Luther & Copernicanism
Thu, 30 Jan 97 11:04:00 -0500

George Murphy has already given good advice about
the context of Luther's famous remark about
Copernicus. I'd like to offer additional defense
to Luther.

First, when he said this (ca. 1539), there was one
Copernican in the world -- Copernicus himself. The
Lutheran divine Georg Joachim ("Rheticus," as he
called himself in Latin) may have been another, depending
on exactly when Luther said this. There are fewer than
one dozen genuine Copernicans known to historians prior
to the time of Galileo's telescopic discoveries. I should
add that a major effect of those discoveries was to convince
thoughtful scientists that Tycho Brahe, not Copernicus,
had been right. I would have agreed with that group, had
I been living then, for there was still no evidence whatsoever
of the earth's actual motion either on its axis or around
the sun. And the absence of stellar parallax (not seen
until 1838) would have made the Copernican position seem
all the more difficult: Copernicans had to defend the
frankly ad hoc position that the universe must be far larger
than previously believed. We could go on...

I live much of my life these days in the latter part of the
17th century (the age of Newton, many like to call it), through
the lens of Robert Boyle. Even at that date, Boyle still wrote
on occasion as if the Copernican theory were not yet established,
and that reasonable people still dissented from it.

The overall point is that Luther's famous remark, though
given in haste (like many of his remarks) and without
forethought, was on target. Copernicus could justifiably
be described as "the ass" (prob best rendering of the
original German) who had upset all of astronomy. Had
I been in the room at the time, I'd have wholeheartedly

This leads me to ask the interesting question, at what
point did Coperncus' views cease to be idiotic? Historically,
I'm not sure -- probably around 1610 -- but similar questions
could be asked about ANY scientific theory, eg evolution.
At what point has evidence accumated enough to make the
view respectable? Can the church ever judge this, outside
of the scientific community? I don't know.

Ted Davis