A Popular History of Astronomy.

Posted: January 27, 2014 in Book Review, History/Philosophy

A few years back, I wrote my BA thesis about the change from geocentrism to heliocentrism around 1600. The questions were quite simple; why did so many intellectuals at the start of the 17th century change from a geocentric worldview to a heliocentric one? The decline of Ptolemaeus, rise of Copernicus and 15 minutes of fame of Tycho. Interesting!

Today I’m reading The Little Comment of Copernicus (Het Kleine Commentaar van Copernicus) by Herman Kattenberg. Somehow he feels the need to compare contemporary knowledge with geocentrism and Copernicus’ heliocentric alternative. Secondly, he points at “ruling dogma’s” as a reason for some poor choices Copernicus made.

Comparison. A history book is supposed to answer questions about history. If I would like to know more about astronomy, I wouldn’t pick-up a history book. The whole comparison between contemporary knowledge and Copernicus and others is redundant. Besides, it wrongly suggests that a theory won acceptance because it’s simply true. 

Dogma. Let’s assume that the 16th century intellingtsia isn’t stupid. A “ruling dogma” shouldn’t be approached as a backward stupidity that blocks intellectual progress. Trying to incorporate new theories and observations in already existing ones isn’t an example of a lack of courage. Instead of ignoring theological and astrological parts of texts, they might be vital to understand the whole situation. The distinction of society in spheres isn’t always identical and equally strong to the ones contemporary Westerners experience. Why did Copernicus write this and that?The dogma’s, obviously!

This approach doesn’t even start explaining why Copernicus wrote what he wrote and why it became influential only 50 years later.

When you want to critique someone in a useful way and show the other that he is wrong, you must research from what point of view he looks at the case – because from that point of view he is usually right – and recognize its validity […]” – B. Pascal, Pensees nr 701. 

Unlike Pascal’s case, studying history isn’t so much about proving someone wrong. But the point to be made remains the same. What was the point of view of Copernicus, Tycho and others? What position did they take in the network of entities that made their opinion valuable?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s