The Luncheon Society/NY Times Best-Selling author Dava Sobel on the importance of Copernicus/San Francisco—Palio D’Asti /November 4, 2011

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How do you propose a new idea when current thinking is so institutionalized and so engrained that anything else would be blasphemous? As he neared the publication of his life’s work, that is what worried Nicolaus Copernicus the most.

Writer Dava Sobel has the ability to compress complex scientific precepts into engrossing reading without dumbing down the subject matter. Her book, Longitudes , continues to be in print long after the date of its first edition.  In fact, Neil Armstrong will write the foreword for the anniversary edition. Her recent book, “A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos,” takes us through the challenges the Polish-born cleric encountered as he brought his life’s work to center stage.

We look back at yesterday’s scientific achievements and they are seen as today’s inevitabilities.  It was inevitable that the first flight by the Wright Brothers would lead to Man walking on the surface of the moon. It made logical sense that the discovery of nuclear fission would lead to weaponization within a few short years. 

Yet, when that first flight took place in North Carolina, nobody could envision daily flights to London. When Leó Szilárd first proposed that atoms could be split in 1933 to form nuclear chain reaction, few could calculate the unintended consequences.

 

So when Nicolaus Copernicus suggested that centuries of scientists and mathematicians had it all wrong and that the sun—not the earth—anchored our solar system, he called the basic tenets of civilization into question.

Those supporting the Copernican idea of a heliocentric solar system in 1543 were as revolutionary as those who support String Theory today.  You had to suspend 15 centuries of orthodoxy. How could the Sun, which appeared to move through the sky, be considered a stationery object? How could the Earth, which seemed stable, rotate at speeds which were unimaginable to the brightest minds of the day?  

Let’s not forget another important point. Copernicus lacked the benefits of NASA, the supercollider at CERN , or Hubble —which we all take for granted today.  He published his thoughts a century before Galileo peered into the skies with a rudimentary telescope. All Copernicus had was math and the belief he was right.

Why did it take so long to supplant the ideas of Claudius Ptolemy, who believed that for 15 centuries earlier the Earth was the center of the known universe?  

A Life’s work. Copernicus was more than a scientist; he was the ideal Renaissance Man of the continent even though he lived far away from the European centers of science and commerce. By all accounts, he was a mathematician, astronomer, lawyer, physician, scholar, translator, artist, cleric, and economist.  His family was well-connected throughout the Court of the Polish Royal Family and several relatives were well-placed within the Catholic Church. It remains amazing that the revolution which bears his name was only a personal hobby, something done when he had the extra time.

While Copernicus started to noodle over this heliocentric model as early as 1514, his crowning achievement, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) was not published until shortly before his death in 1543.  He spent the bulk of his scientific life studying the orbits of the known planets when his official church duties did not interfere.

Copernicus was worried how the Church might react to his radical ideas and held off publishing for the better part of a decade. At first, it appeared that Copernican Revolution would die stillborn, the result of poor book sales. The first printing of “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” sold less than 400 copies failed to set the world on fire, unlike Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which a century later would become a best-seller and be seen as a frontal attack upon the power of the Church.  

Ideas also traveled slower. It took time for ideas to germinate throughout the scientific community. People in Rome, London, and Warsaw did not collaborate as they do today. The mails were slow and delivery was spotty. Copernicus spoke to the scientific minds of the day in Latin (not the native tongue) and that sailed over the heads of everyday folk who could neither read nor write.  Astonishingly enough, the publisher added a foreward that blunted the thrust of his argument, suggesting that his theory was merely a suggestion.

Slowly support began to build.  It also helped when Protestant leaders like Martin Luther attacked his ideas as blasphemy; in some quarters, it meant that he was on to something. However, nobody could attack Copernicus personally; by the time his revolution reached critical mass, Copernicus would join a chorus of those who were long-dead before their significance became well-known.

Religion vs. Science?  The food fight continues into the present day where the belief in Science is somehow equated into a disbelief in God. We see it today at a recent Republican Presidential debate where no candidate raised their hand when asked if they believe in evolution.  Yet, both ask different questions that operate on different abstract surfaces.   In the end, Science asks, “what we are,” while Faith answers, “who we are.”  Those nuances are still lost on many who should know better.

Like Darwin several centuries later, Copernicus got there first.  While “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” was far from perfect, it set the groundwork for what was to come in the future.  The technology to conclusively support the Copernican Revolution was still to be designed and constructed.   Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and finally Galileo himself would further refine the basic tenets of the Copernican model of heliocentrism. Perhaps because Copernicus was so far ahead of the curve, far away from the orbit of Rome, and sold only a few copies, he did not attract the Church’s ire.  However, Copernicus was not without its mistakes.  We know that the planets are not perfect spheres and don’t travel in perfect orbits.  He also envisioned a solar system that operated like a finely-tuned watch; the modern understanding of our solar system is far more complex and chaotic.

The technology continues to improve. Instead of waiting for decades to science to increase our understanding of the word around us, we can download the pictures almost immediately. In 2003 and 2004, when the Hubble Space Telescope completed the Ultra Deep Field, which took a long look at a small speck of space. Scientists reached back 13 billion years into space and time and  recorded over 10,000 new objects, a majority of them entire galaxies.  The Kepler spacecraft has discovered “2,326 planetary candidates, of which 207 are similar in size to Earth, 680 are super-Earth-size, 1,181 are Neptune-size, 203 are Jupiter-size and 55 are larger than Jupiter.” 48 of these planetary candidates fall within a “habitable zone,” and the discovery of Kepler 20f , one of five planets that orbit a Sun-like star in the constellation Lyra.

With that, the pace of understanding our place in the world, which moved forward with the work of Copernicus, will only accelerate.

The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston.  We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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