IV. THE NEW COSMOLOGY—COPERNICUS TO KEPLER AND GALILEO

The Gregorian calendar, it should be explained, is so called because it was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII., who put it into effect in the year 1582, up to which time the so-called Julian calendar, as introduced by Julius Caesar, had been everywhere accepted in Christendom. This Julian calendar, as we have seen, was a great improvement on preceding ones, but still lacked something of perfection inasmuch as its theoretical day differed appreciably from the actual day. In the course of fifteen hundred years, since the time of Caesar, this defect amounted to a discrepancy of about eleven days. Pope Gregory proposed to correct this by omitting ten days from the calendar, which was done in September, 1582. To prevent similar inaccuracies in the future, the Gregorian calendar provided that once in four centuries the additional day to make a leap-year should be omitted, the date selected for such omission being the last year of every fourth century. Thus the years 1500, 1900, and 2300, A.D., would not be leap-years. By this arrangement an approximate rectification of the calendar was effected, though even this does not make it absolutely exact.

Such a rectification as this was obviously desirable, but there was really no necessity for the omission of the ten days from the calendar. The equinoctial day had shifted so that in the year 1582 it fell on the 10th of March and September. There was no reason why it should not have remained there. It would greatly have simplified the task of future historians had Gregory contented himself with providing for the future stability of the calendar without making the needless shift in question. We are so accustomed to think of the 21st of March and 21st of September as the natural periods of the equinox, that we are likely to forget that these are purely arbitrary dates for which the 10th might have been substituted without any inconvenience or inconsistency.

But the opposition to the new calendar, to which reference has been made, was not based on any such considerations as these. It was due, largely at any rate, to the fact that Germany at this time was under sway of the Lutheran revolt against the papacy. So effective was the opposition that the Gregorian calendar did not come into vogue in Germany until the year 1699. It may be added that England, under stress of the same manner of prejudice, held out against the new reckoning until the year 1751, while Russia does not accept it even now.

As the Protestant leaders thus opposed the papal attitude in a matter of so practical a character as the calendar, it might perhaps have been expected that the Lutherans would have had a leaning towards the Copernican theory of the universe, since this theory was opposed by the papacy. Such, however, was not the case. Luther himself pointed out with great strenuousness, as a final and demonstrative argument, the fact that Joshua commanded the sun and not the earth to stand still; and his followers were quite as intolerant towards the new teaching as were their ultramontane opponents. Kepler himself was, at various times, to feel the restraint of ecclesiastical opposition, though he was never subjected to direct persecution, as was his friend and contemporary, Galileo. At the very outset of Kepler's career there was, indeed, question as to the publication of a work he had written, because that work took for granted the truth of the Copernican doctrine. This work appeared, however, in the year 1596. It bore the title Mysterium Cosmographium, and it attempted to explain the positions of the various planetary bodies. Copernicus had devoted much time to observation of the planets with reference to measuring their distance, and his efforts had been attended with considerable success. He did not, indeed, know the actual distance of the sun, and, therefore, was quite unable to fix the distance of any planet; but, on the other hand, he determined the relative distance of all the planets then known, as measured in terms of the sun's distance, with remarkable accuracy.

With these measurements as a guide, Kepler was led to a very fanciful theory, according to which the orbits of the five principal planets sustain a peculiar relation to the five regular solids of geometry. His theory was this: "Around the orbit of the earth describe a dodecahedron—the circle comprising it will be that of Mars; around Mars describe a tetrahedron—the circle comprising it will be that of Jupiter; around Jupiter describe a cube—the circle comprising it will be that of Saturn; now within the earth's orbit inscribe an icosahedron—the inscribed circle will be that of Venus; in the orbit of Venus inscribe an octahedron —the circle inscribed will be that of Mercury."[3]

Though this arrangement was a fanciful one, which no one would now recall had not the theorizer obtained subsequent fame on more substantial grounds, yet it evidenced a philosophical spirit on the part of the astronomer which, misdirected as it was in this instance, promised well for the future. Tycho Brahe, to whom a copy of the work was sent, had the acumen to recognize it as a work of genius. He summoned the young astronomer to be his assistant at Prague, and no doubt the association thus begun was instrumental in determining the character of Kepler's future work. It was precisely the training in minute observation that could avail most for a mind which, like Kepler's, tended instinctively to the formulation of theories. When Tycho Brahe died, in 1601, Kepler became his successor. In due time he secured access to all the unpublished observations of his great predecessor, and these were of inestimable value to him in the progress of his own studies.