Astronomy in Rudolfine Prague

Thanks to Rudolf II, a remarkable and unparalleled meeting of the minds took place in Prague at the end of the European Renaissance. The seat of his power was Prague Castle, at the centre of Bohemia, at the geographical centre of Europe, at the centre of the known world. Here he established a magic circle into which he invited some of the most creative and original minds of the day. But it wasn’t political power he was after, he was already the most powerful man in Christendom, he was after power through knowledge, in both its positive and negative aspects. Rudolf had a love of learning, passion for the arts, interest in natural sciences and delight in collecting.

Portrait of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor c. 1580
Portrait of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor c. 1580

Described by a noted contemporary as “the greatest art patron in the world”, Rudolf II Habsburg (1552–1612), king of Hungary and Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor, raised court patronage in post-Renaissance Europe to a new level of breadth and extravagance. The thriving city and era over which he reigned, from 1583 until his death twenty-nine years later, is known as Rudolfine Prague. Seat of the emperor almost uninterruptedly from the mid 14th century, Prague became, under Rudolf’s guidance, one of the leading centers of the arts and sciences on the continent. His taste for outstanding decoration and fantastic imagery were legendary, while his ambition and insight as a patron and collector changed the way art would be viewed by future generations.

Prague was founded in the late 9th century around the castle district of Hradcany, the oldest of the city’s four districts, and became the imperial residence during the reign of Charles IV in the 1300s. Rudolf II, son of Maximilian II, was named Holy Roman Emperor in 1576, and returned the court to Prague in 1583, after its temporary relocation to Vienna. As the city once again became the political and cultural focus of the empire and Hradcany earned the status of a royal town, Rudolf II brought into his service some of the most important European artists, architects, scientists, philosophers, and humanists, the English magus John Dee, the German alchemist Oswald Croll, the Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius, the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, turning Prague into what has been referred to as a “Parnassus of the arts”.

Prague Castle in 1595
Prague Castle in 1595

The emperor’s ambitions as an architectural patron are evidenced by his redesign and expansion of the castle, the construction of a new town hall and archbishop’s palace, and the commissioning of several new churches. Yet, it was in painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts that Rudolf’s impact was most celebrated and distinct. Among the artists who came to the imperial court were the painters Bartholomeus Spranger, Hans von Aachen, Pieter Stevens, and Roelandt Savery; the miniaturists Joris Hoefnagel and his son Jacob Hoefnagel; the sculptor Adriaen de Vries; the goldsmiths Paulus van Vianen and Wenzel Jamnitzer; and Aegidius Sadeler, who, as Imperial Printmaker (from 1597), popularized the emperor’s image and disseminated knowledge of his artists’ works. Foreign artists were especially prized by Rudolf because they gave international weight to his domain and satisfied his taste in art—for Italian and Netherlandish work, in particular, fostered at the Habsburg court in Spain, where he was educated.

Rudolf’s unrivaled passion for collecting culminated in one of the greatest of princely Kunstkammers, which contained small bronzes, works in cut stone, medallions and ivories, books and drawings, coins, scientific instruments and natural objects, as well as some paintings. Often dismissed as an unsystematic cabinet of curiosities intended for amusement or wonder, Rudolf’s Kunstkammer probably served as a place of refuge or serious contemplation, and indeed reflected, in an ordered way, the broader scientific and artistic interests of the court. Gerhard Emmoser’s dazzling celestial globe with clockwork; Female Nude; Apollo; Relief Allegory of Virtues and Vices at the Court of Emperor Charles V, listed in the early seventeenth-century inventory of the collection, exemplify this close association. The intricate and colorful allegorical portraits of Rudolf II painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo point to the direct collaboration that took place between artists and scholars. Rudolf also amassed a collection of paintings numbering in the thousands. Italian works were common, including those by Paolo Veronese (Mars and Venus United by Love), Correggio, and Leonardo da Vinci; as were works by Northern European masters, including Albrecht Dürer and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Rudolf painted as Vertumnus, Roman God of the seasons, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1590–1). Rudolf greatly appreciated the work.
Rudolf painted as Vertumnus, Roman God of the seasons, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1590–1). Rudolf greatly appreciated the work.

In addition to stimulating culture in Prague through enlightened patronage and collecting, Rudolf II offered direct support of the arts, visiting his artists in their workshops and raising the status of the local painters’ guild from the level of a craft to that of a liberal art. Soon after the emperor’s death in 1612, his collections and court entourage were largely dispersed, leaving little in situ. The legacy of Rudolfine Prague, while apparent in some of the surviving buildings and landscaping of the old city, is best appreciated in the works of art commissioned and collected by one of Europe’s most influential and adventurous patrons.

Since he never travelled, he made the world come to him. The astronomers Tycho Brahe was made Imperial Mathematician in 1599, and then Johannes Kepler, who first served as Brahe’s assistant and then succeeded him in 1601.

Tycho Brahe (1546 - 1601)
Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601)

Tycho Brahe was born into Danish nobility, the oldest son of eleven children. He spent his teens and early adult years attending several universities, similar to the way Copernicus spent the last years of the 15th century. He also had a connection to the University of Wittenberg – he attended classes there for five months in 1566 and studied astronomy under Reinhold’s successor and Melanchthon’s son-in-law (and pro-Copernican), Caspar Peucer. Later in 1566, while studying at the University of Rostock, Brahe fell into an argument with another student that escalated into a duel. In the ensuing sword fight, Brahe’s foe sliced off his nose, and the Dane had to wear a brass nosepiece for the rest of his life.

Early in his schooling, Tycho fell in love with astronomy. He started buying astronomical instruments and books and making observations. On November 11, 1572, Tycho made one of the most significant observations in the history of astronomy. A little after sunset on that day, he noticed an extraordinarily bright star that he knew had not been there the night before. Brahe went on to observe it for the next 16 months, until it was no longer visible in the firmament. It is now known that he observed a supernova, or exploding star. This bright star was seen by all astronomers in Europe, most of whom thought that it was a comet, then believed that the phenomena occurred between the moon and the sun. However, only Brahe took careful enough measurements to know that it was a star, a fixed star.

In 1573, Tycho published a short book, only about fifty pages long, about his discovery. The book and its author quickly became famous. The ambitious Tycho then used his newfound status to persuade the king of Denmark to build him an observatory. The king gave Brahe a small island near Copenhagen, called Hven, and paid for what quickly became the finest astronomical centre in Europe, one filled with the most advanced instruments available. The king also provided enough financial support for Tycho to hire dozens of research assistants. Brahe, already rich through his family, became even wealthier under the king’s patronage. Like nearly all astronomers before him – except for Copernicus – Tycho believed strongly in astrology. He was an active astrologer, producing prognostications and horoscopes for his patrons, including the king of Denmark, for most of his career.

General view of the Observatory of Uraniborg, constructed circa 1584 by Tycho Brahe
General view of the Observatory of Uraniborg, constructed circa 1584 by Tycho Brahe
Tycho Brahe's observatory on the Island of Hven
Tycho Brahe’s observatory on the Island of Hven

Brahe was fascinated with Copernicus. Though he was never won over to the heliocentric model, he nevertheless honored its founder’s memory. He worked diligently to obtain an already rare copy of the Commentariolus (which Brahe is credited for naming, until Brahe it had no formal title). He sent an assistant to Frombork in 1584 in order to gain a better understanding of Copernicus’ observations. The canons on Cathedral Hill gave Tycho Copernicus’ triquetrum, which they had guarded with care for over forty years. Tycho cherished it for the rest of his life, and displayed it in what was essentially a museum on his island.

On November 13, 1577, Brahe added to his fame. That night he saw for the first time a large comet with a long tail. After observing it carefully for about two months, the Dane knew that it was not a sublunar (occurring between the earth and the moon) phenomenon. It was out in space, among the planets, which meant that it must be piercing the planetary spheres. Those who adhered to Ptolemy’s model believed that the planets were attached to physical, tangible spheres – that is, spherical shells. Here was proof that there were no shells. The 1572 supernova showed that the heavens were changeable, and the comet proved that the planets did not ride on celestial spheres. What else about the old model was not valid?

15 year old King Christian IV with Tycho Brahe at Uraniborg in 1592. Brahe left the observatory on Hven 5 years later, due to a heavy dispute between the King and him.
15 year old King Christian IV with Tycho Brahe at Uraniborg in 1592. Brahe left the observatory on Hven 5 years later, due to a heavy dispute between the King and him.

Frederick II, Tycho’s patron, died in 1588. The new king, Christian IV, was less committed to the astronomer’s research program, which was quite expensive to maintain. Over the next decade, Brahe slowly fell out of favour with the young king and had to close down his observatory. He left his island in 1597 and by 1599 he settled in Prague to become Rudolf’s court astronomer and close companion. By this stage, Brahe’s glory days were behind him. He made one more major discover, though – Johannes Kepler, who became his research assistant in early 1600.

Tycho Brahe demonstrating a celestial globe to Emperor Rudolph II, a painting by Eduard Ender, 1855
Tycho Brahe demonstrating a celestial globe to Emperor Rudolph II, a painting by Eduard Ender, 1855
Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630)
Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630)

Johannes Kepler was a prodigy. His teachers recognised his impressive mathematical abilities early in his schooling. At the age of 20, he received his master’s degree from the University of Tübingen, where he studied under Michael Maestlin, who was an early (though stealth) Copernican.

When I was studying under the distinguished Michael Maestlin at Tübingen six years, seeing the many inconveniences of the commonly accepted theory of the universe, I became so delighted with Copernicus, whom Maestlin often mentioned in his lectures, what I often defended his opinions in the students’ debates about physics… I have by degrees – partly out of hearing Maestlin, partly by myself – collected all the advantages that Copernicus has over Ptolemy.

This passage appeared in his important book, the first of many for the prolific Kepler, entitled The Cosmic Mystery (Mysterium cosmographicum). In its pages, Kepler presented his model of the universe, which was decidedly Copernican. He also argued forcefully for the sun being the reason for this configuration. Copernicus placed the sun at the centre of the universe but did not give it an active role in the scheme – Kepler did, thus anticipating Newton and the theory of universal gravity.

Kepler’s Cosmic Mystery was published in Tübingen, where the professors at the university and his publisher had asked him to make part of his book understandable to laymen. So Kepler wrote a very accessible introduction to his work that directly addressed why Copernicus’ system was dramatically better than Ptolemy’s. The book was published in 1596, 53 years after On the Revolutions. From then on, the tide turned towards Copernicus’ model of the heavens. Kepler sent copies of the book to Galileo (whom he had never met) and Tycho (whom he had also never met). Although the book contained several fundamental flaws, they were not discovered until later. The work had a powerful influence. A leading scholar of early astronomy once noted: “Although the principal idea of the Cosmic Mystery was erroneous, Kepler established himself as the first… scientist to demand a physical explanation for celestial phenomena. Seldom in history has so wrong a book been so seminal in directing the future course of science.”

With the Counter-Reformation gathering steam, the staunchly Lutheran Kepler and his family felt the need to leave Catholic Graz in 1599. He made a bold move to go directly to the most famous astronomer in Europe – Tycho Brahe who was now at Rudolf’s court. With the approval of Rudolf, Kepler became Brahe’s assistant in early 1600.

When they first met, Brahe was fifty-four and Kepler was twenty-nine. It was not an easy collaboration. Kepler called his master ‘the phoenix among astronomers’ but Brahe soon began to treat him like a servant. Where Brahe was an elegant, extravagant aristocrat who believed that the Sun orbited the Earth, Kepler was an impoverished, introverted teacher who believed the Earth orbited the Sun. It was not long before they had a row which led Kepler to withdraw from Benátky Castle. But it was only temporary: the pull of making a great impact in science was stronger than personal differences. Yet for all their differences and tensions, their respective skills proved a perfect match. Brahe was probably the best observational astronomer of all time, whereas Kepler, with poor eyesight, had mathematical abilities second to none. Brahe was able to measure the movements of the planets while Kepler was able to formulate their laws. By bringing the two men together, Rudolf inadvertently made a huge contribution to astronomy in particular and to science in general.

In 1601, Brahe fell terminally ill. Only 56 years old and with mountains of work to finish, the Dane beseeched Kepler to continue the important work on his astronomical tables. It was a scene that harkened back to Peurbach urging Regiomontanus to continue with the Epitome, Copernicus trusting Rheticus with his life’s work when he left Frombork, and Rheticus charging Otto to complete his trigonometry volume. Brahe called his tables the Rudolfine Tables after Rudolf II. Brahe expected Kepler to make the tables fit with his geoheliocentric theory, but it didn’t work out that way.

In this depiction of the Tychonic system, the objects on blue orbits (the Moon and the Sun) revolve around the Earth. The objects on orange orbits (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) revolve around the Sun. Around all is a sphere of fixed stars.
In this depiction of the Tychonic system, the objects on blue orbits (the Moon and the Sun) revolve around the Earth. The objects on orange orbits (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) revolve around the Sun. Around all is a sphere of fixed stars.

Brahe died, and Rudolf appointed Kepler Imperial Mathematician. Rudolf invited Kepler to take responsibility for Brahe’s instruments and manuscripts and astronomical data. As a result of Rudolf’s perspicuity and generosity, Kepler was able to work in Prague without the fears that Galileo had experienced in Padua and Florence. He was to stay in Prague for twelve years until Rudolf’s death. During this time he wrote about thirty treatises, including his 1609 masterpiece Astronomia nova.

Johannes Kepler and Rudolf II in Prague
Johannes Kepler and Rudolf II in Prague

Kepler was troubled by certain discrepancies in the orbits of the planets. He knew that they could not be ascribed to measurement errors because he was aware of just how accurate Brahe’s measurements were. Though there was only an eight minutes of an arc inconsistency with perfect circular orbits, those eight minutes could not be ignored. There had to be some way to explain it. By 1605, after great effort, Kepler devised the idea that carved his crucial place in the history of science – the ellipse: “With reasoning I derived from the physical principles agreeing with experience, there is no figure left for the orbit of the planet except a perfect ellipse.” His first book based on this profound insight was Astronomia nova, published in 1609. As the title implies, the book laid the foundations of the new astronomy.

After 1612, Kepler moved often for professional and religious reasons, yet he still found time to write the definitive technical book that took Copernicus’ fundamental insights in On the Revolutions and redid them using his own discovery of elliptical orbits. The book was entitled Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae and it appeared in three volumes from 1617 to 1621. Kepler’s Epitome was a treasure and it was later utilised by Isaac Newton.

Active and constantly writing to the end, Kepler died of a fever at the age of 59 in 1630. He had finally finished Brahe’s tables and had them published in 1627.

Johannes Kepler firmly established the fundamental truth of Copernicus’ heliocentric model among astronomers and mathematicians. But Kepler’s published works, like Copernicus’, were unrelentingly technical. The scholar who established the Copernican view among laypeople was his contemporary Galileo.

Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)

Galileo Galilei was born seven years before Kepler. The native of Pisa was the oldest of seven children born to a well-to-do family; his father was a noted musician and music theorist. Galileo was first attracted to mathematics and became a professor of mathematics at the University of Pisa in 1589, at the age of twenty-five. In addition to mathematics, he was also fascinated by basic physics. He appeared to be indifferent about astronomy, but when Kepler sent him a copy of his Cosmic Mystery, Galileo’s letter of thanks revealed a deep interest:

Many years ago I accepted Copernicus’ theory, and from that point of view I discovered the reasons for numerous natural phenomena, which unquestionably cannot be explained by the conventional cosmology. I have written down many arguments as well as refutations of objections. These however, I have not dared to publish up to now. For I am thoroughly frightened by what happened to our master, Copernicus. Although he won immortal fame among some persons, nevertheless among countless (for so large is the number of fools) he became a target of ridicule and derision. I would of course have the courage to make my thoughts public, if there were more people like you. But since there aren’t, I shall avoid this kind of activity.

Although Galileo says in his letter that he wants to avoid public ridicule, he later showed great bravery in the name of the truth that he believed in.

More about Galileo in a previous post we wrote about him, The Father of Modern Science

It was 400 years ago this month that On the Revolutions was officially outlawed by the Church, by being placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Congregation of the Index. Seventeen years later, in 1633, Galileo was found guilty by the Inquisition for voicing the Copernican worldview, which had been officially outlawed in 1616. Aging, ailing and threatened with torture by the Inquisition, Galileo recanted his Copernican views and his discoveries on April 30, 1633.

Pope Urban VIII found several passages in The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems to be direct affronts to positions he held; the pope’s beliefs were endorsed in the book by the buffoonish character called Simplicio 🙂 Possibly not as subtle a message as Galileo had hoped.

Though the sentence was not onerous (house arrest for the rest of his days) and he was able to do practically anything he wanted, the effect was severe. Being forced to recant his own scientific findings as “abjured, cursed and detested” caused him great personal anguish but saved him from being burned at the stake. Galileo was never the same.

On the Revolutions was easily available throughout its time on the Index, but the ban on openly endorsing the Copernican cosmology was sufficient to accuse Galileo of heresy. Copernicus’ book was not removed from the Index for more than 200 years – the first Index on which On the Revolutions did not appear was published in 1835. It was joined on the Index by Galileo’s book. In 1757, Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was removed from the Index. And in 1992, more than 350 years after the Roman Catholic Church condemned Galileo, the Vatican formally and publicly cleared Galileo of any wrongdoing. On 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and officially conceded that the Earth was not stationary! And I thought things were moving slowly at work 🙂

Excerpts from Copernicus’ Secret, by Jack Repcheck and The Mercurial Emperor, by Peter Marshall

Copernicus’ Secret

Nicolaus Copernicus really defied the odds when he discovered and defined the heliocentric theory.

To begin with, Copernicus was a late bloomer. At a time when young men were sent to university at about age 14 or 15 (women were not permitted to enrol in universities in the 15th and 16th centuries), Copernicus did not begin until he was almost 19. The typical student went to university for three years and then started to seek fame and fortune. Copernicus attended his undergraduate university for four years, did not earn a degree, and then studied at three other universities for the next eight years.

Second, there is not even a whiff of ambition emanating from Copernicus’ life, nothing to indicate that he might pursue a line of inquiry that would be revolutionary. Most of the other titans of the scientific revolution – certainly Leonardo, Brahe, Galileo and Newton – had ambitious streaks and outsized egos, and each was eager for acclaim and recognition. Not Copernicus. He was a retiring hermit like scholar who wanted nothing more than to be left alone. After finally finishing his languid studies, Copernicus followed the path of least resistance and took a position as the personal assistant to his uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, who was an influential prince-bishop in the Church. Watzenrode wanted to groom Nicolaus to be his successor, thus guaranteeing a life of riches and power. Instead, Copernicus opted for off the fast track at the age of 37, left his uncle’s side and spent the rest of his 33 years as a comfortable but minor cleric. He did not even bother to take the relatively easy step necessary to become a priest, ignoring pressure to do so from his superiors and friends.

Third, and perhaps most surprising, Copernicus was not even a professional astronomer. Today, amateur astronomers are numerous, and occasionally one will discover a new star or another body in the night sky. But most of the truly important work in the field occurs at universities and observatories, where the best and brightest can become absorbed in their studies, use the most advanced equipment and interact with other gifted scientists, enriching one another’s research and helping one another with difficult calculations. Though the system was much less formalised 500 years ago when Copernicus was starting, it was even then the case that truly gifted astronomers and mathematicians were identified early and either made professors at universities or else appointed court astronomers / astrologers at the palaces of royalty, nobility or the clergy. For instance, the most famous astronomer before Copernicus, known as Regiomontanus, was identified as a science prodigy while still a teenager, was quickly made a university professor, and then was supported in turn by a prominent cardinal, the king of Hungary, and finally one of the richest men in Europe. Similarly, the most famous astronomers to follow Copernicus – Brahe, Kepler and Galileo – all had very rich, powerful benefactors (the king of Denmark, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Medici, respectively). As professionals, they could devote all their energies to their observations, studies and writings. By comparison, Copernicus had many distracting official duties as canon in the Church, and he practiced astronomy only as an avocation.

The list goes on and on. Copernicus worked with inferior, primitive instruments – not even close to the state of the art at the time – and he lived more than half a century before the invention of the telescope. He resided in an inhospitable place for observing the night sky – northern Europe near the Baltic Sea. He worked alone most of the time – astronomy had nearly always been practiced with others (keep each other awake in the middle of the night, helping to lift and maneuver large instruments, confirming sightings, etc). Finally, it even appears that he miscalculated precisely where he lived, which caused many of his observations to be inaccurate. In sum, Copernicus should have stood no chance of making even a minor mark in astronomy, let alone one of the most fundamental discoveries in the history of the science.

Although Copernicus was the unlikely vessel, the era in which he lived was ripe for an intellectual revolution in astronomy. A hundred years after the Black Death had annihilated one-third of the population in Europe, the Renaissance began in the second half of the 15th century. A spirit of renewed vigor infused all the intellectual disciplines, from poetry to engineering. Astronomy was among the fields reignited. Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492 kicked the Renaissance into high gear. At the time, Copernicus was an undergraduate at the University of Kraków, in the Polish capital. Then, with the Renaissance in full flower – Leonardo began painting the Last Supper in 1495, Michelangelo sculpted the Pietà the same year, da Gama quickly followed in Columbus’ footsteps by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and landing in Calcutta in 1498 – Copernicus became a graduate student in the center of the intellectual ferment, Italy, where he studied at the universities of Bologna, Padua and Ferrara for the next eight years.

In 1503, Copernicus departed Italy with a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara and returned to Poland. There he began his career in the Church hierarchy until his powerful uncle chose him to be his assistant and expected him to one day take over his seat as prince-bishop of Warmia, a principality in northern Poland. But Copernicus was not interested. After seven years in the service of his uncle, he resigned as the bishop’s secretary and took up the official post from which he actually received his income from the Church, as a canon at the cathedral in Frombork, on the Baltic coast and not far from the port city of Gdansk.

Here, in little inconsequential Warmia, which Copernicus himself described as ‘the remotest corner of the world’, far away from the universities in Kraków, Bologna, Padua and Ferrara, something extraordinary happened. Over the next few years, and completely on his own, Nicolaus Copernicus formulated one of the greatest achievements in the history of human thought.

Copernicus the astronomer, not the nephew of the bishop, emerged from nowhere sometime before 1514. It was about then that he penned his astronomical ideas in a short, anonymous, untitled, non-technical, handwritten manuscript. He made copies of this document and sent them to interested friends. The recipients were probably former fellow students from his university says in Kraków and Italy.

The document was essentially a manifesto for the heliocentric theory. Copernicus began by announcing that the Ptolemaic system ‘presents no small difficulties’ and that it had ‘defects’. In writing these words he was directly confronting well over 1300 years of firm belief and rigorous support. He went on to say, ‘I often considered whether there could perhaps be found a more reasonable arrangement… in which everything would move uniformly about its proper center, as the rule of absolute motion requires. After I had addressed myself to this very difficult and almost insoluble problem, the suggestion at length came to me how it could be solved with fewer and much simpler constructions than formerly used, if some assumptions were granted to me.’ He then proceeded to list seven assumptions or axioms. The axioms were stunning in their novelty, and several generations later would be viewed as heretical. Three were particularly astonishing. ‘The centre of the earth is not the centre of the universe, but only of gravity and of the lunar sphere’ (meaning that the moon revolves around the earth, but only the moon); ‘ All the spheres revolve about the sun as their midpoint, and therefore the sun is the centre of the universe’; and ‘ The earth performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion.’ So there on page two of the essay was the first utterance of the theory that started modern science – ‘… therefore the sun is the centre of the universe’.

Immediately after presenting his assumptions, Copernicus stated, ‘I have thought it well, for the sake of brevity, to omit from this sketch the mathematical demonstrations, reserving these for my larger work.’

The Commentariolus, as the essay later came to be called, circulated throughout the astronomy community of Europe as the original recipients made copies to send to their colleagues and then filed away their own copies. Through this network the heliocentric theory became known. A few knew who the author was, most did not, and at least some in the astronomer-astrologer community eagerly awaited the promised ‘larger work’. And waited, and waited.

A few years passed, then the decades of 1520s and 1530s, and still no larger work containing the needed proof of Copernicus’ startling assertions appeared. Most readers of the Commentariolus probably dismissed the original essay as a fascinating but naive effort that remained unproven.

But true to his word, Copernicus did produce a deeply learned and highly technical manuscript that confirmed the key tenets of the heliocentric theory. Although he toiled over it for more than 20 years, he made no effort to have the extraordinary work published. Nor does it appear that he showed it to more than a handful of people. He would later write in his manuscript that he was afraid that ‘when I attribute certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they [he does not say who ‘they’ are] will immediately shout to have me and my opinion hooted off the stage.’ Copernicus continued, ‘Therefore, when I weighed these things in my mind, the scorn which I had to fear on account of the newness and absurdity of my own opinion almost drove me to abandon a work already undertaken.’

While Copernicus was beavering away and getting into trouble with his superiors for his womanizing, a young man by the name of Georg Joachim Rheticus was distinguishing himself at the University of Wittenberg. Upon graduation, Rheticus was surprised by Philip Melanchthon, another professor at Wittenberg (along with Martin Luther, Melanchthon is the primary founder of Lutheranism), who offered him a professorship in sciences. Rheticus came close to declining the offer, feeling that he did not have enough mastery of the field, however his many friends finally convinced him that he must take it.

So by the time the students returned to classes in the fall of 1536, Joachim Rheticus, just 22 years old and himself a student only several months before, was the new Lecturer in Arithmetic and Geometry (“mathematicum inferiorum”). Melanchthon was not disappointed in his decision. Just as Rheticus had been an enthusiastic and impressive student, he was an equally impressive scholar and proved to be an inspiring instructor.

Barely two years later, Melanchthon arranged for Rheticus to take a sabbatical from Wittenberg to enhance his abilities as an astronomer / astrologer and to avoid a developing scandal in the town caused in general by the misbehaviour of young teenage boys, largely unsupervised in the university town, and the specific action of one of those boys who attacked the main personalities in Wittenberg, including Martin Luther, through a series of epigrams. So one morning in mid-September 1538, Rheticus and a traveling companion who was to serve as his assistant, left Wittenberg for Nuremberg.

In addition to being impressed by the size and efficiency of Nuremberg, Rheticus was keenly aware that he was in the town of the great Regiomontanus, the legendary astronomer and astrologer. A succession of astronomers in Nuremberg had committed themselves to maintaining and enriching Regiomontanus’ legacy. As a result, Nuremberg retained its position as the most important central European city for astronomy and astrology.

At this time, the legacy of Regiomontanus was protected by Johann Schöner. Schöner was an impressive polymath: he was a writer, editor, teacher, publisher, cartographer, globe maker, instrument maker, astronomer and astrologer. Schöner developed lasting fame for two innovative globes that he designed and built – one, from 1515, was among the first to show the New World, and it was the first to label it “America”.

Schöner and his Nuremberg colleagues introduced Rheticus to a process that was to prove extraordinarily important – publishing. In the 1530s, Nuremberg was easily the centre of book publishing in the German-speaking world, and vied with Venice and Paris as the most important publishing centre in all of Europe. In addition to publishing his own books, Schöner served as a scout for another publisher in Nuremberg, Johannes Petreius, the man who would be Copernicus’ publisher, and who was also a graduate of the University of Wittenberg. The list of books and authors that Petreius published is impressive indeed and included works by Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, Desiderius Erasmus (the most famous humanist in all of Europe), Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, Henry VIII of England, Aesop, Joachim Camerarius, Regiomontanus and others.

There was one other individual who was part of the circle of scholars who Rheticus befriended, and he was the most complicated of all. Andreas Osiander played a key role in the success of the Lutheran Reformation in Nuremberg. Osiander was a very intense man and was very vocal about his beliefs. He was among the most strident Lutheran proselytizers in Nuremberg but over time he managed to alienate Luther, Melanchthon and all the other leaders of the movement.

The months that Rheticus spent in and around Nuremberg in late 1538 and early 1539 were extraordinary, and Copernicus and his short essay on the heliocentric theory penned all the way back in 1514 was a topic of heated discussion. Rheticus decided that he must go and meet this man and on May 14, 1539, Rheticus wrote to Schöner in Nuremberg, telling him that he was presently in Posnan and on his way to meet Copernicus in Frombork.

The Lutheran Rheticus defined the order against the Lutherans – “Under the penalty of losing head and property, of proscription or banishment from all royal lands, no one shall possess, read or listen to the reading of Lutheran or similarly poisonous books, and all shall burn such books, booklets, songs or whatever else has come from the poisonous places in the presence of the authorities.” Whether out of bravery, ignorance, youthful hubris or a combination of all three, Rheticus found himself in front of Copernicus’ house, having arrived unannounced and carrying only a satchel containing his clothes and effects, and a separate bundle of books.

Copernicus must initially have been wary of the young stranger at his door. Visitors, especially from distant regions, were rare in the small town of Frombork. Even rarer was a stranger seeking him, particularly one from the University of Wittenberg, who would have to be Lutheran.

Rheticus most likely wasted little time before presenting Copernicus with the three bound books he had brought as gifts. Indeed the volumes were very significant, and they began their relationship in a positive way. In the 1530s, books in general were expensive and valuable, and a gift of just one book was highly generous. A present of three books was extravagant. The books that Rheticus brought demonstrated that he was both a scholar and a mathematician and that he surely understood Copernicus’ pursuits, since these were precisely the kind of books that Copernicus appreciated and perhaps even needed.

Rheticus had learned about the Commentariolus in Nuremberg, in which Copernicus alluded to his larger work that would provide the proof of the startling assertions in the short treatise. Copernicus must have been eager to show the work of countless hours to a mathematician capable of understanding its significance. This may have been the first time that a talented mathematician examined the handwritten pages filled with mathematics, dozens of geometric drawings and tables of data.

Rheticus’ reaction to Copernicus’ manuscript energised the ageing astronomer. Whereas every other description of Copernicus’ personality depicts him as dour, Rheticus stated that his teacher was social by nature.

Rheticus left a description of the two men working together, the young man being more interested in the results and astrological implications, and the older and wiser one urging patience and the importance of the fundamental scientific principles:

I remember myself being driven by juvenile curiosity. I wished to hasten to the stars’ sanctuary. So, agreeing with the very good and very great Man, Copernicus, I sometimes blamed the painstaking attention to details. But he was bewildered by my soul’s honest thirst, and with a soft arm, he used to exhort me to take my hand off the Tables. “Personally,” he said, “if I could get the truth from a sixth part which is an increment of 10 minutes, my spirit would exult as much as when was received by the discovery of the formula of the ratios by Pythagoras.”

Rheticus continued:

He wanted this researches to be above the average. That is why he avoided grindings, not by inertia nor by fear of boredom. Some people seek and even require those little grains, like Peurbach in the subtlety of his table of eclipses. They can see in them all thea care taken to locate the stars with precision. While they are impressed by the seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths and little divisions, they forget the integer parts, not giving them a single look. And in the small interval of times of the “Phenomena”, they are often wrong by hours, and sometimes entire days. There is an amazing fable of Aesop where an order is given to search for a lost cow. It is found, but the men who are to bring it back, see little birds and go after them, forgetting the cow.

Rheticus’ reference to the famous Aesop fable is another way of saying that the other astronomers were guilty of focusing on the individual components and missing the big picture. Not Copernicus.

During his first months with Copernicus, Rheticus wrote a manuscript about Copernicus’ theory of the heavens, which he completed in September 1539, “From my library at Frombork, September 23, 1539.” After finishing the manuscript, he travelled to Gdansk, the largest city in the area and probably the only one with a printer. Rheticus gave the stack of papers to Franciscus Rhodes to print and publish.

Rhodes must have been an efficient printer because the book was ready for sale by April of 1540. Thus it took only 11 months from the moment when Rheticus knocked on Copernicus’ door on that memorable day the previous May until there was at last a description of the science of Copernicus. Those intellectuals who had been waiting for it were not disappointed – the Narratio prima was a splendid work. Though written quickly and then published without delay, it was nonetheless smoothly composed and riveting to read. To this day, it is arguably the best primer on the heliocentric theory of Copernicus.

In August 1540, Johannes Petreius, the Nuremberg publisher did a most unusual thing. He dedicated a book to Rheticus in the form of a letter, and in that letter he boldly asks Rheticus to convince Copernicus to publish his long-awaited book and to publish it with him, Petreius, in Nuremberg. After congratulating Rheticus on the Narratio (calling it a “splendid description”), he states that “I consider it a glorious treasure if some day through your urging his observations will be imparted to us.” Petreius hoped that Rheticus would see the dedication as a “kind of reward from us for your labors and study.”

The book that Petreius dedicated to Rheticus was by Antonius de Montulmo, a 14th century physician, entitled On Natal Horoscopes. It was on Regiomontanus’ Index of Books, and Schöner had discovered the additions to the work that Regiomontanus had planned to include, so it was a very significant book. Dedicating it to the young Wittenberg professor, who was known to be fascinated with horoscopes, presented a serious lobbying effort. Petreius meant business – he was determined to be Copernicus’ publisher.

Petreius’ letter was at least as important to Copernicus because it meant that the astronomers of Nuremberg – which included Schöner and Osiander – all of whom published with Petreius, were also eager to read Copernicus’ book. With this level of support, Copernicus finally relented. So Copernicus and Rheticus went to work preparing “the larger work” for publication.

Over the next 12 months, Copernicus went back through the massive work and made corrections, brought it up to date and otherwise revised it for the publication. He did most of this work himself. Because the manuscript that Petreius would later work from was written in a hand different from Copernicus, scholars have long assumed that Rheticus took the finished chapters from Copernicus and redrafted them to create a clean copy for the publisher. Incredibly, Copernicus original manuscript has survived the nearly five centuries since its completion. Copernicus never parted with the original, it is now in the archives at the University of Kraków.

Nicolaus Copernicus revised the last page of his decades-in-the-making manuscript in late summer of 1541. He had now done everything he could. The rest of the process would be the responsibility of others. Rheticus packed the “fair” copy, the one he had copied from Copernicus, in his belongings and left Frombork in September, ending a 25 month stay. Many years later he told one of his patrons, “After I had spent about three years in Prussia, the great old man charged me to carry on and finish what he, prevented by age and impending death, was himself unable to complete.”

The long-labored-on and long-awaited magnum opus of Nicolaus Copernicus finally rolled off Petreius’ presses sometime before the end of March 1543. Yet, instead of wild jubilation, the four people closest to the project had horrible surprises waiting for them.

First, Tiedemann Giese, Copernicus’ best friend and bishop of Warmia. He was so appalled by the anonymous preface by Osiander that he could not enjoy the moment.

Second, Petreius. One of the leading publishers in Europe, he had worked diligently to publish a very complicated book quickly and well. But shortly before the publishing process got started the main supervisor, Rheticus, left for his new position at the University of Leipzig. Then the author himself became physically and mentally incapacitated, after he suffered a debilitating stroke sometime in early December 1542. Yet Petreius still got the book out, but among the first responses was the bitter reaction of Giese over the anonymous preface.

Third, Rheticus. Poor Rheticus suffered two depressing shocks. When he departed from Nuremberg in September or October and left the supervision in the good hands of Osiander and Petreius, he assumed that he had nothing more to worry about. Instead, Osiander took advantage of his position as overseer of the publishing process and clandestinely slipped in a one-page “To the reader…” preface to the book, misrepresenting On the Revolutions and Copernicus who had specifically rejected Osiander’s suggestions earlier.

As bad as this shock was, the second one must have been even more discouraging. After risking arrest and the loss of his job to visit Copernicus in the first place, then working with the astronomer for more than two years, then writing the potentially controversial Narratio prima, then setting up the publication of the big book through his connections in Nuremberg – after all that, when Rheticus opened the finished book, got past Osiander’s blasphemous paragraphs, and finally read Copernicus’ opening words, his acknowledgements, Rheticus must have been stunned to read that although Copernicus thanked several people, he somehow forgot to thank him. This had to have been a devastating blow to the young mathematician.

Fourth, Copernicus himself. What happened? Was Copernicus upset by the separate publication of his trigonometry chapters, containing changes by Rheticus, without his permission? Or, perhaps, by the delay of nearly a year before the printing began? Whatever the reason, the oversight is glaring.

On the Revolutions consists of six “books”. The books are composed of many short chapters. The work is carefully organised and Copernicus took pains to provide good transitions, introductions, conclusions and passages meant to help the reader know what has already been covered and what is coming next. But the book is unapologetically technical, with page after page of math, numerous complicated drawings and many dense tables of numbers.

The first printing of On the Revolutions was only about four hundred copies, which was a standard print run for a technical book in the 16th century. It was very expensive – about 1 florin. To put that price in perspective, Rheticus made 100 florins a year as a professor at the University of Wittenberg. Copernicus’ work was intended for the relatively small number of well-trained mathematicians and astronomers in Europe. There was no doubt that Nicolaus Copernicus’ book was a remarkable achievement. That much was obvious to almost every reader. But, because of its complexity, not much else was. Most interested readers would need some help to understand its implications.

The scholar most responsible for the immediate positive impact of On the Revolutions was not Rheticus, but rather his forme colleague from Wittenberg, Erasmus Rheinhold. Reinhold immersed himself in his copy of On the Revolutions and was the first to prepare something practical from it. Copernicus’ work was largely theoretical, and many readers simply wanted to utilise the data denoting the planetary positions. So Rheinhold gave them precisely what they coveted – astronomical tables based on Copernicus’ calculations. Published in 1551, they were called the Prutenic Tables (Prutenic after Prussia). The volume became a 16th century best seller and enhanced the reputation of Copernicus significantly.

For several decades, the scholarly community’s reaction to Copernicus’ book was similar to Rheinhold’s – it wanted planetary tables and data, but did not pay a great deal of attention to the “earth in motion” model. Copernicus became well-known primarily as an astronomer who did heroic work and left behind more accurate calculations of the night sky.

Copernicus left behind no equally talented heir. Though Rheticus could have been his successor, he did not rise to the occasion. Neither did Rheinhold, who died prematurely. The first of the great successors arrived two generations later, in the person of Tycho Brahe, who was born three years after Copernicus passed away. While the first true Copernican after Rheticus was Johannes Kepler. And that’s a story for the Rudolfine Prague.

The End.

Copernicus' Secret

Little bears fascinated by the story
Little bears fascinated by the story

Excerpts from Copernicus’ Secret, by Jack Repcheck

Evolution Quiz

Evolution Quiz

While Darwin’s remarkable impact on biology, cosmology, and the scientific process generally cannot be understated, it was his undeniable desire for truth through scientific discovery, his unwavering curiosity to discover that which was hidden (naturally or purposefully), and his determination to brave intellectual depths that inspires us.

In the end, On the Origin of Species did not set off quite as great an uproar as Darwin may have imagined, in part because he dedicated a chapter to “Difficulties on Theory,” which anticipated and addressed the concerns of critics. But there was plenty of public debate, which Darwin managed to avoid as an alliance of supporters stepped forward to defend his work.

When it comes to evolution, there are a whole lot of misconceptions out there, such as the fact that there are different ‘races’ of humans, or that it’s all about survival of the fittest (rather than survival and propagation).

So when it comes to the basics, how much do you really know? To find out, take the evolution pop quiz that biology professor James Morris gives to his students on the first day of class at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, which has been put online by the Futurity team.

It’s only seven questions. The bears got 100% and now they’re resting on their laurels 🙂 Do you want to join them?

Take the Quiz

It’s Periodic

It’s Chinese New Year today and homophones or “puns” explain the choice of many New Year foods. Fish is essential to the New Year feast since the words for carp sound like “good luck” and “gift”. Spring rolls resemble gold bars. Tangerines stand for success and pomelos bring wealth. Celery (for wisdom), plums (for a sharp mind), chicken (with the head and feet attached), steamed buns (piled high), lettuce (for being alive) and sweets (for a sweet year) are also customary. Dumplings, or “jiaozi”, resemble old Chinese currency, while long noodles and peaches symbolise longevity. “Niangao” or steamed rice cakes, are a southern delicacy, “gao” meaning “high”, as in to make better or improve.

Dmitri Mendeleev
Dmitri Mendeleev

Today is also Dmitri Mendeleev’s birthday, the creator of the periodic table of the elements. Mendeleev’s table, published in 1869, correctly organised the 63 known elements at the time, based on their atomic mass. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced synthetic elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 permanent places on the table on January 5 this year.

Mendelevium is named after Dmitri Mendeleev. It is the ninth transuranium element of the actinide series discovered, in early 1955.

The periodic table appears regularly on our favourite geek show 🙂

It's Periodic

So we found some different puns for a laugh 🙂

It's Periodic

Don’t trust atoms, they make up everything.

Did you know that you can cool yourself to -273.15˚C and still be 0k?

Have you heard the one about a chemist who was reading a book about helium?
He just couldn’t put it down.

How about the chemical workers… are they unionized?

Why do chemists like nitrates so much?
They’re cheaper than day rates.

I asked the guy sitting next to me if he had any Sodium Hypobromite…
He said NaBrO

Q: What is the show cesium and iodine love watching together?
A: CSI

Q: What is the chemical formula for “coffee”?
A: CoFe2

Q: What is the chemical formula for “banana”?
A: BaNa2

If the Silver Surfer and Iron Man team up, they’d be alloys.

Q: Did you hear oxygen went on a date with potassium?
A: It went OK.

Q: What element is a girl’s future best friend?
A: Carbon.

Q: Anyone know any jokes about sodium?
A: Na

Making bad chemistry jokes because all the good ones Argon.

Q: What is the most important rule in chemistry?
A: Never lick the spoon!

Helium walks into a bar,
The bar tender says “We don’t serve noble gasses in here.”
Helium doesn’t react.

Silver walks up to Gold in a bar and says, “AU, get outta here!”

Q: What did the scientist say when he found 2 isotopes of helium?
A: HeHe

Q: Why was the mole of oxygen molecules excited when he walked out of the singles bar?
A: He got Avogadro’s number!

A proton and a neutron are walking down the street.
The proton says, “Wait, I dropped an electron, help me look for it.”
The neutron says “Are you sure?” The proton replies “I’m positive.”

The optimist sees the glass half full.
The pessimist sees the glass half empty.
The chemist see the glass completely full, half in the liquid state and half in the vapor state.

Q: What did the bartender say when oxygen, hydrogen, sulphur, sodium, and phosphorous walked into his bar?
A: OH SNaP!

Q: What did one ion say to the other?
A: I’ve got my ion you.

Q: Why did the chemist sole and heel his shoes with silicone rubber?
A: To reduce his carbon footprint.

Q: What do you call a tooth in a glass of water?
A: One molar solution.

A small piece of sodium that lived in a test tube fell in love with a Bunsen burner. “Oh Bunsen, my flame,” the sodium pined. “I melt whenever I see you,” The Bunsen burner replied, “It’s just a phase you’re going through.”

Q: What do you call a clown who’s in jail?
A: A silicon.

Q: What emotional disorder does a gas chromatograph suffer from?
A: Separation anxiety.

Q: Why does hamburger yield lower energy than steak?
A: Because it’s in the ground state.

Florence Flask was getting ready for the opera. All of a sudden, she screamed: “Erlenmeyer, my joules! Somebody has stolen my joules!” The husband replied, “Calm down, honey. We’ll find a solution.”

Titanium is a most amorous metal. When it gets hot, it’ll combine with anything.

Q: What did the Mass Spectrometer say to the Gas Chromatograph?
A: Breaking up is hard to do.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.

Q: What element is derived from a Norse god?
A: Thorium.

Q: What is the name of 007’s Eskimo cousin?
A: Polar Bond.

We would like to apologize for not adding more jokes… but we only update them…. periodically!

It's Periodic

Check out this really catchy song for the periodic table. But be warned! The whole thing is set to the tune of the Can-Can by Offenbach, which means you’ll never be able to get it out of your head and will probably find yourself humming about chemistry while cooking, showering, and, inexplicably, when you wake up in the middle of the night!

Monkey Time

Monkey Time

Monkey face biscuits! Yum!

Monkey Time

It’s out with the goat, in with the monkey! The Chinese Lunar New Year begins today and this is the year of the fire monkey, associated with the ninth zodiac animal sign and the element of fire. And little bears are having a feast!

Monkey Time

Pomegranates for happiness and to repels evil spirits…

Monkey Time

Mandarins for abundance and good fortune…

Monkey Time

Cherries for good health and raspberries for kindness…

Monkey Time

Monkey Time

Lots of sweets for a sweet year!

Monkey Time

And enough fortune cookies to cover any fortune 🙂

Monkey Time

Gong xi fa cai! (Or Kung hei fat choy! if you’re speaking Cantonese). Welcome, year of the fire monkey!

Monkey Time