We have seen that the Ptolemaic astronomy, which was the accepted doctrine throughout the Middle Ages, taught that the earth is round. Doubtless there was a popular opinion current which regarded the earth as flat, but it must be understood that this opinion had no champions among men of science during the Middle Ages. When, in the year 1492, Columbus sailed out to the west on his memorable voyage, his expectation of reaching India had full scientific warrant, however much it may have been scouted by certain ecclesiastics and by the average man of the period. Nevertheless, we may well suppose that the successful voyage of Columbus, and the still more demonstrative one made about thirty years later by Magellan, gave the theory of the earth's rotundity a certainty it could never previously have had. Alexandrian geographers had measured the size of the earth, and had not hesitated to assert that by sailing westward one might reach India. But there is a wide gap between theory and practice, and it required the voyages of Columbus and his successors to bridge that gap.

After the companions of Magellan completed the circumnavigation of the globe, the general shape of our earth would, obviously, never again be called in question. But demonstration of the sphericity of the earth had, of course, no direct bearing upon the question of the earth's position in the universe. Therefore the voyage of Magellan served to fortify, rather than to dispute, the Ptolemaic theory. According to that theory, as we have seen, the earth was supposed to lie immovable at the centre of the universe; the various heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolving about it in eccentric circles. We have seen that several of the ancient Greeks, notably Aristarchus, disputed this conception, declaring for the central position of the sun in the universe, and the motion of the earth and other planets about that body. But this revolutionary theory seemed so opposed to the ordinary observation that, having been discountenanced by Hipparchus and Ptolemy, it did not find a single important champion for more than a thousand years after the time of the last great Alexandrian astronomer.

The first man, seemingly, to hark back to the Aristarchian conception in the new scientific era that was now dawning was the noted cardinal, Nikolaus of Cusa, who lived in the first half of the fifteenth century, and was distinguished as a philosophical writer and mathematician. His De Docta Ignorantia expressly propounds the doctrine of the earth's motion. No one, however, paid the slightest attention to his suggestion, which, therefore, merely serves to furnish us with another interesting illustration of the futility of propounding even a correct hypothesis before the time is ripe to receive it—particularly if the hypothesis is not fully fortified by reasoning based on experiment or observation.

The man who was destined to put forward the theory of the earth's motion in a way to command attention was born in 1473, at the village of Thorn, in eastern Prussia. His name was Nicholas Copernicus. There is no more famous name in the entire annals of science than this, yet posterity has never been able fully to establish the lineage of the famous expositor of the true doctrine of the solar system. The city of Thorn lies in a province of that border territory which was then under control of Poland, but which subsequently became a part of Prussia. It is claimed that the aspects of the city were essentially German, and it is admitted that the mother of Copernicus belonged to that race. The nationality of the father is more in doubt, but it is urged that Copernicus used German as his mother-tongue. His great work was, of course, written in Latin, according to the custom of the time; but it is said that, when not employing that language, he always wrote in German. The disputed nationality of Copernicus strongly suggests that he came of a mixed racial lineage, and we are reminded again of the influences of those ethnical minglings to which we have previously more than once referred. The acknowledged centres of civilization towards the close of the fifteenth century were Italy and Spain. Therefore, the birthplace of Copernicus lay almost at the confines of civilization, reminding us of that earlier period when Greece was the centre of culture, but when the great Greek thinkers were born in Asia Minor and in Italy.

As a young man, Copernicus made his way to Vienna to study medicine, and subsequently he journeyed into Italy and remained there many years, About the year 1500 he held the chair of mathematics in a college at Rome. Subsequently he returned to his native land and passed his remaining years there, dying at Domkerr, in Frauenburg, East Prussia, in the year 1543.

It would appear that Copernicus conceived the idea of the heliocentric system of the universe while he was a comparatively young man, since in the introduction to his great work, which he addressed to Pope Paul III., he states that he has pondered his system not merely nine years, in accordance with the maxim of Horace, but well into the fourth period of nine years. Throughout a considerable portion of this period the great work of Copernicus was in manuscript, but it was not published until the year of his death. The reasons for the delay are not very fully established. Copernicus undoubtedly taught his system throughout the later decades of his life. He himself tells us that he had even questioned whether it were not better for him to confine himself to such verbal teaching, following thus the example of Pythagoras. Just as his life was drawing to a close, he decided to pursue the opposite course, and the first copy of his work is said to have been placed in his hands as he lay on his deathbed.

The violent opposition which the new system met from ecclesiastical sources led subsequent commentators to suppose that Copernicus had delayed publication of his work through fear of the church authorities. There seems, however, to be no direct evidence for this opinion. It has been thought significant that Copernicus addressed his work to the pope. It is, of course, quite conceivable that the aged astronomer might wish by this means to demonstrate that he wrote in no spirit of hostility to the church. His address to the pope might have been considered as a desirable shield precisely because the author recognized that his work must needs meet with ecclesiastical criticism. Be that as it may, Copernicus was removed by death from the danger of attack, and it remained for his disciples of a later generation to run the gauntlet of criticism and suffer the charges of heresy.

The work of Copernicus, published thus in the year 1543 at Nuremberg, bears the title De Orbium Coelestium Revolutionibus.

It is not necessary to go into details as to the cosmological system which Copernicus advocated, since it is familiar to every one. In a word, he supposed the sun to be the centre of all the planetary motions, the earth taking its place among the other planets, the list of which, as known at that time, comprised Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The fixed stars were alleged to be stationary, and it was necessary to suppose that they are almost infinitely distant, inasmuch as they showed to the observers of that time no parallax; that is to say, they preserved the same apparent position when viewed from the opposite points of the earth's orbit.

But let us allow Copernicus to speak for himself regarding his system, His exposition is full of interest. We quote first the introduction just referred to, in which appeal is made directly to the pope.

"I can well believe, most holy father, that certain people, when they hear of my attributing motion to the earth in these books of mine, will at once declare that such an opinion ought to be rejected. Now, my own theories do not please me so much as not to consider what others may judge of them. Accordingly, when I began to reflect upon what those persons who accept the stability of the earth, as confirmed by the opinion of many centuries, would say when I claimed that the earth moves, I hesitated for a long time as to whether I should publish that which I have written to demonstrate its motion, or whether it would not be better to follow the example of the Pythagoreans, who used to hand down the secrets of philosophy to their relatives and friends only in oral form. As I well considered all this, I was almost impelled to put the finished work wholly aside, through the scorn I had reason to anticipate on account of the newness and apparent contrariness to reason of my theory.

"My friends, however, dissuaded me from such a course and admonished me that I ought to publish my book, which had lain concealed in my possession not only nine years, but already into four times the ninth year. Not a few other distinguished and very learned men asked me to do the same thing, and told me that I ought not, on account of my anxiety, to delay any longer in consecrating my work to the general service of mathematicians.

"But your holiness will perhaps not so much wonder that I have dared to bring the results of my night labors to the light of day, after having taken so much care in elaborating them, but is waiting instead to hear how it entered my mind to imagine that the earth moved, contrary to the accepted opinion of mathematicians—nay, almost contrary to ordinary human understanding. Therefore I will not conceal from your holiness that what moved me to consider another way of reckoning the motions of the heavenly bodies was nothing else than the fact that the mathematicians do not agree with one another in their investigations. In the first place, they are so uncertain about the motions of the sun and moon that they cannot find out the length of a full year. In the second place, they apply neither the same laws of cause and effect, in determining the motions of the sun and moon and of the five planets, nor the same proofs. Some employ only concentric circles, others use eccentric and epicyclic ones, with which, however, they do not fully attain the desired end. They could not even discover nor compute the main thing—namely, the form of the universe and the symmetry of its parts. It was with them as if some should, from different places, take hands, feet, head, and other parts of the body, which, although very beautiful, were not drawn in their proper relations, and, without making them in any way correspond, should construct a monster instead of a human being.

"Accordingly, when I had long reflected on this uncertainty of mathematical tradition, I took the trouble to read again the books of all the philosophers I could get hold of, to see if some one of them had not once believed that there were other motions of the heavenly bodies. First I found in Cicero that Niceties had believed in the motion of the earth. Afterwards I found in Plutarch, likewise, that some others had held the same opinion. This induced me also to begin to consider the movability of the earth, and, although the theory appeared contrary to reason, I did so because I knew that others before me had been allowed to assume rotary movements at will, in order to explain the phenomena of these celestial bodies. I was of the opinion that I, too, might be permitted to see whether, by presupposing motion in the earth, more reliable conclusions than hitherto reached could not be discovered for the rotary motions of the spheres. And thus, acting on the hypothesis of the motion which, in the following book, I ascribe to the earth, and by long and continued observations, I have finally discovered that if the motion of the other planets be carried over to the relation of the earth and this is made the basis for the rotation of every star, not only will the phenomena of the planets be explained thereby, but also the laws and the size of the stars; all their spheres and the heavens themselves will appear so harmoniously connected that nothing could be changed in any part of them without confusion in the remaining parts and in the whole universe. I do not doubt that clever and learned men will agree with me if they are willing fully to comprehend and to consider the proofs which I advance in the book before us. In order, however, that both the learned and the unlearned may see that I fear no man's judgment, I wanted to dedicate these, my night labors, to your holiness, rather than to any one else, because you, even in this remote corner of the earth where I live, are held to be the greatest in dignity of station and in love for all sciences and for mathematics, so that you, through your position and judgment, can easily suppress the bites of slanderers, although the proverb says that there is no remedy against the bite of calumny."

In chapter X. of book I., "On the Order of the Spheres," occurs a more detailed presentation of the system, as follows:

"That which Martianus Capella, and a few other Latins, very well knew, appears to me extremely noteworthy. He believed that Venus and Mercury revolve about the sun as their centre and that they cannot go farther away from it than the circles of their orbits permit, since they do not revolve about the earth like the other planets. According to this theory, then, Mercury's orbit would be included within that of Venus, which is more than twice as great, and would find room enough within it for its revolution.

"If, acting upon this supposition, we connect Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars with the same centre, keeping in mind the greater extent of their orbits, which include the earth's sphere besides those of Mercury and Venus, we cannot fail to see the explanation of the regular order of their motions. He is certain that Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars are always nearest the earth when they rise in the evening—that is, when they appear over against the sun, or the earth stands between them and the sun—but that they are farthest from the earth when they set in the evening—that is, when we have the sun between them and the earth. This proves sufficiently that their centre belongs to the sun and is the same about which the orbits of Venus and Mercury circle. Since, however, all have one centre, it is necessary for the space intervening between the orbits of Venus and Mars to include the earth with her accompanying moon and all that is beneath the moon; for the moon, which stands unquestionably nearest the earth, can in no way be separated from her, especially as there is sufficient room for the moon in the aforesaid space. Hence we do not hesitate to claim that the whole system, which includes the moon with the earth for its centre, makes the round of that great circle between the planets, in yearly motion about the sun, and revolves about the centre of the universe, in which the sun rests motionless, and that all which looks like motion in the sun is explained by the motion of the earth. The extent of the universe, however, is so great that, whereas the distance of the earth from the sun is considerable in comparison with the size of the other planetary orbits, it disappears when compared with the sphere of the fixed stars. I hold this to be more easily comprehensible than when the mind is confused by an almost endless number of circles, which is necessarily the case with those who keep the earth in the middle of the universe. Although this may appear incomprehensible and contrary to the opinion of many, I shall, if God wills, make it clearer than the sun, at least to those who are not ignorant of mathematics.

"The order of the spheres is as follows: The first and lightest of all the spheres is that of the fixed stars, which includes itself and all others, and hence is motionless as the place in the universe to which the motion and position of all other stars is referred.

"Then follows the outermost planet, Saturn, which completes its revolution around the sun in thirty years; next comes Jupiter with a twelve years' revolution; then Mars, which completes its course in two years. The fourth one in order is the yearly revolution which includes the earth with the moon's orbit as an epicycle. In the fifth place is Venus with a revolution of nine months. The sixth place is taken by Mercury, which completes its course in eighty days. In the middle of all stands the sun, and who could wish to place the lamp of this most beautiful temple in another or better place. Thus, in fact, the sun, seated upon the royal throne, controls the family of the stars which circle around him. We find in their order a harmonious connection which cannot be found elsewhere. Here the attentive observer can see why the waxing and waning of Jupiter seems greater than with Saturn and smaller than with Mars, and again greater with Venus than with Mercury. Also, why Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars are nearer to the earth when they rise in the evening than when they disappear in the rays of the sun. More prominently, however, is it seen in the case of Mars, which when it appears in the heavens at night, seems to equal Jupiter in size, but soon afterwards is found among the stars of second magnitude. All of this results from the same cause—namely, from the earth's motion. The fact that nothing of this is to be seen in the case of the fixed stars is a proof of their immeasurable distance, which makes even the orbit of yearly motion or its counterpart invisible to us."[1]

The fact that the stars show no parallax had been regarded as an important argument against the motion of the earth, and it was still so considered by the opponents of the system of Copernicus. It had, indeed, been necessary for Aristarchus to explain the fact as due to the extreme distance of the stars; a perfectly correct explanation, but one that implies distances that are altogether inconceivable. It remained for nineteenth-century astronomers to show, with the aid of instruments of greater precision, that certain of the stars have a parallax. But long before this demonstration had been brought forward, the system of Copernicus had been accepted as a part of common knowledge.

While Copernicus postulated a cosmical scheme that was correct as to its main features, he did not altogether break away from certain defects of the Ptolemaic hypothesis. Indeed, he seems to have retained as much of this as practicable, in deference to the prejudice of his time. Thus he records the planetary orbits as circular, and explains their eccentricities by resorting to the theory of epicycles, quite after the Ptolemaic method. But now, of course, a much more simple mechanism sufficed to explain the planetary motions, since the orbits were correctly referred to the central sun and not to the earth.

Needless to say, the revolutionary conception of Copernicus did not meet with immediate acceptance. A number of prominent astronomers, however, took it up almost at once, among these being Rhaeticus, who wrote a commentary on the evolutions; Erasmus Reinhold, the author of the Prutenic tables; Rothmann, astronomer to the Landgrave of Hesse, and Maestlin, the instructor of Kepler. The Prutenic tables, just referred to, so called because of their Prussian origin, were considered an improvement on the tables of Copernicus, and were highly esteemed by the astronomers of the time. The commentary of Rhaeticus gives us the interesting information that it was the observation of the orbit of Mars and of the very great difference between his apparent diameters at different times which first led Copernicus to conceive the heliocentric idea. Of Reinhold it is recorded that he considered the orbit of Mercury elliptical, and that he advocated a theory of the moon, according to which her epicycle revolved on an elliptical orbit, thus in a measure anticipating one of the great discoveries of Kepler to which we shall refer presently. The Landgrave of Hesse was a practical astronomer, who produced a catalogue of fixed stars which has been compared with that of Tycho Brahe. He was assisted by Rothmann and by Justus Byrgius. Maestlin, the preceptor of Kepler, is reputed to have been the first modern observer to give a correct explanation of the light seen on portions of the moon not directly illumined by the sun. He explained this as not due to any proper light of the moon itself, but as light reflected from the earth. Certain of the Greek philosophers, however, are said to have given the same explanation, and it is alleged also that Leonardo da Vinci anticipated Maestlin in this regard.[2]

While, various astronomers of some eminence thus gave support to the Copernican system, almost from the beginning, it unfortunately chanced that by far the most famous of the immediate successors of Copernicus declined to accept the theory of the earth's motion. This was Tycho Brahe, one of the greatest observing astronomers of any age. Tycho Brahe was a Dane, born at Knudstrup in the year 1546. He died in 1601 at Prague, in Bohemia. During a considerable portion of his life he found a patron in Frederick, King of Denmark, who assisted him to build a splendid observatory on the Island of Huene. On the death of his patron Tycho moved to Germany, where, as good luck would have it, he came in contact with the youthful Kepler, and thus, no doubt, was instrumental in stimulating the ambitions of one who in later years was to be known as a far greater theorist than himself. As has been said, Tycho rejected the Copernican theory of the earth's motion. It should be added, however, that he accepted that part of the Copernican theory which makes the sun the centre of all the planetary motions, the earth being excepted. He thus developed a system of his own, which was in some sort a compromise between the Ptolemaic and the Copernican systems. As Tycho conceived it, the sun revolves about the earth, carrying with it the planets-Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, which planets have the sun and not the earth as the centre of their orbits. This cosmical scheme, it should be added, may be made to explain the observed motions of the heavenly bodies, but it involves a much more complex mechanism than is postulated by the Copernican theory.

Various explanations have been offered of the conservatism which held the great Danish astronomer back from full acceptance of the relatively simple and, as we now know, correct Copernican doctrine. From our latter-day point of view, it seems so much more natural to accept than to reject the Copernican system, that we find it difficult to put ourselves in the place of a sixteenth-century observer. Yet if we recall that the traditional view, having warrant of acceptance by nearly all thinkers of every age, recorded the earth as a fixed, immovable body, we shall see that our surprise should be excited rather by the thinker who can break away from this view than by the one who still tends to cling to it.

Moreover, it is useless to attempt to disguise the fact that something more than a mere vague tradition was supposed to support the idea of the earth's overshadowing importance in the cosmical scheme. The sixteenth-century mind was overmastered by the tenets of ecclesiasticism, and it was a dangerous heresy to doubt that the Hebrew writings, upon which ecclesiasticism based its claim, contained the last word regarding matters of science. But the writers of the Hebrew text had been under the influence of that Babylonian conception of the universe which accepted the earth as unqualifiedly central—which, indeed, had never so much as conceived a contradictory hypothesis; and so the Western world, which had come to accept these writings as actually supernatural in origin, lay under the spell of Oriental ideas of a pre-scientific era. In our own day, no one speaking with authority thinks of these Hebrew writings as having any scientific weight whatever. Their interest in this regard is purely antiquarian; hence from our changed point of view it seems scarcely credible that Tycho Brahe can have been in earnest when he quotes the Hebrew traditions as proof that the sun revolves about the earth. Yet we shall see that for almost three centuries after the time of Tycho, these same dreamings continued to be cited in opposition to those scientific advances which new observations made necessary; and this notwithstanding the fact that the Oriental phrasing is, for the most part, poetically ambiguous and susceptible of shifting interpretations, as the criticism of successive generations has amply testified.

As we have said, Tycho Brahe, great observer as he was, could not shake himself free from the Oriental incubus. He began his objections, then, to the Copernican system by quoting the adverse testimony of a Hebrew prophet who lived more than a thousand years B.C. All of this shows sufficiently that Tycho Brahe was not a great theorist. He was essentially an observer, but in this regard he won a secure place in the very first rank. Indeed, he was easily the greatest observing astronomer since Hipparchus, between whom and himself there were many points of resemblance. Hipparchus, it will be recalled, rejected the Aristarchian conception of the universe just as Tycho rejected the conception of Copernicus.

But if Tycho propounded no great generalizations, the list of specific advances due to him is a long one, and some of these were to prove important aids in the hands of later workers to the secure demonstration of the Copernican idea. One of his most important series of studies had to do with comets. Regarding these bodies there had been the greatest uncertainty in the minds of astronomers. The greatest variety of opinions regarding them prevailed; they were thought on the one hand to be divine messengers, and on the other to be merely igneous phenomena of the earth's atmosphere. Tycho Brahe declared that a comet which he observed in the year 1577 had no parallax, proving its extreme distance. The observed course of the comet intersected the planetary orbits, which fact gave a quietus to the long-mooted question as to whether the Ptolemaic spheres were transparent solids or merely imaginary; since the comet was seen to intersect these alleged spheres, it was obvious that they could not be the solid substance that they were commonly imagined to be, and this fact in itself went far towards discrediting the Ptolemaic system. It should be recalled, however, that this supposition of tangible spheres for the various planetary and stellar orbits was a mediaeval interpretation of Ptolemy's theory rather than an interpretation of Ptolemy himself, there being nothing to show that the Alexandrian astronomer regarded his cycles and epicycles as other than theoretical.

An interesting practical discovery made by Tycho was his method of determining the latitude of a place by means of two observations made at an interval of twelve hours. Hitherto it had been necessary to observe the sun's angle on the equinoctial days, a period of six months being therefore required. Tycho measured the angle of elevation of some star situated near the pole, when on the meridian, and then, twelve hours later, measured the angle of elevation of the same star when it again came to the meridian at the opposite point of its apparent circle about the polestar. Half the sum of these angles gives the latitude of the place of observation.

As illustrating the accuracy of Tycho's observations, it may be noted that he rediscovered a third inequality of the moon's motion at its variation, he, in common with other European astronomers, being then quite unaware that this inequality had been observed by an Arabian astronomer. Tycho proved also that the angle of inclination of the moon's orbit to the ecliptic is subject to slight variation.

The very brilliant new star which shone forth suddenly in the constellation of Cassiopeia in the year 1572, was made the object of special studies by Tycho, who proved that the star had no sensible parallax and consequently was far beyond the planetary regions. The appearance of a new star was a phenomenon not unknown to the ancients, since Pliny records that Hipparchus was led by such an appearance to make his catalogue of the fixed stars. But the phenomenon is sufficiently uncommon to attract unusual attention. A similar phenomenon occurred in the year 1604, when the new star—in this case appearing in the constellation of Serpentarius—was explained by Kepler as probably proceeding from a vast combustion. This explanation—in which Kepler is said to have followed. Tycho—is fully in accord with the most recent theories on the subject, as we shall see in due course. It is surprising to hear Tycho credited with so startling a theory, but, on the other hand, such an explanation is precisely what should be expected from the other astronomer named. For Johann Kepler, or, as he was originally named, Johann von Kappel, was one of the most speculative astronomers of any age. He was forever theorizing, but such was the peculiar quality of his mind that his theories never satisfied him for long unless he could put them to the test of observation. Thanks to this happy combination of qualities, Kepler became the discoverer of three famous laws of planetary motion which lie at the very foundation of modern astronomy, and which were to be largely instrumental in guiding Newton to his still greater generalization. These laws of planetary motion were vastly important as corroborating the Copernican theory of the universe, though their position in this regard was not immediately recognized by contemporary thinkers. Let us examine with some detail into their discovery, meantime catching a glimpse of the life history of the remarkable man whose name they bear.


Johann Kepler was born the 27th of December, 1571, in the little town of Weil, in Wurtemburg. He was a weak, sickly child, further enfeebled by a severe attack of small-pox. It would seem paradoxical to assert that the parents of such a genius were mismated, but their home was not a happy one, the mother being of a nervous temperament, which perhaps in some measure accounted for the genius of the child. The father led the life of a soldier, and finally perished in the campaign against the Turks. Young Kepler's studies were directed with an eye to the ministry. After a preliminary training he attended the university at Tubingen, where he came under the influence of the celebrated Maestlin and became his life-long friend.

Curiously enough, it is recorded that at first Kepler had no taste for astronomy or for mathematics. But the doors of the ministry being presently barred to him, he turned with enthusiasm to the study of astronomy, being from the first an ardent advocate of the Copernican system. His teacher, Maestlin, accepted the same doctrine, though he was obliged, for theological reasons, to teach the Ptolemaic system, as also to oppose the Gregorian reform of the calendar.

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.

Kepler was not only an ardent worker and an enthusiastic theorizer, but he was an indefatigable writer, and it pleased him to take the public fully into his confidence, not merely as to his successes, but as to his failures. Thus his works elaborate false theories as well as correct ones, and detail the observations through which the incorrect guesses were refuted by their originator. Some of these accounts are highly interesting, but they must not detain us here. For our present purpose it must suffice to point out the three important theories, which, as culled from among a score or so of incorrect ones, Kepler was able to demonstrate to his own satisfaction and to that of subsequent observers. Stated in a few words, these theories, which have come to bear the name of Kepler's Laws, are the following:

1. That the planetary orbits are not circular, but elliptical, the sun occupying one focus of the ellipses.

2. That the speed of planetary motion varies in different parts of the orbit in such a way that an imaginary line drawn from the sun to the planet—that is to say, the radius vector of the planet's orbit—always sweeps the same area in a given time.

These two laws Kepler published as early as 1609. Many years more of patient investigation were required before he found out the secret of the relation between planetary distances and times of revolution which his third law expresses. In 1618, however, he was able to formulate this relation also, as follows:

3. The squares of the distance of the various planets from the sun are proportional to the cubes of their periods of revolution about the sun.

All these laws, it will be observed, take for granted the fact that the sun is the centre of the planetary orbits. It must be understood, too, that the earth is constantly regarded, in accordance with the Copernican system, as being itself a member of the planetary system, subject to precisely the same laws as the other planets. Long familiarity has made these wonderful laws of Kepler seem such a matter of course that it is difficult now to appreciate them at their full value. Yet, as has been already pointed out, it was the knowledge of these marvellously simple relations between the planetary orbits that laid the foundation for the Newtonian law of universal gravitation. Contemporary judgment could not, of course, anticipate this culmination of a later generation. What it could understand was that the first law of Kepler attacked one of the most time-honored of metaphysical conceptions—namely, the Aristotelian idea that the circle is the perfect figure, and hence that the planetary orbits must be circular. Not even Copernicus had doubted the validity of this assumption. That Kepler dared dispute so firmly fixed a belief, and one that seemingly had so sound a philosophical basis, evidenced the iconoclastic nature of his genius. That he did not rest content until he had demonstrated the validity of his revolutionary assumption shows how truly this great theorizer made his hypotheses subservient to the most rigid inductions.


While Kepler was solving these riddles of planetary motion, there was an even more famous man in Italy whose championship of the Copernican doctrine was destined to give the greatest possible publicity to the new ideas. This was Galileo Galilei, one of the most extraordinary scientific observers of any age. Galileo was born at Pisa, on the 18th of February (old style), 1564. The day of his birth is doubly memorable, since on the same day the greatest Italian of the preceding epoch, Michael Angelo, breathed his last. Persons fond of symbolism have found in the coincidence a forecast of the transit from the artistic to the scientific epoch of the later Renaissance. Galileo came of an impoverished noble family. He was educated for the profession of medicine, but did not progress far before his natural proclivities directed him towards the physical sciences. Meeting with opposition in Pisa, he early accepted a call to the chair of natural philosophy in the University of Padua, and later in life he made his home at Florence. The mechanical and physical discoveries of Galileo will claim our attention in another chapter. Our present concern is with his contribution to the Copernican theory.

Galileo himself records in a letter to Kepler that he became a convert to this theory at an early day. He was not enabled, however, to make any marked contribution to the subject, beyond the influence of his general teachings, until about the year 1610. The brilliant contributions which he made were due largely to a single discovery—namely, that of the telescope. Hitherto the astronomical observations had been made with the unaided eye. Glass lenses had been known since the thirteenth century, but, until now, no one had thought of their possible use as aids to distant vision. The question of priority of discovery has never been settled. It is admitted, however, that the chief honors belong to the opticians of the Netherlands.

As early as the year 1590 the Dutch optician Zacharias Jensen placed a concave and a convex lens respectively at the ends of a tube about eighteen inches long, and used this instrument for the purpose of magnifying small objects—producing, in short, a crude microscope. Some years later, Johannes Lippershey, of whom not much is known except that he died in 1619, experimented with a somewhat similar combination of lenses, and made the startling observation that the weather-vane on a distant church-steeple seemed to be brought much nearer when viewed through the lens. The combination of lenses he employed is that still used in the construction of opera-glasses; the Germans still call such a combination a Dutch telescope.

Doubtless a large number of experimenters took the matter up and the fame of the new instrument spread rapidly abroad. Galileo, down in Italy, heard rumors of this remarkable contrivance, through the use of which it was said "distant objects might be seen as clearly as those near at hand." He at once set to work to construct for himself a similar instrument, and his efforts were so far successful that at first he "saw objects three times as near and nine times enlarged." Continuing his efforts, he presently so improved his glass that objects were enlarged almost a thousand times and made to appear thirty times nearer than when seen with the naked eye. Naturally enough, Galileo turned this fascinating instrument towards the skies, and he was almost immediately rewarded by several startling discoveries. At the very outset, his magnifying-glass brought to view a vast number of stars that are invisible to the naked eye, and enabled the observer to reach the conclusion that the hazy light of the Milky Way is merely due to the aggregation of a vast number of tiny stars.

Turning his telescope towards the moon, Galileo found that body rough and earth-like in contour, its surface covered with mountains, whose height could be approximately measured through study of their shadows. This was disquieting, because the current Aristotelian doctrine supposed the moon, in common with the planets, to be a perfectly spherical, smooth body. The metaphysical idea of a perfect universe was sure to be disturbed by this seemingly rough workmanship of the moon. Thus far, however, there was nothing in the observations of Galileo to bear directly upon the Copernican theory; but when an inspection was made of the planets the case was quite different. With the aid of his telescope, Galileo saw that Venus, for example, passes through phases precisely similar to those of the moon, due, of course, to the same cause. Here, then, was demonstrative evidence that the planets are dark bodies reflecting the light of the sun, and an explanation was given of the fact, hitherto urged in opposition to the Copernican theory, that the inferior planets do not seem many times brighter when nearer the earth than when in the most distant parts of their orbits; the explanation being, of course, that when the planets are between the earth and the sun only a small portion of their illumined surfaces is visible from the earth.

On inspecting the planet Jupiter, a still more striking revelation was made, as four tiny stars were observed to occupy an equatorial position near that planet, and were seen, when watched night after night, to be circling about the planet, precisely as the moon circles about the earth. Here, obviously, was a miniature solar system—a tangible object-lesson in the Copernican theory. In honor of the ruling Florentine house of the period, Galileo named these moons of Jupiter, Medicean stars.

Turning attention to the sun itself, Galileo observed on the surface of that luminary a spot or blemish which gradually changed its shape, suggesting that changes were taking place in the substance of the sun—changes obviously incompatible with the perfect condition demanded by the metaphysical theorists. But however disquieting for the conservative, the sun's spots served a most useful purpose in enabling Galileo to demonstrate that the sun itself revolves on its axis, since a given spot was seen to pass across the disk and after disappearing to reappear in due course. The period of rotation was found to be about twenty-four days.

It must be added that various observers disputed priority of discovery of the sun's spots with Galileo. Unquestionably a sun-spot had been seen by earlier observers, and by them mistaken for the transit of an inferior planet. Kepler himself had made this mistake. Before the day of the telescope, he had viewed the image of the sun as thrown on a screen in a camera-obscura, and had observed a spot on the disk which be interpreted as representing the planet Mercury, but which, as is now known, must have been a sun-spot, since the planetary disk is too small to have been revealed by this method. Such observations as these, however interesting, cannot be claimed as discoveries of the sun-spots. It is probable, however, that several discoverers (notably Johann Fabricius) made the telescopic observation of the spots, and recognized them as having to do with the sun's surface, almost simultaneously with Galileo. One of these claimants was a Jesuit named Scheiner, and the jealousy of this man is said to have had a share in bringing about that persecution to which we must now refer.

There is no more famous incident in the history of science than the heresy trial through which Galileo was led to the nominal renunciation of his cherished doctrines. There is scarcely another incident that has been commented upon so variously. Each succeeding generation has put its own interpretation on it. The facts, however, have been but little questioned. It appears that in the year 1616 the church became at last aroused to the implications of the heliocentric doctrine of the universe. Apparently it seemed clear to the church authorities that the authors of the Bible believed the world to be immovably fixed at the centre of the universe. Such, indeed, would seem to be the natural inference from various familiar phrases of the Hebrew text, and what we now know of the status of Oriental science in antiquity gives full warrant to this interpretation. There is no reason to suppose that the conception of the subordinate place of the world in the solar system had ever so much as occurred, even as a vague speculation, to the authors of Genesis. In common with their contemporaries, they believed the earth to be the all-important body in the universe, and the sun a luminary placed in the sky for the sole purpose of giving light to the earth. There is nothing strange, nothing anomalous, in this view; it merely reflects the current notions of Oriental peoples in antiquity. What is strange and anomalous is the fact that the Oriental dreamings thus expressed could have been supposed to represent the acme of scientific knowledge. Yet such a hold had these writings taken upon the Western world that not even a Galileo dared contradict them openly; and when the church fathers gravely declared the heliocentric theory necessarily false, because contradictory to Scripture, there were probably few people in Christendom whose mental attitude would permit them justly to appreciate the humor of such a pronouncement. And, indeed, if here and there a man might have risen to such an appreciation, there were abundant reasons for the repression of the impulse, for there was nothing humorous about the response with which the authorities of the time were wont to meet the expression of iconoclastic opinions. The burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, in the year 1600, was, for example, an object-lesson well calculated to restrain the enthusiasm of other similarly minded teachers.

Doubtless it was such considerations that explained the relative silence of the champions of the Copernican theory, accounting for the otherwise inexplicable fact that about eighty years elapsed after the death of Copernicus himself before a single text-book expounded his theory. The text-book which then appeared, under date of 1622, was written by the famous Kepler, who perhaps was shielded in a measure from the papal consequences of such hardihood by the fact of residence in a Protestant country. Not that the Protestants of the time favored the heliocentric doctrine—we have already quoted Luther in an adverse sense—but of course it was characteristic of the Reformation temper to oppose any papal pronouncement, hence the ultramontane declaration of 1616 may indirectly have aided the doctrine which it attacked, by making that doctrine less obnoxious to Lutheran eyes. Be that as it may, the work of Kepler brought its author into no direct conflict with the authorities. But the result was quite different when, in 1632, Galileo at last broke silence and gave the world, under cover of the form of dialogue, an elaborate exposition of the Copernican theory. Galileo, it must be explained, had previously been warned to keep silent on the subject, hence his publication doubly offended the authorities. To be sure, he could reply that his dialogue introduced a champion of the Ptolemaic system to dispute with the upholder of the opposite view, and that, both views being presented with full array of argument, the reader was left to reach a verdict for himself, the author having nowhere pointedly expressed an opinion. But such an argument, of course, was specious, for no one who read the dialogue could be in doubt as to the opinion of the author. Moreover, it was hinted that Simplicio, the character who upheld the Ptolemaic doctrine and who was everywhere worsted in the argument, was intended to represent the pope himself—a suggestion which probably did no good to Galileo's cause.

The character of Galileo's artistic presentation may best be judged from an example, illustrating the vigorous assault of Salviati, the champion of the new theory, and the feeble retorts of his conservative antagonist:

"Salviati. Let us then begin our discussion with the consideration that, whatever motion may be attributed to the earth, yet we, as dwellers upon it, and hence as participators in its motion, cannot possibly perceive anything of it, presupposing that we are to consider only earthly things. On the other hand, it is just as necessary that this same motion belong apparently to all other bodies and visible objects, which, being separated from the earth, do not take part in its motion. The correct method to discover whether one can ascribe motion to the earth, and what kind of motion, is, therefore, to investigate and observe whether in bodies outside the earth a perceptible motion may be discovered which belongs to all alike. Because a movement which is perceptible only in the moon, for instance, and has nothing to do with Venus or Jupiter or other stars, cannot possibly be peculiar to the earth, nor can its seat be anywhere else than in the moon. Now there is one such universal movement which controls all others—namely, that which the sun, moon, the other planets, the fixed stars—in short, the whole universe, with the single exception of the earth—appears to execute from east to west in the space of twenty-four hours. This now, as it appears at the first glance anyway, might just as well be a motion of the earth alone as of all the rest of the universe with the exception of the earth, for the same phenomena would result from either hypothesis. Beginning with the most general, I will enumerate the reasons which seem to speak in favor of the earth's motion. When we merely consider the immensity of the starry sphere in comparison with the smallness of the terrestrial ball, which is contained many million times in the former, and then think of the rapidity of the motion which completes a whole rotation in one day and night, I cannot persuade myself how any one can hold it to be more reasonable and credible that it is the heavenly sphere which rotates, while the earth stands still.

"Simplicio. I do not well understand how that powerful motion may be said to as good as not exist for the sun, the moon, the other planets, and the innumerable host of fixed stars. Do you call that nothing when the sun goes from one meridian to another, rises up over this horizon and sinks behind that one, brings now day, and now night; when the moon goes through similar changes, and the other planets and fixed stars in the same way?

"Salviati. All the changes you mention are such only in respect to the earth. To convince yourself of it, only imagine the earth out of existence. There would then be no rising and setting of the sun or of the moon, no horizon, no meridian, no day, no night—in short, the said motion causes no change of any sort in the relation of the sun to the moon or to any of the other heavenly bodies, be they planets or fixed stars. All changes are rather in respect to the earth; they may all be reduced to the simple fact that the sun is first visible in China, then in Persia, afterwards in Egypt, Greece, France, Spain, America, etc., and that the same thing happens with the moon and the other heavenly bodies. Exactly the same thing happens and in exactly the same way if, instead of disturbing so large a part of the universe, you let the earth revolve about itself. The difficulty is, however, doubled, inasmuch as a second very important problem presents itself. If, namely, that powerful motion is ascribed to the heavens, it is absolutely necessary to regard it as opposed to the individual motion of all the planets, every one of which indubitably has its own very leisurely and moderate movement from west to east. If, on the other hand, you let the earth move about itself, this opposition of motion disappears.

"The improbability is tripled by the complete overthrow of that order which rules all the heavenly bodies in which the revolving motion is definitely established. The greater the sphere is in such a case, so much longer is the time required for its revolution; the smaller the sphere the shorter the time. Saturn, whose orbit surpasses those of all the planets in size, traverses it in thirty years. Jupiter[4] completes its smaller course in twelve years, Mars in two; the moon performs its much smaller revolution within a month. Just as clearly in the Medicean stars, we see that the one nearest Jupiter completes its revolution in a very short time—about forty-two hours; the next in about three and one-half days, the third in seven, and the most distant one in sixteen days. This rule, which is followed throughout, will still remain if we ascribe the twenty-four-hourly motion to a rotation of the earth. If, however, the earth is left motionless, we must go first from the very short rule of the moon to ever greater ones—to the two-yearly rule of Mars, from that to the twelve-yearly one of Jupiter, from here to the thirty-yearly one of Saturn, and then suddenly to an incomparably greater sphere, to which also we must ascribe a complete rotation in twenty-four hours. If, however, we assume a motion of the earth, the rapidity of the periods is very well preserved; from the slowest sphere of Saturn we come to the wholly motionless fixed stars. We also escape thereby a fourth difficulty, which arises as soon as we assume that there is motion in the sphere of the stars. I mean the great unevenness in the movement of these very stars, some of which would have to revolve with extraordinary rapidity in immense circles, while others moved very slowly in small circles, since some of them are at a greater, others at a less, distance from the pole. That is likewise an inconvenience, for, on the one hand, we see all those stars, the motion of which is indubitable, revolve in great circles, while, on the other hand, there seems to be little object in placing bodies, which are to move in circles, at an enormous distance from the centre and then let them move in very small circles. And not only are the size of the different circles and therewith the rapidity of the movement very different in the different fixed stars, but the same stars also change their orbits and their rapidity of motion. Therein consists the fifth inconvenience. Those stars, namely, which were at the equator two thousand years ago, and hence described great circles in their revolutions, must to-day move more slowly and in smaller circles, because they are many degrees removed from it. It will even happen, after not so very long a time, that one of those which have hitherto been continually in motion will finally coincide with the pole and stand still, but after a period of repose will again begin to move. The other stars in the mean while, which unquestionably move, all have, as was said, a great circle for an orbit and keep this unchangeably.

"The improbability is further increased—this may be considered the sixth inconvenience—by the fact that it is impossible to conceive what degree of solidity those immense spheres must have, in the depths of which so many stars are fixed so enduringly that they are kept revolving evenly in spite of such difference of motion without changing their respective positions. Or if, according to the much more probable theory, the heavens are fluid, and every star describes an orbit of its own, according to what law then, or for what reason, are their orbits so arranged that, when looked at from the earth, they appear to be contained in one single sphere? To attain this it seems to me much easier and more convenient to make them motionless instead of moving, just as the paving-stones on the market-place, for instance, remain in order more easily than the swarms of children running about on them.

"Finally, the seventh difficulty: If we attribute the daily rotation to the higher region of the heavens, we should have to endow it with force and power sufficient to carry with it the innumerable host of the fixed stars —every one a body of very great compass and much larger than the earth—and all the planets, although the latter, like the earth, move naturally in an opposite direction. In the midst of all this the little earth, single and alone, would obstinately and wilfully withstand such force—a supposition which, it appears to me, has much against it. I could also not explain why the earth, a freely poised body, balancing itself about its centre, and surrounded on all sides by a fluid medium, should not be affected by the universal rotation. Such difficulties, however, do not confront us if we attribute motion to the earth—such a small, insignificant body in comparison with the whole universe, and which for that very reason cannot exercise any power over the latter.

"Simplicio. You support your arguments throughout, it seems to me, on the greater ease and simplicity with which the said effects are produced. You mean that as a cause the motion of the earth alone is just as satisfactory as the motion of all the rest of the universe with the exception of the earth; you hold the actual event to be much easier in the former case than in the latter. For the ruler of the universe, however, whose might is infinite, it is no less easy to move the universe than the earth or a straw balm. But if his power is infinite, why should not a greater, rather than a very small, part of it be revealed to me?

"Salviati. If I had said that the universe does not move on account of the impotence of its ruler, I should have been wrong and your rebuke would have been in order. I admit that it is just as easy for an infinite power to move a hundred thousand as to move one. What I said, however, does not refer to him who causes the motion, but to that which is moved. In answer to your remark that it is more fitting for an infinite power to reveal a large part of itself rather than a little, I answer that, in relation to the infinite, one part is not greater than another, if both are finite. Hence it is unallowable to say that a hundred thousand is a larger part of an infinite number than two, although the former is fifty thousand times greater than the latter. If, therefore, we consider the moving bodies, we must unquestionably regard the motion of the earth as a much simpler process than that of the universe; if, furthermore, we direct our attention to so many other simplifications which may be reached only by this theory, the daily movement of the earth must appear much more probable than the motion of the universe without the earth, for, according to Aristotle's just axiom, 'Frustra fit per plura, quod potest fieri per p auciora' (It is vain to expend many means where a few are sufficient)."[2]

The work was widely circulated, and it was received with an interest which bespeaks a wide-spread undercurrent of belief in the Copernican doctrine. Naturally enough, it attracted immediate attention from the church authorities. Galileo was summoned to appear at Rome to defend his conduct. The philosopher, who was now in his seventieth year, pleaded age and infirmity. He had no desire for personal experience of the tribunal of the Inquisition; but the mandate was repeated, and Galileo went to Rome. There, as every one knows, he disavowed any intention to oppose the teachings of Scripture, and formally renounced the heretical doctrine of the earth's motion. According to a tale which so long passed current that every historian must still repeat it though no one now believes it authentic, Galileo qualified his renunciation by muttering to himself, "E pur si muove" (It does move, none the less), as he rose to his feet and retired from the presence of his persecutors. The tale is one of those fictions which the dramatic sense of humanity is wont to impose upon history, but, like most such fictions, it expresses the spirit if not the letter of truth; for just as no one believes that Galileo's lips uttered the phrase, so no one doubts that the rebellious words were in his mind.

After his formal renunciation, Galileo was allowed to depart, but with the injunction that he abstain in future from heretical teaching. The remaining ten years of his life were devoted chiefly to mechanics, where his experiments fortunately opposed the Aristotelian rather than the Hebrew teachings. Galileo's death occurred in 1642, a hundred years after the death of Copernicus. Kepler had died thirteen years before, and there remained no astronomer in the field who is conspicuous in the history of science as a champion of the Copernican doctrine. But in truth it might be said that the theory no longer needed a champion. The researches of Kepler and Galileo had produced a mass of evidence for the Copernican theory which amounted to demonstration. A generation or two might be required for this evidence to make itself everywhere known among men of science, and of course the ecclesiastical authorities must be expected to stand by their guns for a somewhat longer period. In point of fact, the ecclesiastical ban was not technically removed by the striking of the Copernican books from the list of the Index Expurgatorius until the year 1822, almost two hundred years after the date of Galileo's dialogue. But this, of course, is in no sense a guide to the state of general opinion regarding the theory. We shall gain a true gauge as to this if we assume that the greater number of important thinkers had accepted the heliocentric doctrine before the middle of the seventeenth century, and that before the close of that century the old Ptolemaic idea had been quite abandoned. A wonderful revolution in man's estimate of the universe had thus been effected within about two centuries after the birth of Copernicus.