The rise of Catholic objections to Copernican ideas

(For those following the Copernican postings in sequence, I made a mistake. Today’s posting should have appeared BEFORE the one that dealt with The role of Protestant opposition to Copernicus. Sorry about that!)

The last myth that I will address concerning the Copernican revolution is that it met immediate, widespread, and religious opposition from the Catholic Church. This took the form of releasing the full force of the Inquisition against his ideas, which resulted in Copernican Giordano Bruno being burned for advocating those ideas and Galileo being forced to recant his support for Copernicus’ sun-centered universe. This is the view, for example, expressed by Bertholt Brecht in his famous play Life of Galileo.
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Having fun with telephone representatives

Once in a while, I look in on the site Jesus’ General which is a parody website that is hard to describe but is often hilarious. It was the most recent winner of the Koufax Award for Most Humorous Blog.

Recently, the General posted an item about a telephone conversation that someone named Eugene Mirman had with a representative who was trying to get him to switch to her Christian long-distance phone company. As part of her sales pitch to Mirman, the phone rep first made sure that Mirman was opposed to same-sex marriages and then proceeded to allege that rival phone companies AT&T, MCI, and Verizon were all involved in promoting hard-core pornography, child pornography, and homosexuality, thus making them unworthy of God-fearing people.

The recording has Mirman becoming increasingly scandalized by the revelations he hears about these companies. The telemarketer seems oblivious to the fact that he is putting her on. His over-the-top outrage at the sins of AT&T, MCI, and Verizon, which seemed to me to be such an obvious leg-pull, seemed to appear genuine to the phone rep, which makes me wonder if they routinely get calls from people who actually think and talk like that.

Such pranks as the one Mirman pulled usually give me mixed feelings. On the one hand, the people who answer the phones are usually low-paid employees, reading from a script provided by their employers and may not be true believers themselves. They are often just doing what they are told, and I feel a bit sorry for them. I try to be polite to them (even to telemarketers), even while I am annoyed at the companies they represent. (It is interesting that this particular company’s website does not have any overt religious or anti-gay message so that aspect of its business must be done through other channels that pre-screen to contact those people already sympathetic to their views.)

On the other hand, using pretty wild religious messages (at one point she agrees with Merman that “God hates AT&T, MCI, and Verizon”) and vicious anti-gay rhetoric as a sales tool struck me as particularly despicable and so I had no qualms laughing out loud as I listened to Merman’s ranting. It was also amusing to hear the efforts by the phone rep to keep him angry but not enough to prevent him from seeing the main point, which was to switch his phone service provider to her company.

Listen to the mp3 audio clips yourself, especially the link to “Anti Gay Phone Company II.” It’s a riot.

The reading level of this blog

I came across an interesting website recently. You type in the URL of any site and it comes back immediately with various measures of the site’s readability, including the years of education necessary to understand it, its clarity, and so forth. It also provides comparisons on these indices with various standard media such as newspapers and magazines.

So naturally the first thing that I did was put in this blog’s URL to see how I shaped up. Here is what I got:

Readability Results for
Average words per sentence 16.15
Words with 1 Syllable 3,230
Words with 2 Syllables 1,010
Words with 3 Syllables 561
Words with 4 or more Syllables 415
Percentage of word with three or more syllables 18.71%
Average Syllables per Word 1.65

That much was pretty straightforward. The other three numbers were more mysterious:
Gunning Fog Index 13.94
Flesch Reading Ease 51.07
Flesch-Kincaid Grade 10.15

The site helpfully explains that the Fog Index “is a rough measure of how many years of schooling it would take someone to understand the content. The lower the number, the more understandable the content will be to your visitors. Results over seventeen are reported as seventeen, where seventeen is considered post-graduate level.” Looking at the algorithm, it seems to depend entirely on the number of words per sentence and the percentage of words that have three or more syllables.

So it takes about 14 years of education (or up to college sophomore level) for someone to understand the content of my website. So clearly I am not going to get huge market share with my blog.

For comparison, some Fog Index Scores are given for other publications:

6 TV guides, The Bible, Mark Twain
8 Reader’s Digest
8 – 10 Most popular novels
10 Time, Newsweek
11 Wall Street Journal
14 The Times, The Guardian
15 – 20 Academic papers
Over 20 Only government sites can get away with this, because you can’t ignore them.
Over 30 The government is covering something up

Since my Fog Index score is close to 15, it seems like it is hard for me to shake the habits of writing in the style of academic papers even in the more casual setting of a blog.

The Flesch Reading Ease number “rates the text on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document. Authors are encouraged to aim for a score of approximately 60 to 70.” So I flunk this score pretty badly, it looks like. This algorithm, seems to depend entirely on the number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word.

The Flesch-Kincaid grade level, like the Gunning-Fog index, “is a rough measure of how many years of schooling it would take someone to understand the content. Negative results are reported as zero, and numbers over twelve are reported as twelve.” This seems like the same measure as the Fog Index, but uses average number of syllables per word instead on percentage of words with three syllables or more.

What is one to make of things like this? I find them fun even if I don’t take them too seriously. For one thing, you have to be skeptical of these instant computer-generated analyses of such complex things as writing. While these programs are great at doing numbers, one has to be wary of claims that they can accurately measure things like clarity and reading grade level. They all assume that the number of polysyllabic words and the length of sentences are the only factors, and that the nature of the content is immaterial.

This explains the results for the Bible, which had initially puzzled me. It is ranked together with TV Guide, although surely it is a more difficult book to understand. But it does use short words and sentences. This kind of algorithm also also might explain why the Wall Street Journal, which one might think is less readable than the New York Times, scores at three grades below it.

Suppose I want to become more easily readable. Should I use more words of one syllable? Or shorter sentences? Or both? Or is it the topics that cause the problem? When you write about academic topics, polysyllabic words (two already in this sentence!) creep in without any effort. Can I write about the Copernican Revolution (two more!) and avoid words like heliocentric (another one!)

To become more readable must I switch my focus from history and philosophy of science to Britney Spears? There are some prices that are too high to pay even for increased ease of readability…

The role of Protestant opposition to Copernicus

For many years after the publication of Copernicus’ book De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium in 1543, his ideas remained within the mathematical astronomy community. The more popular books on astronomy and cosmology either were unaware of his work or chose to ignore them. But there were a few non-astronomers such as poets who were aware of his work and they ridiculed it for advocating a moving Earth, not because of any ideas of heresy. It was though the poets and other popularizing writers of that time that Copernicus’ ideas became more widely known.
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The myth concerning circular orbits

In this posting we will examine the myth that the Copernican revolution was hampered by its insistence that the orbits be circles.

To understand the reasons behind this we need to look at the work of an influential, but often unrecognized, player in the Copernican revolution, the astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). He is considered the greatest naked-eye astronomer. He lived just before the invention of telescopes and the accuracy, scope, and reliability of his observations had enormous impact on the field.

It is interesting that Brahe, like most astronomers at that time, rejected Copernicus’ ideas of a moving Earth. He could not accept the arguments for the Earth’s motion, seeing that as creating more problems than solving them. In fact, he developed his own system (called the Tychonic system) that was mathematically equivalent to the Copernican system, but had the Earth as a stationary center. (p. 202. Most of the material in this post is from Thomas Kuhn’s book The Copernican Revolution and page numbers are from that book.)
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Copernicus’ ideas gain support from a few astronomers

As astronomical observations became more comprehensive, and as sea-faring became more widespread, the need for better star-charts in order to have more accurate time-keeping and navigation became imperative. In order to meet this demand for increased accuracy, the method of epicycles outlined by Ptolemy became more and more complicated, and was extended in different ways by different mathematical astronomers until it became hard to say what the Ptolemaic system was. Instead there were a whole set of different calculations all based on the Ptolemaic system, all getting increasingly complicated. And none of them quite agreed with the full range of good naked-eye observations. (p. 139. Most of the material in this post is from Thomas Kuhn’s book The Copernican Revolution and page numbers are from that book.) [Read more…]

Copernicus and the laws of physics

In a previous post, we saw that the popular notion that the Copernican model of the universe was opposed because it implied a demotion for human beings is not supported by close examination of the views of the people actually living in those times. It is, instead, a revisionist version of events that gained ascendancy around 1700 or so.

In today’s post we will examine the myth that the immediate opposition to Copernicus was raised by religious people. The fact that the Copernican model was not perceived contemporaneously as a demotion already weakens the case for that story but there’s more.
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Was the Copernican model a demotion for human beings?

In this post, we will look at one particular myth surrounding the Copernican story, the one that says that Copernican ideas were opposed because they implied a demotion for human beings.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) published De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium, his epic work describing a heliocentric system, in 1543 the year of his death. Until then, Ptolemy’s geocentric model described in his Almagest had been the one used for studying planetary motions. In this model, the Earth was at the center of the universe and every celestial body orbited about the center. The Almagest was the “first systematic mathematical treatise to give a complete, detailed, and quantitative account of all the celestial motions.” (Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, p. 72) This work was so good and its methods so powerful, that it provided the framework for astronomical calculations for nearly 1500 years. It was the framework that guided Copernicus’ own work.
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Looking closely at scientific history

Since I started looking more closely into the history of science, there are two things that I have learned that I have recast into principles.

The first is that the more closely we examine important historical events in science, the less resemblance they bear to the popular condensed capsule versions that are learned in school or college or portrayed in the popular media. The earlier posting about Columbus and the flat Earth is a case in point.

The second principle is that while science textbooks are usually good for teaching the current principles of science, they tend to be bad for teaching anything about the history of science or the nature of science. In those cases, what they usually describe is better described as folklore rather than history.

Take for example one of the most famous of all scientific revolutions, the one associated with Copernicus. The popular version of this story goes as follows:

The ancient Greeks, while pretty good at mapping the stars and motion of planets, tended to create models of the universe that were strongly influenced by religious, philosophical, and aesthetic considerations, rather than on observation and experiment. Hence they came up with the idea that the Earth was the stationary center of the universe (which pleased those religious people who wanted to give pride of place to the home of God’s greatest creation – human beings) and that the stars and planets were embedded on the surface of a sphere that rotated around the Earth in circles, which pleased those philosophers with highly refined sensibilities who felt that since the circle and sphere were the most perfect geometric shapes, they had to play a central role in the cosmos.

The story continues that the prestige of these ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was so great, and commitment to religious doctrine so strong, that many people gave blind adherence to these ideas and stubbornly tried to retain them in the face of contrary evidence. For example, the planet Mars usually moves in the eastward direction in the sky but sometimes shows retrograde motion (i.e., zig-zags, briefly heading westward before going eastward again). To explain this and other peculiar behavior epicycles were incorporated were incorporated into the Earth-centered circular orbits.

To visualize how an epicycle works, imagine a child on a merry-go-round who, while being carried around in a big circle (called the deferent) by the merry-go-round, is herself running around one of the horses in a smaller circle (the epicycle). When viewed from the stationary center of the merry-go-round, her resulting motion is quite complicated, and sometimes she will appear to be moving in the direction opposite to the merry-go-round itself. This model was used to explain retrograde motion of Mars when viewed from the Earth.

But while this helped, it did not explain all the features of planetary motion and this required adding even more complicated epicyclic motion, culminating in the comprehensive mathematical system developed by Ptolemy (100-178 CE), and written up in his Almagest, which became the standard model.

When Nicolaus Copernicus came along with his model of a Sun-centered system, his ideas were fiercely opposed by the Roman Catholic Church because they displaced the Earth from the center of the system and this was seen as a demotion for human beings and counter to the teachings of Aristotle. This resulted in the inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition persecuting, torturing, and killing for heresy those people who advocated Copernican ideas, although popular history is hazy on what exactly was done to which scientist. Galileo Galilei is thought to have been most affected by the Inquisition. It was Isaac Newton’s monumental work on motion and gravity that finally sealed the acceptance of Copernican ideas.

The above version of the Copernican story, that blind adherence to the doctrines of great philosophers like Aristotle, supported by religious dogmas, hampered the development of science, is what is popularly believed and passed on in science textbooks, which usually provide a breezy and quick synopsis of the above scientific history, with minor variations.

For example, take the introductory physics textbook Physics by Fishbane, Gasiorowicz, and Thornton. It is a very good textbook as far as the physics goes (I used it when I taught the introductory physics courses) but says things like “Blind reverence for authority impedes scientific progress, and for a long period the work of ancient Greeks was regarded with crippling irreverence.” (p. 1) and “[Ptolemy’s] theory was limited by a culturally imposed belief that perfect, circular motion describes celestial motion.” (p. 321) Even Copernicus is gently chided for his rigid adherence to some aspects of orthodoxy. “Unfortunately, Copernicus continued to insist on describing all motions with circles and, because the true motions of the planets about the Sun are not circles, epicycles continued to be needed in the Copernican description to accommodate the observations of planetary motion.” (p. 320)

The Greek philosophers are often spoken of (at least in physics circles) as being great philosophers but rotten scientists. One gets the strong feeling, in reading such accounts, that because of the dogma imposed on people by the ancient Greeks and the Church, scientific progress was held back for a thousand years or so.

So that, I assert, is what people generally believe about this aspect of scientific history. Is this a straw man? Perhaps, but it is close to what I believed until I started looking more closely at scientific history. In later postings we will see how much of this popular story stands up to closer scrutiny.

The myth about Columbus and the shape of the Earth

In his April 3, 2005 New York Times column called It’s a Flat World, After All, Thomas Friedman begins:

In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail for India, going west. He had the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He never did find India, but he called the people he met “Indians” and came home and reported to his king and queen: “The world is round.”

This is just a throwaway anecdote, to set the frame for another of Friedman’s typical banal outpourings of conventional wisdom. (Sorry to offend the many Friedman fans that are out there but I have never understood his appeal. Not only does he not seem to have any original insights but he also comes across as patronizing and condescending, especially towards the people of other countries.)
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