A recent series of Smithsonian Magazine articles published under the title, “The Ten Most Disturbing Scientific Discoveries,” gives us pause to think about the emotional and social costs of a major paradigm shift. The No. 1 most disturbing scientific discovery of all time is credited to Mikolaj Kopernik, an amateur astronomer born in Torun (eastern Poland) in 1473. Kopernik later Latinized his name to the now familiar Nicolaus Copernicus.
The Polish astronomer and cleric was the first person to mathematically upend the Ptolemaic geocentric description of the universe — the idea held since antiquity that the earth was the center of the universe, and around which the sun and other celestial bodies orbit. Over three decades, Copernicus wrote and refined De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, or On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, his response to the convoluted mathematics used since the Hellenistic period to explain the motion of the sun, moon and five known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).
Prior to Copernicus, astronomers worked from the assumption the earth was the center of the universe. This forced them to draw complicated orbits for the planets, which even had to reverse directions for the theory to be consistent with their observed trajectories (a process described as retrograde motion).
Copernicus’ solution was simple: put the sun, not the earth at the center. Once he made this radically subversive adjustment, the mathematics became simple and elegant. Interestingly, he figured this out early in his career, but waited until 1543 (also the year died) to publish his findings.
“The scorn which I had to fear on account of the newness and absurdity of my opinion, almost drove me to abandon a work already undertaken,” he wrote in the preface to Revolutions.
His intellectual successor, Galileo Galilei, wasn’t so lucky. When Galileo published equations that further supported Copernicus’ position, his reward was trial and imprisonment by the Inquisition for being, “vehemently suspect of heresy” as a heliocentric (sun-centered cosmology) was regarded as being counter to church doctrine.
Where Copernicus had the good sense to die before he could be persecuted, Galileo was bent on rubbing the noses of his detractors into his findings. Issac Assimov described Galileo as having a “caustic wit” that undermined his brilliance.
Galileo did not recognize a fundamental truth about information that changes the whole order of the cosmos. People just won’t tolerate an abrupt overturning of the universal apple cart. In the words of Frederick Nietzsche: “It is not enough to prove something, one also has to seduce or elevate people to it.”
Of course, brilliant people (politicians and scientists, in particular), rushing headlong into an argument often forget that “truth” and that which is popularly believed are not always the same thing. As Sophocles observed millennia ago, “What people believe prevails over the truth.”
From the ground, the earth looks pretty flat and the sun seems to revolve around us. Any fool can see it is so. In the face of such plainly true evidence, smart heretics should keep their opinions to themselves. Fortunately, they don’t. Perhaps that’s part of what compels them. The first monkey to touch fire knows he’s discovered something important and he can’t help but share it.
Of course as Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe once wrote: “Truth is a torch, but a huge one, and so it is only with blinking eyes (that) all of us try to get past it, in actual terror of being burnt.”
With the high heat of the current summery political season, burn bans probably won’t help, but in the sage words of Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”