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For Copernicus, A 'Perfect Heaven' Put Sun At Center

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For Copernicus, A 'Perfect Heaven' Put Sun At Center

Science

For Copernicus, A 'Perfect Heaven' Put Sun At Center

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It doesn't happen often, but there are times when a single book turns the world on its head. Sir Isaac Newton's "Principia" and Darwin's, "The Origin of Species" are two examples. Before either of these, though, was a book published in 1543. "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres" by Nicolas Copernicus made the astounding claim that the Earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around.

Now a new book explores why this revolutionary work almost didn't see the light of day. NPR's Joe Palca has our report.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: In the year 1500, every learned person in Europe knew one thing for absolutely certain: the sun and the planets travelled around the Earth. The astronomy texts said so, the Bible said so. There was no doubt. Oh sure, there were a few bits of conflicting evidence. For example, the planets seemed to move first one way and then the other in the sky. But never mind that. The Earth was at the center of the universe. Period. And then came Copernicus.

DAVA SOBEL: He put the Earth, which had forever been considered the immobile center of the universe, he spun it on an axis, and had it moving around the sun.

PALCA: That's Dava Sobel, author of "A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos." Although the idea that the sun, not the Earth, was at the center of things was outrageous, it did solve the problem of the planets appearing to move backwards.

SOBEL: Because if you have the Earth in motion, then you can show that that strange backward drift of some of the planets is a result of the Earth moving faster and overtaking them on an inside track so that they look like they're stopping and going backwards.

PALCA: Today, every kid in school learns that the Earth goes around the sun, but how hard it must have been to suggest such a thing in 1510.

SOBEL: It went against everything that your senses tell you. It went against common sense, it went against your feeling that certainly the ground underneath you is not moving, not spinning around.

PALCA: Violating common sense wasn't the only problem in the 16th century with a theory that called for the Earth to move.

SOBEL: It was a biblical prejudice against the Earth's motion.

PALCA: It might have been that worry that caused Copernicus to delay publication for three decades. It might have been fear of ridicule for his crazy ideas. But apart from some correspondence with other astronomers, Copernicus kept his theories to himself. That changed when he received a visit from a young German mathematician named Rheticus. Rheticus had heard of Copernicus's theories and was inspired to make the arduous and risky journey to Poland to meet the aging astronomer. Sobel's book contains a play imagining how Rheticus convinced Copernicus to share his theories with the world. "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres" was finally published in 1543, and actually nobody seemed too upset.

ROBERT WESTMAN: Copernicus's ideas were already being taught in the universities in the 16th century.

PALCA: Robert Westman is a historian of science at the University of California San Diego.

WESTMAN: But they were taught and immediately dismissed as absurd.

PALCA: Westman is the author of "The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism and Celestial Order." He says it took a while for scholars to accept Copernicus's ideas.

WESTMAN: I venture to say there's nobody around who accepts Copernicus's theory today because they've read his book. It's a very unfriendly book. And even in the 16th century it was seen to be difficult to read.

PALCA: Galileo, not Copernicus, took the heat for insisting the Earth was in motion, not fixed at the center of the solar system. Westman says any sophisticated scientific argument that seems to defy common sense will be hard for non-scientists to accept. Take the strange weather patterns we're beginning to see around the world. How does a non-scientist decide if that's related at all to climate change?

WESTMAN: It depends on which authorities you trust. So if you trust the scientific community, then you might be willing to say it has something to do with global warming. But it's not because you go to your laboratory and do experiments.

PALCA: While the public debate over global warming continues, the debate over Copernicus' theories is long over. In fact, his book is regarded as a global treasure. If you want to buy a first edition for your home library, it will cost you about $2 million. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News.

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