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Astronomy as an object of interest of Copernicus

In his work De revolutionibus, Copernicus described several times his attitude towards the study of the universe. He did so for the first time in the introduction to Book One, where he justified a scholar devoted to the studies of celestial bodies in the following way: Among the many various literary and artistic pursuits which invigorate mens minds, the strongest affection and utmost zeal should, I think, promote the studies concerned with the most beautiful objects, most deserving to be known. This is the nature of the discipline which deals with the universes divine revolutions, the asters motions, sizes, distances, risings and settings, as well as the causes of the other phenomena in the sky, and which, in short, explains its whole appearance. What indeed is more beautiful than heavens, which of course contains all things of beauty? Two beliefs are integrated in this extract, namely one about the pursuit of truth as a meaning of human life and another one about the uniqueness of astronomy, in which pure knowledge is closely intertwined with the highest aesthetic sensations. What is more, Copernicus, as an offspring of his own times, later ascribes to astronomy a major impact on morality and godliness of a human being: Although all the good arts serve to draw mans mind away from vices and lead it toward better things, this function can be more fully performed by this art, which also provides extraordinary intellectual pleasure. For when a man is occupied with things which he sees established in the finest order and directed by divine management, will not the unremitting contemplation of them and a certain familliarity with them stimulate him to the best and to admiration for the Maker of everything, in whom are all happiness and every good? Whereas at the end of the central fragment of Book One, in which the astronomer describes the new model of the cosmos, he unambiguously reveals the primary aim of his astronomical search: it is not only the most accurate description of the movement of planets among stars, but also identification of the actual construction of the world, for he ends his reasoning with an exclamation: So vast, without any question, is the divine handiwork of the most excellent Almighty (all the quotations taken from the translation by Edward Rosen). It does not mean, however, that in Copernicus astronomical studies there were no practical motifs, which were in fact more or less specific unresolved matters of astronomy of the Renaissance such as the theory of precession and related matters of precise calculation of the length of the tropical year as well as the reform of the calendar.

Jarosław Włodarczyk
Institute for the History of Science
Polish Academy of Sciences

Further reading:

  1. N. M. Swerdlow and O. Neugebauer, Mathematical Astronomy in Copernicuss De revolutionibus, Part 1-2 (New York, 1984).
  2. R. S. Westman, Proof, poetics, and patronage: Copernicuss preface to De revolutionibus, in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. by D. C. Lindberg and R. S. Westman (Cambridge, 1990), 167-205.