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Jack Oughton

De Revolutionibus - A Book Nobody



e Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On The Revolutions Of The Heavenly

Spheres) is the ultimate work of the multi-talented reclusive genius, Nicolaus Copernicus. It is known as the writing that began the Copernican Revolution, one of the most significant astronomical paradigm shifts in human history, dislodging the millennia old geocentric hypothesis. It has also been argued that this book was the catalyst for the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century. The scientific revolution saw massive progress made in everything from biology to chemistry, as the limiting shackles of millennia of religious dogma and persecution began to loosen their grip on thought in Europe.

De Revolutionibus’ title page, Second Edition. Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian born polymath, who immigrated to the UK in the 1940s. A driven man, he renounced his Jewish religious heritage, became an outspoken critic of Communism, was Knighted in the 1970s, and as a lifelong advocate of voluntary euthanasia; took his own life with his wife by a drug overdose on March 3, 1983. He wrote many books and novels on subjects varying from social philosophy, politics and science. In 1959 he wrote The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe, a book concerned with the scientific history of astronomy, focusing mainly on European contributions during the golden age of the renaissance. In Part 3, The Timid Canon, he writes “The Book of the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was and is an all- time worst-seller." (Koestler, 1959)i His argument is definitely convincing, anyone who has read (or tried to read) the book would agree with Koestler’s statement of its “extreme un-readability”; it is a formidable piece of literature. When given a copy myself I felt a distinct feeling that I was being assailed by a wall of cold scholarly text and complex geometrical

diagramsii. The book's title page gives fair warning: "Let no one untrained in geometry enter here”, clearly the old Pole either didn’t understand the principles behind making a book aesthetically appealing or remotely readable to most people. Or he probably didn’t care. Inspite of this, Copernicus was definitely no firebrand, and although gifted, appeared averse to creating any sort of controversy. If not for the enormous amount of encouragement and pressure to have it published by Georg Joachim Rheticus, chances are that this great work would never have seen the light of day. In some ways the book reflects how he lived, with the potential for so much more. Some may go as far to say he wrote it in this dense style to minimize the potential audience (and guaranteed social backlash). Copernicus wrote the book in a disorganized fashion, without drawing specific conclusions and making claims he didn’t follow through with later on in the text. Revolutionibus is comprised of 6 smaller volumes, and overall they aren’t entirely cohesive; “It has, so to speak, destroyed itself in the process”iii . Contrary to his claim, it appears that Koestler has probably read Copernicus’ book, as in The Sleepwalkers he systematically annihilates the entire premise for which the book is praised. Koestler argues that Copernicus was actually the last of the Aristotelians. In Book III, attempting to reconcile the heliocentric doctrine with observation, Copernicus’ system asserts that the earth does not revolve around the sun, but instead around a separate point in space. The other planets move around in epicycles of epicycles, centered on the abstract point of the earth’s orbit. Thus the centre of the universe was in the vicinity of the sun and the earth was equally important in governing planetary motions. In light of this, the fact that nobody seems aware that this is not a heliocentric theory, and more a ‘vacuo-centric’ theory seems to lend weight to Koestler’s argument. Thomas Kuhn, another expert on historical astronomy, supports Koestler, and argues that Copernicus only transferred "Some properties to the sun's many astronomical functions previously attributed to the earth." iv

Nicolaus Copernicus, circa late 1590s. Koestler also finds examples of supposed experts on the topic, making mistakes that reveal they weren’t completely familiar with the book. At the beginning of the book, Copernicus claims to be able to reduce the number of epicycles in the system to 34, but by the end there are nearly 50! The Astronomer Royal, Sir Harold Jones, fell into this trap of stating that Copernicus had reduced the number to 34, many other eminent scientific sources have repeated it, among them the authoritive (?) textbook; A Short History of Science and Science Since 1500.


till, how can a book revolutionize science if nobody dares or bothers to read it? This was the idea that Dr. Owen Gingerich, a former Research Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science at the prestigious Harvard University , set out to explore. ." After finding an annotated copy previously owned by Erasmus Reinhold, a prominent German astronomer and mathematician, who published astronomical tables derived from the information in De Revolutionibus, Owen decided to test Koestler’s assumption. His 30 year personal quest took him all around the world, in his attempts to catalogue and examine all known copies of the first two printings; “I guess I’ve seen about half a billion dollars worth of copies of Copernicus’ book” v

Owen Gingerich Proof of De Revolutionibus’ popularity amongst academics of the time comes from the sheer volume of annotated copies of the books Gingerich came across. Many famous men who actively shaped the Scientific Revolution, where found to have richly annotated their own copies. Among them, Copernicus’s disciple Georg Joachim Rheticus, the esteemed Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe and the infamous Galileo Galilei. Gingerich wrote two books on the subject, the first being a scientific census of his work; The Annotated Census. It lists and describes all of the 560 first and second edition copies of De Revolutionibus that survive in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, as well as several copies now lost to us. Each entry meticulously includes the book’s current location and describes distinguishing characteristics of its appearance, such as in the binding, shelf marks or sizevi. The second book Gingerich wrote on this subject was The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. This book reads more like a detective novel on scholarly obsession, describing his adventures in hunting down elusive copies of the De Revolutionibus, and the international travel of individual copies over timevii. Examples of the novel’s content include an account of a trial in Washington where Gingerich was an expert witness in the prosecution of a book thief, and the discoveries of fake copies of the work proudly displayed in prominent museums.


n conclusion, I believe Koestler’s overconfident assertion that nobody read the book is far from the truth. Though the book appears unreadable, the exhaustive work of Gingerich has located and proven that people, including some of those who helped shape the scientific revolution, at least read enough of it to take notes. I speculate that although it was no best-seller due to its ‘technical’ nature, it WAS read, but only by the intellectual elite, scholars who were most able to understand

and build upon it. In 1632 Galileo published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which directly contradicted the old geocentric hypothesis in favor of the Copernican system. This was the book that really instigated the Copernican Revolution, but could not have been penned unless Galileo had at least some understanding of what Copernicus had written. Copernicus’ book reads differently, four centuries later, because the reader has changed. The people who eagerly annotated their own copies at the time are certainly not the readers of today. In the Renaissance, Nicolaus’ tome was essential reading for anyone at the cutting edge of astronomy, or anyone who wished to be seen as well read. Thick, scholarly Latin text was an essential part of the academic tradition, and the style in which literature was written was so very different from today’s more accessible mass marketed books. As experts in the field, modern astronomical and historical scholars are likely to be best equipped and best motivated to actually start, comprehend and finish the volume. And if someone who dedicates their professional life to these fields cannot do it, I don’t believe that many others outside of this scholastic background could, or would really want to either (simple boredom may overcome the interested layman). Perhaps a more ...accurate title could have been The Book Nobody Read To The End, or The Book Nobody Admits To Not Understanding. I think that in the future, De Revolutionibus will probably remain as it is today, a greatly revered work, universally acknowledged for its revolutionary ideas but, pretty much incomprehensible to most. The geometry Copernicus uses may make sense to the competent mathematician, but the writing style and book’s layout has remained as dense and forbidding as ever. Perhaps some altruistic, academic heavyweight in the far future will take the time to translate and rewrite more legible version of the text. This could very well bring the fascinating and enlightening mathematical ideas out of the thick, dull Latin prose and make for a much more digestible read. Or, perhaps the book will remain as a very boring, yet simultaneously fascinating scientific tome, forever on a pedestal to be viewed and admired, but heavens forbid, never read or questioned! We must always question assumptions.

Galileo Galilei, author of Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems.


Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (1959), Penguin Books, London  [1988 edition]  ii  Nicolaus Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium  (Translation and Commentary by Edward Rosen) ,  Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992  iii Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (1959), Penguin Books, London  [1988 edition] iv  Thomas Kuhn , The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (1957),  Harvard University Press v

Robert Siegel, Chasing Copernicus: 'The Book Nobody Read' storyId=1746110 [accessed 03/03/08] vi

Owen Gingerich,  An annotated census of Copernicus' De revolutionibus (2002) Leiden : Brill, 2002  Owen Gingerich, The Book Nobody Read : Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (2004), New York : Walker,  2004  vii

Jack Oughton - De Revolutionibus - A Book Nobody Read  
Jack Oughton - De Revolutionibus - A Book Nobody Read  

Man's Changing Vision of the Universe, a book concerned with the scientific history of astronomy, focusing mainly on European contributions...