This is a “nerdy” story about some of the real minutia of writing and publishing in the academic world. I am only going to subject subscribers to Sacred Space Astronomy to it.
Writers need editors. A weakness of blogs like this one is that we writers can just dump on you readers whatever we want. We do not have an editor who makes sure that what we write makes sense, reads well, etc. We can ask each other for help, or we can ask others to edit our writing (I often ask my wife to read over my posts), but we can also just drop something on the blog.
Editors help. Some famous editors have passed away in recent months, and their passing is noticed by the literary world (click here or here for examples). Of course, sometimes editors make changes that writers do not want. But, since editors usually have the final say, the writers usually have to go along with it.
In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!…
Back in July, Stephen Barr asked me to write a piece for the web page of the Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS). Readers will likely recognize Stephen Barr—he is a professor at the University of Delaware. He is the President of the SCS. He has written a lot on science from an expressly Catholic point of view. You can find him in a lot of videos. He is an accomplished guy.
I agreed to write something for SCS, and sent them a piece on my research about the Copernican Revolution. He did a fair bit of editing, and published it in December with the title “What If Modern Science Had Started Differently?”, and under a painting of Galileo showing off his telescope. Click here to read it. If you have been reading my posts here, you will find much that is familiar.
It turns out that the Church Life Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame is re-publishing the articles produced by the Society of Catholic Scientists. So they edited my piece a bit more, and published it in January with the title “An Alternate History of Modern Science”, and under a Vincent van Gogh painting, The Sower. Click here to read the Church Life Journal version.
My feeling in this business is that when you send someone something for publication, you are agreeing to their editing. It is their platform. Only if they were to really mess something up would I say anything. And, that is the approach the folks who have written guest posts for me have taken. Fernando Comerón, for example, has left it entirely up to me how to edit the material he sends. If I do a lousy job, he’ll probably tell me—or just not send me anything more!
So, what did I actually send to the Society of Catholic Scientists? I include the original, unedited version below. Its contents are known only to you, Oh Subscribed Reader of Sacred Space Astronomy—The Catholic Astronomer! Now you can be a real science/literature nerd if you want, compare the three versions, and get a bit of an inside look into how a bit of nerdy academic science writing comes together.
Original (title-less) version:
A man is here revealed who possesses the passionate will, the intelligence, and the courage to stand up as the representative of rational thinking against the host of those who, relying on the ignorance of the people and the indolence of teachers in priest’s and scholar’s garb, maintain and defend their positions of authority. His unusual literary gift enables him to… overcome the anthropocentric and mythical thinking of his contemporaries and to lead them back to an objective and causal attitude toward the cosmos, an attitude which had become lost to humanity….
—Albert Einstein, forward to Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, Modern Library Edition, 2001.
Galileo was ordered to stop believing what he could see with his own two eyes.
—Peter Sis, Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, American Library
Association Caldecott Honor Book, 1997.
You are familiar with the story of the Copernican Revolution and Galileo. Now imagine a different sort of Copernican Revolution, and imagine what that different Revolution would mean for Science.
Imagine a Copernican Revolution that featured scientific debate of the best kind. In this Revolution there would be no representative of rational thinking standing up on one side to support a modern scientific outlook against, on the other side, a host of those who used Aristotle, religion, and their positions of authority to uphold old ideas and suppress the truth. In this Revolution there would be rational thinking, and brilliant insight, on both sides. This Revolution would showcase the scientific process. In it, clever people on both sides would have honed ideas, pushed instruments to their limits, and engaged in fascinating scientific arguments about whether the Earth orbits the Sun or the Sun orbits the Earth—about heliocentrism versus geocentrism.
In this imagined Revolution, the supporters of a geocentric universe would not rely on lame arguments about how birds would be left behind by a moving Earth—as though not a one of them had ever poured a drink on a smoothly-moving ship. No, in this Copernican Revolution, the brightest geocentrists might be clever enough to envision that a rotating Earth implied a Coriolis Effect, almost two centuries prior to Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis, for whom it is now named. They might argue that the differing speeds found on the surface of a spinning globe must cause certain effects, more subtle than anything birds would notice, and that the failure to detect such effects militates against the heliocentric theory.
In this imagined Revolution, the heliocentrists might argue for a heliocentric universe that differs greatly from any modern view. In this Revolution, the brightest of the heliocentrists might use keen observation and impeccable logic to support a heliocentric cosmos in which the sun was the unique central body of the entire universe, not just of the planetary orbits. Likewise, the geocentrists might argue for a geocentric model of the universe that conformed to the latest telescopic observations, not for the 1500-year-old model of Ptolemy. Both sides might interpret the available data persuasively in support of their views, so that whether a scientist was a heliocentrist or a geocentrist almost boiled down to what that scientist defined as “elegant”.
Lastly, imagine how science might benefit from having this alternate Copernican Revolution in its history. With this Revolution, modern science could point to a brilliant and fascinating scientific debate as its founding story. Modern science would not be weighed down by a story of broad resistance to scientific truths and of refusal to acknowledge what plain observation reveals. In other words, science would not be weighed down by a story that certain people today use to claim the mantle of Galileo, declare that the Establishment is suppressing The Truth, and launch movements that end up bringing back the measles. Instead of being weighed down by that story, science would be buoyed up by a story that shows how science has always been a dynamic debate, in which the truth is not so readily suppressed.
Now, stop imagining. What I have just described is the Copernican Revolution that actually occurred.
Opponents of Copernicus’s theory did in fact envision the Coriolis Effect. Frs. Giovanni Battista Riccioli and Francesco Maria Grimaldi, both of the Society of Jesus, described it in Riccioli’s Almagestum Novum of 1651. Fr. Claude Francis Milliet Dechales, also S. J., produced diagrams and discussions of the effect that could serve in a modern textbook. These Jesuit priests were not describing an effect that they had observed, but an effect that they realized must occur on a rotating globe. They said that the fact that no such effect had ever been observed militated against any rotation of the Earth. They were well beyond claims that, in a heliocentric universe, birds would be left behind by a moving Earth.
Advocates for Copernicus’s theory did in fact argue for a heliocentric universe that bore little resemblance to any modern conception of it. Johannes Kepler described the heliocentric universe as consisting of one unique, tiny, brilliant, central body—that being the Sun, itself orbited by planets that were tinier still. The Sun was then surrounded by stars that dwarfed it. Every last visible star was at least as large as Earth’s orbit, and vastly larger than the Sun. The largest of the stars, Kepler said, was larger than the orbit of Saturn, larger than an entire geocentric universe. And he said that while the stars were giant, they were also dim—the combined light output of these monsters was as nothing compared to that of the sun.
This was no idle speculation on Kepler’s part. The best measurements of the angular sizes occupied by the stars on the 180-degree sweep of the night sky, combined with the vast distances to the stars* required by Copernicus’s theory, necessitated the monstrous sizes of the stars. Their dimness was necessitated by the fact that they failed to illuminate the night. One could not plead that their distance makes them dim, said Kepler. This does not help at all, he said, because given their angular sizes, the further away they might be, the larger they must be—“the greater their distance, the more does every single one of them outstrip the sun in diameter”.
Kepler saw this heliocentric universe—with its giant stars, tiny brilliant sun, and tinier planets—as elegant, revealing God at work. God’s power was on display in the creation of the giant stars. God’s care was on display in the creation of the tiny Earth and its inhabitants. Thus Kepler wrote:
Where magnitude waxes, there perfection wanes, and nobility follows diminution in bulk. The sphere of the fixed stars according to Copernicus is certainly most large; but it is inert, no motion. The universe of the movables [the planets] is next. Now this—so much smaller, so much more divine—has accepted that so admirable, so well-ordered motion. Nevertheless, that place neither contains animating faculty, nor does it reason, nor does it run about. It goes, provided that it is moved. It has not developed, but it retains that impressed to it from the beginning. What it is not, it will never be. What it is, is not made by it—the same endures, as was built.
Then comes this our little ball, the little cottage of us all, which we call the Earth: the womb of the growing, herself fashioned by a certain internal faculty. The architect of marvelous work, she kindles daily so many little living things from herself—plants, fishes, insects—as she easily may scorn the rest of the bulk in view of this her nobility.
Lastly behold if you will the little bodies which we call the animals. What smaller than these is able to be imagined in comparison to the universe? But there now behold feeling, and voluntary motions—an infinite architecture of bodies.
Behold if you will, among those, these fine bits of dust, which are called Men; to whom the Creator has granted such, that in a certain way they may beget themselves, clothe themselves, arm themselves, teach themselves an infinity of arts, and daily accomplish the good; in whom is the image of God; who are, in a certain way, lords of the whole bulk.
And what is it to us, that the body of the universe has for itself a great breadth, while the soul lacks for one? We may learn well therefore the pleasure of the Creator, who is author both of the roughness of the large masses, and of the perfection of the smalls. Yet he glories not in bulk, but ennobles those that he has wished to be small.
In the end, through these intervals from Earth to the Sun, from Sun to Saturn, from Saturn to the fixed stars, we may learn gradually to ascend toward recognizing the immensity of divine power.
Kepler was hardly alone among heliocentrists in his views. He couldn’t be—the case for giant stars in a Copernican cosmos was just too compelling. Other heliocentrists shared his view of the sizes of stars, and of their being an illustration of God’s power. Kepler even used the giant stars to argue that the sort of universe advocated by Giordano Bruno—in which the stars were other suns, orbited by other Earths—was not scientifically possible. No careful astronomer could subscribe to Bruno’s ideas. Basic observations, measurements, and calculations showed that the stars were not suns, and Bruno’s ideas were absurd.
Needless to say, geocentrists attacked the giant stars as being themselves absurd. They saw them as inelegant, a great weakness of the Copernican theory. Geocentrists were unimpressed by heliocentrists invoking God’s power concerning the giant stars; that, said Riccioli, cannot satisfy the more prudent minds. No such weaknesses were to be found in the new hybrid geocentric theory that they supported. It was fully compatible with telescopic discoveries. In it, the Earth was orbited by the moon, the sun (which in turn was orbited by planets), and the stars. These stars were only a little more distant than, and little larger than, Saturn. The geocentric universe was elegantly compact, with all bodies in it commensurate in size. Thus in 1674 Robert Hooke referred to the star size issue as—
a grand objection alledged by divers of the great Anti-copernicans with great vehemency and insulting; amongst which we may reckon [Riccioli], who would fain make the apparent Diameters of the Stars so big, as that the body of the Star should contain the great Orb [Earth’s orbit] many times, which would indeed swell the Stars to a magnitude vastly bigger then the Sun, thereby hoping to make it seem so improbable, as to be rejected by all parties.
Is this not all fascinating? Even exciting? Here is a great scientific debate playing out. Even now, you are drawn in, wondering how the story ends, wondering how the arguments get resolved.
This is a great story of science. It happens to be true, and true is better than mythical. This story can be found in the published writings of Riccioli, Dechales, Kepler, and others. One just has to know Latin, be familiar with the science being discussed, and have access to a large library of rare, four-century-old books. Thanks to the digitization of many rare books, and to the internet, access is no longer a hurdle. That is why you are reading this now.
This story also happens to be good for science, at a time when, thanks in large part to that same internet, the sorts of people who claim to know the Truth that the Establishment is suppressing are having an impact, once unimaginable, at science’s expense. Note that, in this story of the Copernican Revolution, machinations of the powerful Establishment play no leading role. This story of the Copernican Revolution does not provide much of a mantle for the crackpot or science denier to grasp when claiming that “They” are suppressing the truth.
Thus this different story of the Copernican Revolution is not a matter of imagination. This is the story of the Revolution that actually occurred. This is a great story of science. Science needs this story to be told. And this story needs interested scientists to tell it.
*The Earth’s motion relative to the stars should produce observable effects in the stars. For example, if Earth circles the sun annually, then at any given moment it must be moving toward some stars, and away from others. We should expect to observe certain stars growing brighter and dimmer on an annual basis, as Earth approaches and recedes from them. Such “annual parallax” had not been observed (and would not be, until the early nineteenth century). The answer that Copernicus proposed for this lack of parallax was for the stars to be so distant that Earth’s annual motion was insignificant compared to the distance to the stars. By contrast, if the Earth is motionless, no annual parallax is expected, and the stars need not be so far away.
Christopher M. Graney is an adjunct scholar at the Specola Vaticana, the Vatican’s astronomical observatory. His most recent book is Mathematical Disquisitions: The Booklet of Theses Immortalized by Galileo (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), a complete translation of a scientific work by an anti-Copernican astronomer, Fr. Christoph Scheiner (S.J.) and his student, Johann Georg Locher.
Drop me a comment, Sacred Space subscribers. Let me know if this is interesting, or booooring!