Scientific Revolution and Copernicus’ Heliocentrism

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In today’s world it is common knowledge that the Earth revolves around the Sun at the center of the Solar System. In the 1500’s however, this was borderline heretical and by some considered to be blasphemy. The Ptolemaic system, developed by Claudius Ptolemy, was the accepted explanation of the heavens and the movement of celestial bodies. This was the case for over a millennium. The Ptolemaic system placed a stationary Earth and the center of the universe with all other planets orbiting around the Earth, to include the Sun.

When Nicolaus Copernicus published his major work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (translated as “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”), it was primarily due to the urging of one of his students, Georg Joachim de Porris, also known as Rheticus. Rheticus and Copernicus obviously believed in the concepts and research that culminated in the publication of the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres; however, I do not think that either of the two scientists could have foreseen the impact this work would have on philosophers and scientist over the next century and beyond. Even though Karl Poppers concept of philosophy of empirical falsification, or falsifiability, had not been coined in the 1500’s, I will discuss how Nicolaus Copernicus’ research and findings used it to disprove the long accepted standard for the modeling of the universe, the Ptolemaic system.

In addition, I will discuss how the publishing of his book eventually lead to a revolution in the scientific community (commonly referred to as the “Copernican Revolution”) led by prominent scientific names such as Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, and how this can be interpreted into Thomas Kuhn’s model, or Kuhn’s cycle. Further, I will employee Thomas Kuhn’s cycle to discuss why it took so long for the scientific revolution to occur and why this revolution was important to the history of science.

Before I address Popper and falsifiability lets discuss Copernicus and his theory a little deeper. As discussed previously, Nicolaus was an accomplished astronomer who had discovered flaws in the Ptolemaic System. According to his calculations, the Ptolemaic System had many flaws and the understanding of the universe and planetary motion was a source of motivation for Nicolaus. After being convinced by Rheticus to write down his theories and interpretations, Copernicus’ work was published in 1543, after he died (1543).

“On his deathbed in 1543 Nicholas Copernicus received the first published copy of his book” (McClellan) and as you will read about later, he probably did not read the text that made it to the public. “He divided the text into six parts: the first, and most controversial, concerned the arrangement of objects within the solar system; the second contained his new star catalog; the third covered precession, that is, how the motion of the Earth’s pole causes the fixed star about which the sky appears to rotate to change with time; the fourth discussed the Moon’s motions; and the fifth and sixth examined the motions of the planets” (Weinert). In addition, Rheticus turned over the publication of Nicolaus’ work to one Andreas Osiander.

Osiander not only published the major work, but hijacked and replaced the preface written by Copernicus and watered down what he knew to be fact and presented it as a hypothesis (Weinert) in order to appease the church and not upset the masses. In addition, he even changed the name of the book to the title that history accepts as Copernicus’ work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (translated as “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”). The original title was De Revolutionibus orbium mundi (translated as “On the Revolutions of the World”) (Weinert). Even though, his work was tainted by an outside source, it was the bedrock of today’s understanding of the universe.

In order to lay that foundation, Copernicus had to harness what today we call the scientific method in order to theorize, observe and formulate the discrepancies he found in the Ptolemaic System. While he was unaware of his practices, Nicolaus was knee deep in Karl Popper’s idea and practice of “falsifiability.” “Falsifiability as our criterion for deciding whether or not a theoretical system belongs to empirical science” (Popper). Copernicus did not have enough empirical evidence to justify the continued acceptance of the Ptolemaic System and so he sought out to falsify it through his own findings.

It is not that he did not believe in the system or that he even doubted it in the beginning; rather it is that along the way he found mathematical inaccuracies in the system and so he began the attempt to disprove what he “knew.” This eventually led to his understanding of the true nature of the solar system, that the Earth was not at the center, but the Sun was. Although his principal finding has proven to be correct there were still inaccuracies in his interpretation that opened his findings up to the same scrutiny.

After Copernicus passed away, a new scientists and astronomers began to find inaccuracies with his system. Whether Copernicus intended to incite a revolution is unknown, but he was clearly fearful of posting his calculations early on in his work and had to be convinced to do so as an elderly man. At the time of his death there was only one accepted view of the universe, which was with the Earth at the center, and this view fell in-line with the religious concept of creationism. Regardless of his intent on his death bed, he did indeed create much controversy and his publication spurred many debates and created an uproar in the church.

According to Popper, “statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable, observations” (Rosenberg). Copernicus unknowingly had embraced this philosophical view and opened the door to new discovery and promoted bravery among scientist. Despite what many believed to be a heretical view, Copernicus’ findings led to scientists embracing and studying his work. Eventually this led them to find that his work was incomplete, if not inaccurate. Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei were among these enthusiastic scientists.

Kepler (1571–1630) and Galileo (1564–1642) were both enabled by Copernicus’ declaration and set out to understand more deeply the universe and the movements of the planets, nearly simultaneously. Kepler did not embrace Copernicus’ views entirely, but did use them as a launching pad for his own observations and as a basis in attempt to falsify Nicolaus’ findings. This ultimately led to Kepler’s three astronomical laws and to his “major contribution to the improvement of the algebraic structure of the heliocentric model” (Weinert). Scientist use these Laws of Ellipses every day to understand satellite movement around the Earth.

Galileo on the other hand embraced Copernicus’ views and ignored the findings of Kepler (Weinert). However, through his own observations he was able to discern that not only was the Earth not the center of the universe, but that celestial bodies could orbit around other planets independently off the Earth and Sun. He did this through his observation of Jupiter’s moons. These two great minds were both pursuing truth in the wake of Copernicus’ heliocentric take on the universe. As we look back at history and attempt to understand the importance of all of these scientist, it can be debated as to where the scientific revolution really occurred.

A simple interpretation of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of scientific revolution can be applied through a sequences that happens prior to a revolution. It begins with the status quo and practice of normal science; normal science experiences anomalies that are evident in accepted scientific models; these anomalous conditions become over whelming and lead to a crisis. According to Kuhn, at this point, “the revolutionary periods see a breakdown of order and a questioning of the rules of the game, and they are followed by a process of rebuilding that can create fundamentally new kinds of conceptual structures” (Godfrey).

In my view, Copernicus represented the discovery of anomalies within normal science (Ptolemaic System). His findings were significant but only served as a catalyst for Kepler and Galileo to understand these anomalies and create chaos and adaptation by other scientist, and “it set in motion the rise of modern science, whose first phase culminated in the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica” (Weinert); the completion of the revolution with a new normal science. As stated by Kuhn, “in a scientific revolution…rules break down and have to be rebuilt afresh” (Godfrey).

In conclusion, we have discussed how Nicolaus Copernicus’ findings were achieved through Popper’s concept of falsifiability and how his publication of those findings inspired the likes of Kepler, Galileo and Newton. Further, we discussed how Copernicus evoked a scientific revolution as described by Thomas Kuhn. Nicolaus Copernicus may not have been the bravest man when he was alive, but in his life’s work he was able to compile enough evidence that culminated in a publication that he read on his death bed and ultimately led to and has shaped astrodynamics as we know it today.

Works Cited

  1. Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  2. Weinert, Friedel. Copernicus, Darwin, & Freud : Revolutions in the History and Philosophy of Science. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2009.
  3. McClellan, James E., and Dorn, Harold. Science and Technology in World History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
  4. Popper, Karl. Popper: the Logic of Scientific Discovery. 2nd ed., Routledge Classics, 2002.
  5. Rosenberg, A. (2002). Philosophy of Science. Milton: Taylor & Francis, pp.300.

Cite this paper

Scientific Revolution and Copernicus’ Heliocentrism. (2021, Nov 18). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/scientific-revolution-and-copernicus-heliocentrism/

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