Scientific Revolution

When comparing the views presented by both Aristotle and Copernicus, one must consider the circumstances under which these men lived to understand the differences. The most obvious of these is the time in history. Aristotle came almost 2000 years earlier in the astronomy field. While Copernicus had set out to glorify the great religion of his time, Aristotle’s views came 200 years before Christ was even born! Although the book gives the impression nothing of significance in astronomy happened in the time between Aristotle and Copernicus, professional astronomy was a developing institution during that time.

For nearly 2000 years astronomers had been tracking and organizing and refining the prevailing thoughts in astronomy so that Copernicus could look at them and make his judgment. This touches on perhaps the largest difference between Copernicus and Aristotle; while Aristotle was a pioneer in his field and was bringing a whole new theory about to explain the world to the people, Copernicus was merely evaluating and analyzing other people’s theories. In fact, some would say there is no such thing as the Copernican theory, but merely a theory Copernicus believed.

The major point where Copernicus disagreed with Aristotelian theory—that the Sun was the center of the universe—was taken from the Greeks. Even after deviating from the Aristotelian view, Copernicus did not question any of the other elements, such as celestial spheres and divine circular motion. While Aristotle and his views revolutionized the thinking of mankind for nearly 2000 years, Copernicus was so timid he did not even publish his works until the year of his death.

Finally, while the Aristotelian theory was embraced by religious leaders due to its convenient synergy with religious doctrines, the Copernican theory was denounced, often without even prior reading, by nearly every major religious leader. But Copernicus did not merely select one of two competing theories. He was showing signs ahead of his time of the scientific theory. To question something that seemed to make so much sense, at a time where it was unheard of to do so, was revolutionary, even if he did publish his work immediately.

Another person who unknowingly contributed to the formation of the scientific theory was Tyco Brahe. Perhaps the most fundamental principle of the scientific theory is that of observation before conclusion. Tyco Brahe did not understand mathematics well enough to propose complicated theorems of celestial movement, such as Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. What he did possess was the greatest observatory of his time and a keen ability to make detailed observations. Before his unfortunate demise at the dinner table of the emperor (“Let’s Go Europe, 2000”), he amassed a great amount of data so that other astronomers wouldn’t have to.

Isaac Newton realized the importance of work such as Brahe’s when he said, “If I have seen farther [than those before me], it is because I have stood on the shoulders of Giants” [text]. Brahe’s observations led to great discoveries by those who used his data and observation methods. One such person was his student, Johannes Kepler. The text tells us that Kepler, who was trained for the Lutheran ministry, believed that the universe was built on “mystical mathematical relationships and a musical harmony of the heavenly bodies.

He spent his time trying to explain this divine invention by analyzing and working with Brahe’s huge collection of data. Using mathematical proofs, he confirmed that Copernicus had chosen the correct theory, as well as authored his three famous laws of planetary motion: planets move in elliptical (not spherical) motion around the sun, planets move at a non-uniform speed, and time required for planetary orbit is proportional to its distance from the sun. Galileo Galilei made great contributions to several areas of science.

The few remaining components of Aristotelian physics remaining after Kepler’s confirmation of the Copernican theory were thoroughly extinguished by Galileo Galilei. Galileo also contributed another major component of the scientific/experimental method: controlled experiments. By his experiments with a ball and incline he was able to prove that uniform force caused a uniform acceleration, not a uniform velocity, as Aristotle had believed. He also built a telescope and observed the moons orbiting Jupiter, destroying the “impenetrable spheres” (and Aristotle’s last major remaining) idea in the process.

The fact that Copernicus merely picked up an old Greek idea tells us a few things about “new science. ” The first being that it’s not really new at all. Since Aristotle was a Greek also, both “old” and “new” science originated in Greece. Why then was one chosen over the other? A great deal of attention is given to the fact the Church was very influential in the times of Copernicus and was very much aligned with the view of Aristotle. However, since Aristotle’s time was before the birth of Christ, the church’s influence seemed to be more of a sustaining than originating factor.

Most likely the real answer is that in the time of the ancient Greeks very little was known about anywhere besides Earth. Aristotelian physics was designed to make sense of the world around them, and it seemed to make sense that their idea of the universe was centered on the Earth. In choosing the explanation that did not follow the “common sense” rule, Copernicus hinted that the new science would be based on the principles of scientific proof, rather than taking ancient texts and religious documents as the final word.

With a clear hindsight view from the 21st century, we can see that the basic ideas of Christianity were not altered by this new science to the point of extinction. Rather it was the institution of the Church which had to undergo a radical change. The church had long taken the liberties of interpreting the scriptures and deciding which theories were correct, based on these interpretations. With each new discovery, not only was the very powerful church forced to admit these specific errors, but faced the possibility the people would lose faith altogether.

For these reasons many early church leaders were very outspoken against certain theories, such as Copernicus’ view, which contradicted them. One interesting thing to note is the reversal of the position of the Catholic Church. At first the Catholics were more tolerant, reserving judgement of Copernicus while the Protestants and Jews immediately condemned his theory. But history was much kinder to the Protestants who, overall, took a milder approach than the Catholics and were even occasionally credited with furthering science.

The most famous example of the how the Catholics turned against science may be when Galileo was threatened with execution and forced apparently against his will to “denounce” his own theories. However, the book disputes this popular view saying that until the turning point of Galileo’s trial the Catholics had been tolerant and allowed science in Italy to flourish. Also according to the text, this trial symbolized the inherent struggle of science vs. church in the minds of many. However, the church wasn’t always or inherently against scientific exploration.

On the contrary, science was seen as a branch of theology and most of the scientists discussed believed their purpose was to further religion by trying to glorify the “handiwork of God. ” The most profound effect science had on the Church was not to prove or disprove any actual teachings or events as many had thought it might. Instead, science eroded at the political power of the church by providing alternative explanations and ideas. Previously people had looked to the religious “authorities” and taken their words “as the gospel”, but science was teaching them to “question everything”—including the clergy.

Extensibility was one of the great attributes of modern science, and none knew this better than Sir Isaac Newton. As noted above, he realized it when he said he stood “on the shoulders of Giants. ” just as Kepler had sought to make sense of Brahe’s vast amount of data, Newton sought to make sense of all the recently discovered science. While Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and others had achieved a piece of the puzzle, they had done more to destroy the old “universal” theory of Aristotle than arrive at a new one.

It was Isaac Newton who finally published in his Principia the “Universal Gravitation Theory” and other laws of motion which explained the motion of every item and object in the universe, from Kepler’s elliptical orbits to Galileo’s metal balls. By combining the observation and theories from those before him, he was able to use the scientific method to mathematically derive this “synthesis”, which led some to call him the “Supreme genius of the scientific revolution.


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