The period from Copernicus to Newton is certainly one of the
richest and most important in the history of astronomy.
Material covering this period is plentiful and one of the
chief challenges for the casual historian of astronomy is
culling through the options and deciding what to read.
Certainly biographies figure high on the priority list.
Galileo and Newton have no shortage of books devoted to their
lives and work. Biographies of Copernicus are rare because
relatively little is known of his life. Kepler and Tycho fall
somewhere in the middle.
When "On the Revolutions" appeared in 1543, it was attacked by
Protestant theologians who held the premise of a heliocentric
universe to be unbiblical. Copernicus' theories, they reasoned,
might lead people to believe that they are simply part of a
natural order, and not masters of nature, the center around
which nature was ordered.
Because of clerical opposition, and perhaps also general
incredulity at the prospect of a non-geocentric universe,
between 1543 and 1600, fewer than a dozen scientists embraced
But among those "scientists" being influenced by Copernicus'
Sun centered cosmology where Tycho Brahe, Johannas Kepler and
Tycho Brahe Johannas Kepler Galileo Galilei
(1546-1601) (1571-1630) (1564-1642)
It was Copernicus' little book that really got the revolution
going. Isaac Newton would eventually put it all together in
his Principia, giving us Classical Mechanics, and a theory of
gravitation that worked in the heavens the same as on Earth.
The Copernican Principle is a basic statement in physics
that there should be no "special" observers. For example,
the Aristotelian model of the solar system in the Middle
Ages placed the Earth at the center of the solar system, a
unique place since it "appears" that everything revolved
around the Earth. Nicolaus Copernicus demonstrated that this
view was incorrect and that the Sun was at the center of the
solar system with the Earth in orbit around the Sun.
The implications of Copernicus' work can not be exaggerated.
His views challenged the literal interpretation of
Scripture, the philosophical and metaphysical foundations of
moral theory, and even common sense itself. The result was a
massive opposition to his reported ideas. It was the slow,
sure acceptance of the heliocentric theory by natural
philosophers that ultimately quieted the general clamor,
however the name of Copernicus is still a battle cry against
the establishment in religion, philosophy and science. In
later years with Freud, man lost his Godlike mind; with
Darwin his exalted place among the creatures of the Earth;
with Copernicus man had lost his privileged position in the
Proof that the Earth goes around the Sun
On The Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres
by Nicolaus Copernicus [and Stephen Hawking]
Running Press December 2004
New to our On the Shoulders of Giants series, this
groundbreaking work of astronomy proposed a heliocentric
universe in which planets orbited the sun-daring to
challenge the Ptolemaic ideal of the earth as the center of
the universe. This essay by Copernicus (1473-1543),
revolutionized the way we look at the earth's placement in
the universe, and paved the way for many great scientists,
including Galileo and Isaac Newton, whose theories stemmed
from this model. Featuring a biography of Copernicus and an
accessible, enlightening introduction, both written by the
renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, On the Revolution of
Heavenly Spheres provides a fascinating look at the theories
which shaped our modern understanding of astronomy and
The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus
by Owen Gingerich
Walker Books, March 2004
"In one of the most unusual stories I have ever read,
Gingerich recreates the history of thought in sixteenth and
seventeenth century Europe from notes scribbled in the
margins of several hundred copies of a great book. The
account of his academic sleuthing is a treasure of
information, intellectual history, and personal passion."
Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the
by William T. Vollmann
Norton, February 2006
"This book itself is uncentering in the best possible way.
Vollmann is one of the deepest, most fully ensouled writers
~David Foster Wallace