Posted tagged ‘Copernicus’

Breaking News: Copernicus Unearthed

November 21, 2008

Forgive the headline; I could not resist.

Via the Nature group’s blog The Great Beyond comes notice that remains have been found of the man who can be seen as having fired the first shot of the scientific revolution (and to have put human beings in their place).  The blog reports:

A skull from Frombork cathedral in Poland has been identified as that of revolutionary astronomer Copernicus.

Marie Allen, of Uppsala University, says DNA from the skull is a match for DNA from hairs found in books owned by Copernicus, whose book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium started the movement to viewing the sun – rather than the Earth – as the centre of the solar system.

“The two strands of hair found in the book have the same genome sequence as the tooth from the skull and a bone from Frombork,” she says (AFP).

See this article from The Guardian for more details.

I love this story, not least for the connection of books to a kind of immortality:  we make and leave parts of ourselves in every book we read.

This is a big, big deal for anyone who likes to think about how the way we think now took form.  Tim F.of Balloon Juice sent notice of this story to me, and for him, it is the connection of Copernicus to Galileo that has the most resonance; Galileo’s defense of a sun – centered cosmos in the face of official Catholic rejection of Copernicus’s idea marks for many the birth of the modern sensibility, the assertion of the authority of experience over revelation.

I think that’s right — or at least, that seeing in and around Galileo one of the major steps towards the modern idea of science is certainly on target.  But Copernicus himself holds my attention here.  It is almost impossible to state how significant his combination of insight and rigor was in creating a Copernican “party” amongst the learned of Europe.

It was that impact that gave both license and direction to the ongoing and expanding European inquiry into nature, an effort that over the next 150 years became a scientific transformation so total that there was not going back.

There is one best place to trace how that which I am misleadingly calling a party took form. It comes courtesy of the near-legendary Harvard historian of science Owen Gingrich, who has carried on a decades long love affair with Copernicus and his book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).

I owe Owen thanks for help he gave me early in the process of writing my Newton book– and for a happy afternoon in his unbelievably book-crammed office, looking over facsimile editions of Copernicus to puzzle out the meaning of a diagram or two. (That is– he was puzzling them out and I was holding his coat.)

But I owe him a greater debt of gratitude for his The Book Nobody Read, his tale, part memoir, part brilliant intellectual history, of tracking down every extant example of the first and second editions of De revolutionibus… and analyzing who wrote what marginal notes in each copy.  In doing so, he reconstructs the path Copernicus’s ideas took through the learned of Europe.  It’s a great read, a great glimpse of what it means to have a revolution in ideas at the level of individual thinking, feeling human beings exhilarated by a new thought.

(My own encounter with Owen’s book led me to grab the opportunity that came when I visited the Newton scholar Scott Mandelbrote at Peterhouse College, Cambridge.  Scott is or was at the time the man in charge of Peterhouse’s library, which owns a first edition of De revolutionibus. At lunch the day we met the topic of Copernicus came up, so he incredibly kindly took me into the library and pulled that treasure off the shelf for me to pick up and turn the pages.

It may be an odd passion, but I can’t describe how thrilling it was to pick up an almost five hundred year old book — such a little thing — that set off so many fireworks.  It is, by the way, a beautiful book just from the point of view of the printer’s art.  In particular, the woodcut drawings are truly elegant:  they possess a sharp, precise line that still has the quality of an individual craftsman’s gesture; there are sweeps to the curves, and slight deepening or widening of the stroke that gives emphasis to the diagrams.  They literally don’t make ’em like that anymore.)

Images:  Teothor de Bry, copperplate portrait of Nicholas Copernicus, 1598.

Nicholas Copernicus, diagram of the heliocentric system from De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, 1543.

Pi Day and its discontents

March 14, 2008

Today — March 14 or 3/14 — is as everyone should know a not very public holiday celebrating all things circular: Pi Day!

Traditional rituals involve re-enacting the picnic scene in Harold and the Purple Crayon.

I made that up, of course, but parents of small children will understand (or if you don’t, go out and get that wonderful book right now.)

But what would be Pi Day on a science blog without a tip of the pixel to some of our less reasoned friends.

It’s an urban legend that Alabama’s legislature once tried to assert the rule of law to set pi to 3. It is true that there is are two verses in the Hebrew Bible that seem to say pi is in fact that nice round number — I Kings, Ch. 7 v. 3 and II Chron. Ch. 4 v. 2. In Kings, it reads: And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it about.

Before anyone gets too excited, remember that Biblical literalism is a mug’s game. A cubit is in fact a biologically based measure — the distance from a man’s elbow to his extended fingers. That ain’t too precise, nor is the notion of a brass casting four or five meters across. The short form — as this nicely compacted history of pi points out — no one should take the Bible for a geometry text. (In other words — I think skeptics who point to this as an example of religious delusion are overthinking the passage, just as the labored attempts by some apologists to come up with an interpretation to ascribe to Solomon’s temple builders more than practical mensuration don’t convince.)

But still, it is true that no one ever lost money betting the over on stupid. So, for your Pi Day pleasure, consider Indiana House Bill 246, submitted in 1897. The bill, submitted by someone described as an eccentric mathematician (sic) required that pi be set equal to 3.2.

The measure actually past the state House of Representatives by a vote of 67-0.

The state Senate fortunately knew stupid when they saw it, and the bill was referred to the Committee on Temperance. (I would have needed a stiff drink before I read the thing), and then killed the measure with a device called an “indefinite postponement” — in which state that overstuffed Indiana pi remains.

Friday Newton blogging to come on an alternate day; for now…have a good weekend.

Image: From Nicholas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus, Book I, Chapter 10. Source: Wikimedia Commons. You have got to admit — these are some of the coolest circles in print.