AAS 195th Meeting, January 2000
Session 123. HAD: Doggett, Copernicus and the Documentation of Astronomy
Oral (including Doggett Prize Lecture), Saturday, January 15, 2000, 10:00-11:30am, Regency V

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[123.02] The Copernican Revolution Revisited

O. Gingerich (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)

The rapid pace of modern astronomy seems driven by technological advances: larger telescopes, new detectors, a wider spectral range, more powerful computers. In contrast, the revolution in astronomy initiated by Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus seems slow and unrelated to any new observations; it was an idea ``pleasing to the mind." On aesthetic grounds but without empirical proof Copernicus argued for 1) the perfection of the circle, and 2) the elegance of the heliocentric plan.

This prize lecture will argue that in fact the slow acceptance of Copernicus' radical heliocentric cosmology resulted primarily because Copernicus was far in advance of the technological developments needed to test his hypotheses. Tycho Brahe's precision instruments (and his failed campaign to find the parallax of Mars) produced the observational base for Kepler's physical astronomy, while in Galileo's hands the telescope provided evidence from the phases of Venus that disproved the Ptolemaic arrangement.

Once the new instrumentation opened the way for observational tests, Copernicus' insistence on the uniform, circular motion fell by the wayside, but his other grand aesthetic vision, the heliocentric cosmology, found relatively rapid adoption.

The lecture will include vignettes from our three-decades-long search for annotated copies of Copernicus' book, leading to the census of 270 copies of the first edition (Nuremberg, 1543) and nearly 320 copies of the second edition (Basel, 1566).

The author(s) of this abstract have provided an email address for comments about the abstract: ginger@cfa.harvard.edu

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