The Copernican Correction

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God
oil on canvas, 1872, 221 × 315 cm, Museum of the Jagiellonian University, Krakow

Contemporary astronomers, in their explanation about how we have moved through history to arrive at our current understanding of the universe, have invoked what is referred to as the “Copernican Principle”. They cite the great wisdom of Copernicus who removed us from a place of significance in the center of the universe, and demoted us to a place of insignificance. However, because these astronomers failed to do their history homework well, they got it wrong. In so doing, they have promulgated a false narrative about the conflict between science and religion – one in which science has rescued us from the impediments of religious thinking. In truth, it was Christian thinking which rescued us from a false interpretation of nature, and formed the framework upon which modern science has been built.

In his most humble way, Copernicus sought to reconcile the varying viewpoints of his day concerning the movement of planets and stars. As a mathematician and astronomer, Copernicus reviewed the geocentric models which variously arranged the planets in concentric circles or eccentric orbits, and found each of them deficient in their ability to adequately make astronomical (and astrological) predictions. It occurred to him there may be another option to consider. Searching the writings of philosophers, he encountered the notion of a heliocentric system recorded by Cicero (who described the work of Nicetus, aka Hicetus), and Plutarch (reflecting the work of Aristarchus). Copernicus was enthusiastic about this option because it resolved many serious issues which plagued the geocentric models. It first of all provided a reasonable account for retrograde motion of planets. The popular model of Ptolemy also explained retrograde motion in his geocentric model with the use of epicycles, so on this aspect heliocentrism isn’t necessarily distinct from geocentrism, but it met a necessary requirement.

Copernicus’ model had several distinctives which made it an improvement over Ptolemy’s model. Copernicus was better able to explain the great changes in magnitude (brightness) and distance of planets from earth at different times in their orbits. Greater still, Copernicus believed this would resolve the issue of stellar velocity. He reasoned that due to the great distance of stars from the earth, the speed at which stars would need to move in order to complete their orbit around the earth in 24 hours would surely tear the stars asunder.  It is interesting to note, however, because Copernicus was influenced by thinking rooted in geocentrism (i.e. planetary orbits confined to circular paths), his heliocentric model was no better at predicting planetary motion than the geocentric models.

What perhaps was more revolutionary about the Copernican revolution than the rearrangement of planets around the sun was the rejection of the Aristotelian implications of earth being at the center of the universe – the place toward which everything falls. Galileo resonated with this shift in thinking when he affirmed the Copernican system for determining the Earth “is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera collect.” In effect, the shift to a heliocentric model elevated the status of earth in the cosmos.

This change in perspective also had implications for elevating the discipline of astronomy itself, particularly for the estimation of distances between earth and other objects in space. As Kepler noted, “We ‘could not remain at rest in the center’ because of ‘that contemplation for which man was created,’ which includes acting like ‘surveyors’ who use ‘triangulation’ for ‘measuring inaccessible objects.’”[1] In the geocentric model, the only parallax measurement available for estimating the distance to planets was the differences between lines drawn from a point on the surface and a point at the center of the earth to a planet. With a heliocentric system, the triangulation could now be done from two different places in space (e.g. 6 months and 186 million miles apart) to determine the distance of planets more accurately.

As enlightenment thinking began to emerge in the late 17th century, the narrative regarding the significance of this shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric system began to change. The sun was now viewed as having an important and valuable place in the center of our solar system. That high value of the center place was anachronistically applied to the position of earth in the geocentric model perceived in Aristotelian astronomy. Thus, the movement of the earth away from the center was seen as a demotion of earth, and correspondently the demotion of mankind. Over the last 150 years or so, this conceptual shift of earth’s location in space has been hijacked and turned upside down to help promote Darwinian/atheistic rhetoric in which the human species has been rescued by science, and demoted from its position of self-inflated importance to a place of insignificance. As indicated above, however, this demeaning narrative does not conform to the thinking held by those first proponents of the heliocentric model. As Owen Gingerich has written, this modern narrative suggests “we should not be considered special creatures, even though we clearly are with respect to life on earth. In full dress, this is the principle of mediocrity, and Copernicus would have been shocked to find his name associated with it.”[2]

[1] Ronald L. Numbers, Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2015), 24.

[2] Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 14-15.

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