silverback
Thanks for the interesting post.

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.

3 posted on 09/09/2003 11:43:56 AM PDT by wideawake (God bless our brave soldiers and their Commander in Chief)
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To: Mr. Silverback
Interesting. For more information on Danielson's paper see here.
4 posted on 09/09/2003 11:51:40 AM PDT by FourPeas (Preview? I don't need no stinkin' Preview.)
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To: wideawake
That's really interesting, I never came across that concept before. Makes sense that the center would be the furthest (under pre-Copernicus cosmology).

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. ;-)

5 posted on 09/09/2003 11:52:38 AM PDT by Mr. Silverback (Airman, bring me 5 gallons of prop wash, 20 feet of flightline and 2 gallons of striped paint.)
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To: Mr. Silverback
I would say that what-goes-around-what depends on how you look at it.

One might still say that everything else moves relative to a stationary earth.
6 posted on 09/09/2003 12:10:02 PM PDT by Age of Reason
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To: Mr. Silverback
Bouvier de Fontenelle wrote satirically that Copernicus had "humbled the vanity of mankind,"..

The French surrender once again.

7 posted on 09/09/2003 12:45:10 PM PDT by Orion78 (I WILL NEVER FORGET!!! FREE IRAN!!! BUSH 2004!!!)
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To: Mr. Silverback
Size and location is utterly unrelated to importance. Is Jupiter "more important" than Earth? The whole argument is just silly.
8 posted on 09/09/2003 1:09:44 PM PDT by Restorer (Never let schooling interfere with your education.)
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To: Mr. Silverback
Call me a skeptic, but this article comes from a site whiose stated mission "is to develop and communicate Christian worldview messages that offer a critique of contemporary culture and encourage and equip the church to think and live Christianly." The two other commentaries concern "the case against evolution" and Harry Potter.

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.

9 posted on 09/09/2003 1:13:20 PM PDT by KayEyeDoubleDee (const tag& constTagPassedByReference)
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To: Mr. Silverback
If you would like to read a great book that elaborates on this topic, I suggest C.S. Lewis' "An Image Discarded". He used it in the classes he taught on mideval literature. It is a description and discussion of the mideval 'model' of the universe.
10 posted on 09/09/2003 1:16:06 PM PDT by Pete
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To: Age of Reason
You can still use the earth as the center of the universe, IIRC didn't Einstein use that as a reference for relativity?

In classical mechanics though the Earth going round the Sun is not a truth. It is just more convenient for the math. A lot of people forget that.

DK
11 posted on 09/09/2003 1:21:25 PM PDT by Dark Knight
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To: Dark Knight
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.
12 posted on 09/09/2003 1:27:26 PM PDT by eastsider
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To: eastsider
Aristarchus of Samos (3rd century B.C.) believed that the earth revolves around the sun. Philolaus the Pythagorean (c. 470-390 B.C.) made the earth a planet and said that the earth orbits the central fire.

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.

13 posted on 09/09/2003 1:43:05 PM PDT by Verginius Rufus
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To: Mr. Silverback
I saw some program on a history channel (maybe A&E or Discovery) that kept emphasizing that if it wasn't for Galileo, that we wouldn't know that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

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).

14 posted on 09/09/2003 2:07:37 PM PDT by weegee
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To: Dark Knight
didn't Einstein use that as a reference for relativity?

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.)

15 posted on 09/09/2003 2:23:33 PM PDT by Lonesome in Massachussets (Uday and Qusay and Idi-ay are ead-day)
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To: Verginius Rufus
That is a use of phenominal language. Next?


16 posted on 09/09/2003 2:25:41 PM PDT by =Intervention= (RINO guide to success: When in doubt, sell out!)
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To: Dark Knight
In classical mechanics though the Earth going round the Sun is not a truth. It is just more convenient for the math. A lot of people forget that.

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).

17 posted on 09/09/2003 2:29:11 PM PDT by Age of Reason
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To: Lonesome in Massachussets
You are making my head ache trying to remember my 20 year back physics...
"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. "

Wasn't centrifugal force a frame of reference, and centripetal (sp) the frameless version?

Please don't make me remember my chemistry though, just asking for a favor?

DK

Hey, wanna come to the music sharing thread...it's just over here...
http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/978863/posts

18 posted on 09/09/2003 2:49:44 PM PDT by Dark Knight
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To: Dark Knight
centrifugal force noun
The component of apparent force on a body in curvilinear motion, as observed from that body, that is directed away from the center of curvature or axis of rotation.

centripetal force noun
The component of force acting on a body in curvilinear motion that is directed toward the center of curvature or axis of rotation.

The centripetal force is supplied by gravity. The centrifugal force by inertia, V x V/R and all that. Newton said they've got to balance.
19 posted on 09/09/2003 2:56:29 PM PDT by Lonesome in Massachussets (Uday and Qusay and Idi-ay are ead-day)
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To: Lonesome in Massachussets
I reread your post and just wanted to try a bit different way of saying what I mean. A model is not truth. A model can help with predictability, or functionality of understanding but does not convey absolute truth. Models as human developed constructs attempt to help us explain reality, but should never be confused with reality itself.

Hence the model of an Earth centered cosmos is less useful than a solar one, it is not a truth based decision, merely the decision to use a more functional model. I suppose we could use the center of the milky way as a model but I really don't like that math either.

DK
I also think that is precisely where the EVO/CREAVO fights start. There, I did it. Do you think we can get this thread to 2000?
20 posted on 09/09/2003 3:08:03 PM PDT by Dark Knight
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To: Age of Reason
I haven't looked at Copernicus' book, but I had always heard that the preface was added by the Lutheran publisher without Copernicus' authorization.

The January 1994 Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has a "stated meeting report" by Owen Gingerich entitled "Circles of the Gods: Copernicus, Kepler, and the Ellipse," which is quite interesting. At the end there's a note saying that Mr. Gingerich ended his lecture showing a cartoon in which Kepler announces, "The orbit of the planet is elliptical," while three of his puzzled contemporaries muse, "What's an orbit?" "What's a planet?" and "What's elliptical?"

21 posted on 09/09/2003 6:08:31 PM PDT by Verginius Rufus
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To: Dark Knight
A model is not truth. A model can help with predictability, or functionality of understanding but does not convey absolute truth. Models as human developed constructs attempt to help us explain reality, but should never be confused with reality itself.

Yes and no. A model's validity is dependant on how close it manges to get us to understanding how our external, objective reality actually works. Their validity may be deductive-nomological or inductive-statistical, but either way, they serve as a kind of truth statement that help us understand the connections and relationships between seemingly disparate phenomena. We can never say for certain, however, that any model is ever complete.

Also instead, of viewing models as constructs, I prefer to see them as mental structures which are part of the cognitive apparatus which helps guide us through the external world. And here is my problem with the whole Anthropic Principle, which is itself a none-too subtle attempt at reviving the old Ptolemic conception of Man being at the centre of the universe. Instead of viewing the universe as being as attuned to us, it's more accurate to say that we are attuned to the universe. Our cognitive, perceptual and communicative faculties, whether through adaptation or exaptation, have evolved to help us make sense of the universe.

22 posted on 09/09/2003 6:22:43 PM PDT by RightWingAtheist
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To: RadioAstronomer; edwin hubble; r9etb
You guys are the experts; we're just amateurs :)
23 posted on 09/09/2003 6:25:26 PM PDT by RightWingAtheist
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To: RightWingAtheist
Just like a shadow can be a good representation of something, it is still a representation and should never be confused the the original. Models can change, as can paradigms.

I am hoping truth and reality does not, but I cannot say with authority that it is the case. Would you and I hold the exact same opinions if we took a smart pill and doubled our IQ's? I know it would change our models and paradigms but would it change the underlying truth or reality?

DK
I would take it in a minute. Heck, I might take two.
24 posted on 09/09/2003 6:41:45 PM PDT by Dark Knight
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To: Dark Knight
Please, please send me the URL for those smart pills . . . just as long as they're not hold overs from the 70s. There were a lot of smart pills from that era that were tried by dumb-shits like me.
25 posted on 09/09/2003 8:22:22 PM PDT by Phil V.
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To: Age of Reason
One might still say that everything else moves relative to a stationary earth.

You can use the Earth as your frame of reference. In fact, one of my orbit classes at NASA did exactly that. We used the Earth as a frame of reference instead of the sun when we described the celestial sphere. (It described the Sun orbiting the Earth in that reference frame.)

26 posted on 09/09/2003 8:58:41 PM PDT by RadioAstronomer
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To: Phil V.
One pill makes you larger
One pill makes you small
The ones that...mother gives you
Don't do anything at all

Phil V spaketh thusly:

"...just as long as they're not hold overs from the 70s. There were a lot of smart pills from that era that were tried by dumb-shits like me.

27 posted on 09/09/2003 9:08:39 PM PDT by Ready4Freddy (Veni Vidi Velcro)
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To: Lonesome in Massachussets
Thanks for mentioning Koestler. The Sleepwalkers is a great read!!
28 posted on 09/09/2003 9:10:08 PM PDT by moni kerr (Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way)
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To: Lonesome in Massachussets
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.

I hate the term "centrifugal force". There is no such thing. For example, what you "feel" (being forced towared the outside of the turn) as a car is rounding a curve and what is described as centrifugal force, is nothing more than your mass trying to continue in a strait line. (see Newtons three laws). The real force is actually in the directon towards the turn (center) and is called centripetal force.

29 posted on 09/09/2003 9:12:24 PM PDT by RadioAstronomer
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To: RadioAstronomer
I agree, I was trying to give a concise answer. BTW, since you're a radio astronomer, what's the "fourth test of General Relativity" and to whom is it credited? Hint: I have Radar Astronomy (Evans and Hagfors) sitting here on my desk.
30 posted on 09/10/2003 6:03:16 AM PDT by Lonesome in Massachussets (Uday and Qusay and Idi-ay are ead-day)
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To: KayEyeDoubleDee
"Call me a skeptic, but this article comes from a site whiose stated mission "is to develop and communicate Christian worldview . . . "

The author is stating the conclusion of someone else's research, not his own.
31 posted on 09/10/2003 6:10:30 AM PDT by webstersII
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To: moni kerr
>> The Sleepwalkers is a great read!!

Unfortunately it is very uneven. He avoids the breathlessly hagiographic style that mars so much of popular histories of science. (E.g., Dava Sobel). The accounts of Ptolemic and pre-Ptolemic astronomy are a little too superficial and muddled. I don't think he appreciates Ptolemy's accomplishments. He doesn't hit his stide until he gets to Copernicus. He's in love with Kepler and his treatment is superb. He tries to knock Galileo off his pedestal. It is interesting to see someone defending the Jesuits and the Pope and quite adroitly, at that. Tycho is underdeveloped, but the chapters on Newton and classical physics give the impression of being unfinished and modern physics, i.e., Einstein, are little more than a very rough outline.

Unlike so many popularizers of the history of science (e.g., Dava Sobel), he seems to have more than a rudimentary grasp of the subject. I agree, on balance, it's a great read.
32 posted on 09/10/2003 6:31:45 AM PDT by Lonesome in Massachussets (Uday and Qusay and Idi-ay are ead-day)
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To: Verginius Rufus; RadioAstronomer
I haven't looked at Copernicus' book, but I had always heard that the preface was added by the Lutheran publisher without Copernicus' authorization.

I do remember something about an assistant of Copernicus being responsible for bringing the book to publication, and for doing something Copernicus did not authorize him to do.

But in any event, the earth-centric system was actually a better predictor of planetary motion than was the Copernican model of a sun-centered system--the larger inaccuracies caused by the Copernican were, I believe, based on the erroroneous idea that planetary orbits were circular.

But the chief advantage of the Copernican model was the far simpler calculations needed to compute planetary movement--albeit at the price of being less accurate.

So actually, those who favored the earth-centered soloar system had the weight of evidence on their side, as calculations based on formulas associated with that system more accurately fit astronomical observations.

(I believe there was famous debate about this in those days. A Cardinal Bellarmine, arguing on behalf of the Church, won the argument for the earth-centered model on just those grounds: The Earth-centered model fit the evidence better.)

I suppose the Copernican model might have been made more exact in its results by adding additional calculations, but then it might have been just as complex as the earth-centric model, and there would be no reason to think it better in any respect.

I think it wasn't until Newton and eliptical orbits that Copernicus' ideas were fully vindicated.

This entire episode taught me more about the flawed human concept of genius than it did about astronomy: If Copernicus publically insisted that the sun was indeed the center--he was a fool whom subsequent science made lucky.

And so today he is hailed as a visionary genius.

But tommorow?

Just who is hailed as a genius to which generation of men--is a very subjective judgement.

Genius is just fashionable thinking.

33 posted on 09/10/2003 11:51:17 AM PDT by Age of Reason
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To: Lonesome in Massachussets
BTT! Will answer tomorrow. :-)
34 posted on 09/15/2003 9:32:43 PM PDT by RadioAstronomer
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