On this day in 1473, the great Nicolaus Copernicus was born. He’s the guy who put together the first model of the solar system with the sun in the middle. That was a brilliant insight. I remember a story about a student talking to his teacher, “Those primitive people were so stupid to think the sun goes around the earth.” And the teacher replied, “Yes, just imagine how it would have looked if that were true!” The point is that it would look the same. There is nothing obvious about thinking the earth goes around the sun. Indeed, did you see this article, Poll: 26 Percent in US Do Not Know Earth Goes Around Sun? And the funny thing? “[Americans] did better than EU residents on the question about whether Earth moves around the sun.” Go figure.
There’s an interesting thing about Copernicus’ model, though. It wasn’t very successful. He had a brilliant insight, but it still wasn’t right. He had planets moving around the sun in circles. Well, they don’t move in circles. The world had to wait almost a hundred years for Johannes Kepler’s insight that the planets moved in ellipses. (Yes, I know that circles are ellipses!) So all those old models with the earth at the center of the universe might have been complicated, but they were still better at predicting where things would be in the sky. So old Copernicus made a necessary (And difficult!) contribution to knowledge, but all alone, it wasn’t sufficient to improve the practical science.
Also: Copernicus was old. And wise. He waited until he was dying to publish his book. No torture for him! That’s my kind of guy.
Happy birthday Nicolaus Copernicus!
This is an edited reprint of last year’s birthday post. I’m out most of the day.