Don’t look up

Early in January, during a road trip, I visited the charming medieval city of Torun. Among the attractions of the old city center is the house where the scientist Nicolaus Copernicus was born. The house is a museum dedicated to the memory of the astronomer for many years.

Torun – birth house of Nicolaus Copernicus

While visiting the museum, one thing got my attention. Copernicus published his main work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, in 1543, just before his death. The scientist waited for that long because he could not explain all the consequences of his theory. For example, if the Earth revolves around the Sun, why don’t people fall out during this rotation? Scientists did not discover the laws of gravity at that time. Eventually, he published his lifetime research and conclusions and let others continue his work and answer the questions that remained open. His book’s second and third editions appeared in 1566 and 1617. Yet, the fourth edition was published only in 1853, almost 240 years later. That was a long time!

I knew that the inquisition condemned Galileo Galilei for endorsing the theory that the Earth moved around the Sun. He had to recant his theory to avoid the death penalty. But I did not know that the persecution and denial of the Heliocentric idea lasted that long. Galileo, Kepler, and Newton (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 1687) clarified things on this matter. By the end of the XVII century, scientists proved that Copernicus was right and that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Yet, the church continued to ignore the logic and the scientific realities for another 150 years.

Earth and sky mockup inside the museum

Let’s see what happened during this time.

Copernicus’s theory was attacked by both Protestants and Catholics with theological arguments rather than scientific ones. The rejection happened from the mid-XVI century, immediately after the theory was published. There was not a dispute as Copernicus was already dead, and no one was defending his ideas at the time.

The church leaders in Rome considered that Copernicus was a crazy scientist who wasn’t right. Interestingly, in Poland, at that time, the church was more tolerant than all the other Catholic countries. Quite different than in present days.

Later, Galileo made discoveries aligned with the Heliocentric theory by looking at the sky. A trial followed, and the catholic church placed De revolutionibus on the index of Forbidden Books in 1616. Descartes initially sustained the Heliocentric idea but then changed his mind based on Galileo’s trial.

Two centuries later, after another trial, the church recognized that the Heliocentric theory was correct. Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus and Galileo’s Dialogue were omitted from the edition of the Index of Forbidden Books only from 1835.

Arnolfini Portrait – created with mannequins inside the museum as a depiction of life in the XV century. One can notice some differences compared to the painting.

The church used its power to silence the astronomers and scientists for a long time. It was better not to look up at the sky if they wanted to live. Or, at least, tell the church what they would like to hear. The church pretended to own the truth, but the wrong part at that time was imposing their truth on everyone.
Copernicus’s theory brought a significant change to the world. People were not ready for it in the XVI century. At that time, the tradition was more important than reason. Humans were more inclined to look in the Bible for truth than nature. It took a very long time to change that.

The statue of Copernicus is in the center of Torun. The text says: “Nicolaus Copernicus Thorunensis, terrae motor, solis caelique stator”(“Nicolaus Copernicus of Thorun, mover of the Earth, stopper of the Sun and heavens”)

Almost 500 years after his death, we still talk of the significant impact Copernicus, a man working by himself, had on the scientific revolution and human history. The most important lesson was not to accept things as they are given but use logic and observation instead. One can say that Copernicus started the renascent of science in Europe.