Friday, April 19, 2013

Famous Catholic Friday: Nicolaus Copernicus

(Sorry I missed last week; personal issues kept me from writing much at all).

From the world of music we travel to its estranged cousin, science.

Catholic Credentials: Cradle Catholic; Dominican (sources vary on whether he was actually a priest or not); dedicated his most famous work to the Pope.

Nerd Credentials: Produced the first working model of a heliocentric solar system; polyglot; doctor, artist, astronomer, mathematician, economist, and classics scholar.

                It’s one of the tragic ironies of history that a man who produced some of the most important astronomical work of all time, in addition to a myriad of other accomplishments, should be largely reduced to a footnote in the popular mind (“Galileo proved the Earth goes around the sun was persecuted for it! Oh, and there was some guy named Copernicus involved too”).
                In any case, Niclas Kopernik (Latinized into Nicolaus Copernicus) was born at Thorn, Poland, on the 19th of February, 1473. His father was a merchant who had come from Krakow and his mother was the sister of Lucas Watzelrode, who would later become Bishop of Ermland in Prussia. When Nicolaus was ten years old, his father died suddenly and his uncle took charge of him and his elder brother, Andreas. The bishop gave both boys a thorough university training, sending them to Krakow to study classics, mathematics, drawing, and astronomy. As they matured, the brothers Kopernik travelled to Bologna, Rome, and Padua in pursuit of their studies. During this time, they both entered the clerical life; Andreas as a priest, Nicolaus as a lay Dominican.
                More significantly, as it would turn out, Nicolaus was learning to combine what he knew of logic, mathematics, and the works of Aristotle and Ptolemy. When he did so, he started finding problems. The Ptolemaic system of spheres had grown and developed over the centuries as new discoveries and developments had been made in astronomy, to the point that the once simple and elegant idea had grown extremely bloated and convoluted trying to account for it all. During his trip to Rome, he gave a number of lectures on astronomy discussing this very point. And it was in the course of composing these that the germ of his masterwork awoke within his mind.
                But that would have to wait. After completing his university career, Copernicus worked as a physician in Heilsberg, and later the town of Frombork. Though he didn’t have a degree in medicine (he graduated as a Doctor of Canon Law), he was extremely successful, to the point that many rich and influential men, including bishops and princes, specifically sought out his services. Despite this, he spent most of his medical career servicing the poor, whom he treated without charge.
                During this quiet time in his life, Copernicus continued to pursue his scientific research. He translated a few classical and modern works (he could speak and write fluently in Greek, Latin, German, Polish, and Italian). His passion, though, was for astronomy, and he put the towers of the Heilsberg and Frombork churches and cathedral to good use in pursuit of his studies. Copernicus had already conceived the idea of the heliocentric theory, but before he could present it he had to gather more data. This would occupy him for the next twenty-five years.

                In the meantime, Copernicus’s beloved uncle, the Bishop, died in 1512. After the appointment of the new bishop, Copernicus was elected as administrator for the diocese, a position he held until 1522. The new position was considerably more strenuous and demanding than life as a simple physician, but it also provided him the opportunity to pursue a new discipline; economics. His studies in this field led eventually to his publication of his findings in 1526 under the title “On the Minting of Coin” at the request of King Sigismund I of Poland. In this work, Copernicus proved as foresighted in economics as he was in astronomy, discussing concepts like inflation and the difference between use value and exchange value, anticipating Adam Smith’s definitive work on the subject by some two-and-a-half centuries.
                While his reputations as a doctor, administrator, and economist were as robust as ever, he was, even then, most revered as an astronomer. Such was his prestige in this field that in 1514 the Fifth Lateran Council, called by Pope Leo X, requested his professional expertise on reforming the old Julian calendar. Copernicus examined the issue and replied that knowledge of the heavenly bodies was not yet sufficient for the task at hand and suggested the reform be put off until better data could be acquired. The Council accepted his findings, and Copernicus himself was inspired by the petition to redouble his efforts. And indeed, some seventy years later it was Copernicus’s research that served as a key basis for the Gregorian calendar which we still use to this day.  
                Copernicus’s work included carefully observations of Mars, Saturn, and especially the Sun itself. These forced him to revise some aspects of his own system, but also further confirmed his belief in the heliocentric model. He completed this work, in his own mind, around 1531. But he held off on publishing it for a long time. Primarily, this was because he was influenced by the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, who believed that natural philosophy and scientific knowledge should be reserved only for a select few, for fear that the common multitude would scoff or abuse the knowledge. However, it’s likely that there was also a good deal of reasonable hesitation in the face of attempting to overturn virtually everything that astronomers thought they knew about the heavens and starting from scratch. In any case, he effectively sat on his theory for a while, confining it to private manuscripts and letters to friends.
                His friends, on the other hand, thought he was being silly and pressured him to make his findings public. One of them, Johann Widmanstetter, happened to be a secretary to Pope Clement VII. Perhaps to alleviate Copernicus’s fears (or simply to put more pressure on him to publish), Widmanstetter explained his friend’s theory to the Pope and a pair of cardinals, who were fascinated by it and rewarded Widmanstetter with a valuable Greek codex. Even after this (and other, similar incidents) Copernicus was adamant that he would not publish.
                In short, Copernicus was pretty much an inversion of the classic image of the renegade scientist; in the face of overwhelming personal and professional support, he still refused to publish his revolutionary findings. For ten years after he completed his research he resisted all requests to make it public.
                Meanwhile, life went on. Copernicus published his economic findings (apparently he believed that was a more practical and hence ‘lesser’ discipline, so his Pythagorean conscience didn’t bother him as much). He served as a diplomat during the Polish-Teutonic war of 1519-21. He was nominated to be elected bishop of Warmia in 1537 (which indicates that he was indeed a priest at this time), but lost to a friend named Johannes Dantiscus, whom he served as an unofficial physician. And, of course, when he had time he kept up his studies of the heavens.
                What finally changed his mind about publishing was a young man from Wittenberg named George Joachim Rheticus, a student of mathematics who in 1539 came to learn at the master’s feet. Only a few months had gone by before Rheticus sent an enthusiastic letter describing the ‘new solar system’ to a friend in Nuremberg, a letter which the friend soon had published. Rheticus then managed to convince Copernicus to publish at least the first chapter of his great work, the one that dealt with plane and spherical trigonometry more than with astronomy as such. With the theory leaking out, and with himself nearing seventy, Copernicus finally wrote Pope Paul III to announce that he was going to relent at last. He surrendered his manuscript to young Rheticus for editing and publication.
                Rheticus initially intended to publish Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs in Wittenberg. But the Protestant-aligned University was outraged by the theory and refused to publish anything except the first chapter (they also refused to allow Rheticus to return and teach there). So, he turned to his friend in Nuremberg, who accepted the charge of publishing it. However, the published, a Protestant all too aware of the reception the theory received in Wittenberg, inserted a preface pleading that what was presented was not necessarily true, since astronomy was so very unreliable, but might be useful to those interested. He did, however, include the dedication to Pope Paul III and left the text of the work intact.
                The work is dense and complicated, but can be (and is) summarized in seven ‘assumptions:’

1.       “There is no one center of all the celestial circles or spheres.”
2.       “The center of the earth is not the center of the universe, but only of gravity and of the lunar sphere.”
3.       “All the spheres revolve about the sun as their mid-point, and therefore the sun is the center of the universe.”
4.       “The ratio of the Earth’s distance from the Sun to the height of the firmament (outermost celestial sphere containing the stars) is so much smaller than the ratio of the Earth’s radius to its distance from the sun that the distance from the Earth to the Sun is imperceptible in comparison with the height of the firmament.”
5.       “Whatever motion appears in the firmament arises not from any motion of the firmament, but from the Earth’s motion. The Earth together with its circumjacent elements performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, whil the firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.”
6.       “What appear to us as motions of the sun arise not from its motion but from the motion of the Earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the sun like any other planet. The Earth has, then, more than one motion.”
7.       “The apparent retrograde and direct motion of the planets arises not from their motion but from the Earth’s. The motion of the Earth alone, therefore, suffices to explain so many apparent inequalities in the heavens.”

                Copernicus never lived to see the reaction to his work. He had suffered severe apoplexy and paralysis in the weeks leading up the publication, and he only held the complete, printed edition of his masterpiece once: on the very day he died. It’s reported that he was in a stroke-induced coma, but when the book was presented to him he awoke, looked at it, and then died peacefully. He was buried in Frombrok Cathedral, beneath the very towers which he had used to study the heavens.
                And what was the result of his literally Earth-shaking new theory? At first, very little. His book was widely read by the learned, but his findings were largely doubted. It is, after all, not easy to simply throw away a thousand-year-old scientific system. Protestant scholars tended to be particularly vicious towards it (for all that it’s editor, Rheticus, was a student of Martin Luther) due to its apparent contradictions to scripture, a position that a few Catholic scholars shared as well, most notably Copernicus’s fellow Dominican, Giovanni Tolosani. But whether Protestant or Catholic, it’s fair to say that most of his detractors based their objections on science and reason. They pointed out a number of observable discrepancies in his theory, such as the lack of phases in Venus or Mercury (they wouldn’t be observed until Galileo, some seventy years later) and the lack of stellar parallaxes (lateral shifts in the positions of stars; the first of those wouldn’t be observed until Friedrich Bessel, some 300 years later). Copernicanism (as it was dubbed) didn’t become widely accepted until Sir Isaac Newton put the most important pieces in place with his universal law of gravitation and laws of mechanics. With that, Copernicus’s great work changed from a theory into scientific fact more than a century after its composer’s death.
                But, of course, before that it led to an ugly little incident involving a hot-tempered scientist named Galileo and a vain Pope named Urban VIII, which temporarily left Copernicus’s masterpiece on the index of forbidden books. But that’s too complicated an issue to get into right now.
                Copernicus’s theory had many detractors, but it also had its share of supporters, including Pope Paul III, Rheticus, and Christopher Clavius, one of the key authors of the Gregorian calendar (who was a contemporary and friend of Galileo and helped confirm some of his findings). They hailed his as the next Ptolemy, which, as adoring compliments go, is pretty accurate. Copernicus rocked the study of astronomy to its core (literally). He paved the way for Galileo, Newton, and all the other great men who studied the heavens to this very day. He was a man far ahead of his time, one of the great geniuses of history. Priest, diplomat, classicist, physician, polyglot, mathematician, artist, economist, and astronomer, Copernicus reminds us of just how much one man can accomplish in his life.
                He also teaches us to be open to the truth wherever it leads us. It surely cannot have been easy for him to have even conceived the idea of overturning the Ptolemaic system, just as today it would be hard to conceive of overturning atomic theory. Yet he zealously pursued his findings wherever they led him, and neither Ptolemy, nor Aristotle, nor all the scholars of Europe could alter the evidence of his own eyes. In this light, it’s interesting to note that while he was on the cutting edge scientifically, religiously speaking he stood resolutely in the stronghold of tradition. Despite having numerous Protestant friends and colleagues, Copernicus never wavered in his devotion to the Catholic faith. He teaches us that neither dedicated scientific inquiry nor a myriad of worldly accomplishments are incompatible with the Christian faith.    

Vive Christus Rex!

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