Copernicus, Newton and the Scientific Revolution
The scientific revolution was so “revolutionary” because one of the major problems that it solved was the question of the revolution between the earth, the sun and the rest of our universe. It was a revolution in human knowledge and in individual perception over the world. The revolution and its revolutionaries attempted to understand and the natural world, which led to the challenging of beliefs and dogmas forced on them by the Christian church. The revolution of Copernicus and Newton inspired a range of philosophers to seek answers through new scientific methods, and through those methods, ultimately led to a truth that acted as a guide for future scientific and technological progress.
“Why then do we hesitate to grant [the Earth] the motion which accords naturally with its form, rather than attribute a movement to the entire universe whose limit we do not and cannot know?” 1
Copernicus was the first person in history to create a complete and general system, combining mathematics, physics, and cosmology. Copernicus adapted physics to the demands of astronomy, believing that the principles of Ptolemy’s system of the ‘motion of heavenly bodies’ was incorrect. He proposed a fundamentally different model of the universe in which the planets circled the sun. Similar theories has been proposed and documented in past history, including the works of Aristarchus, in which Copernicus is said to have referenced. However, where others had failed, Copernicus had laid out a mathematical architecture for his beliefs in ‘De Revolutionibu’, and raised a significant question to the validity of the Church’s claim on an Earth-centered universe.
Still, he believed Ptolemy’s system was right in conception, but simply wrong in details and needed a reinterpretation. He realized that up to that point there was no system of astronomy comparable to that of Ptolemy because none offered a computational scheme and method that could replace his. Copernicus challenged the geocentrism of Ptolemy with his own heliocentric universe. Not surprisingly, Copernicus’ theory was attacked by scholars, especially Protestants and Catholics. The Copernican system offended the medieval sense that the universe was an affair between God and man.
Even though his mathematics ultimately proved incorrect, his advanced were revolutionary in that they paved the way for additional advancement in thought and scientific understanding. His ideas paved the way for another man, Johanes Kepler, towards finding additional proof that the earth revolved around the sun.
Kepler was fascinated by the Copernican system for the superior order and harmony it seemed to display. Using Copernicus’ theories as a base, Kepler tested hypothesis after hypothesis towards solving some the irregularities found in Copernicus’ theories. His answers resulted in the mapped the path of planets in elliptical formation, and his interpretation of the solar system through his ‘three laws of planetary motion’. With the discovery of these three laws within the framework of the heliocentric universe, the paths of the planets were mapped forever.
Even though Kepler’s laws of motion revealed a planetary system capable of being described mathematically, he still failed to answer the question of why those events were occurring. A single piece of the question was yet to be answered; a single law which held each planet in its orbit about the sun was yet to be explained.
Newton was the man who was able to piece it all together. In 1687, Newton finished his greatest work, ‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). It was Newton’s goal to explain why the planets were held in their orbits, and why an apple naturally fell to the earth. His answer was gravity. Newton not only described the laws which explained gravity, but he invented calculus in order to explain them.
His theories on universal gravitation provided an explanation for Galileo’s discoveries about motion on earth tied it to Kepler’s discoveries about motion in the space. Quite simply put, his account of universal gravitation could be put to the test of all motion through three-dimensional space throughout the universe.
He further demonstrated that planets were attracted toward the Sun and that all heavenly bodies mutually attract one another. Given the law of gravitation and the laws of motion, Newton could explain wide range phenomena such as the eccentric orbits of comets, the causes of the tides and their major variations and the precession of the Earth’s axis. The work of Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler was finally united and transformed into one coherent scientific theory. Newton one general law of nature and one system of mechanics had conclusively solved the Copernicus problem.
His achievement was monumental. I feel that one of the most indirect and groundbreaking outcomes of Newton’s laws were that they paved the way for the mathematical quantification of every system in our universe. Newtonian physics has the underlying principle that if you knew the position and velocity of all the matter in the universe, then you could accurately predict all of their interactions until the end of time. That would indicate that our future pre-determined. If that were the case, then with the right mathematical understanding of our universe, we, as a people, could begin to look deep within the mystery of the universe and shatter the notion of an interactive and controlling God. He did not deny the existence of God, he only sought to remove God’s interaction in world affairs since any such interaction would be evidence of some imperfection; something impossible for a perfect and omnipotent creator. “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion.” 4
However, with the question of ‘why the earth rotated around the sun’ finally answered, the pre-existing notions of the church philosophy blown to pieces and people finally had an answer to the question of why things occurred the way they did. Even for those who could not understand Newtonian physics or mathematics, his impact was just as profound, because he had offered irrefutable proof (in the form of mathematics) that Nature had order and meaning which was not based on faith but on human Reason.
In this regard, I feel that Newton’s discoveries were greater than Copernicus’. Copernicus was revolutionary because he was able to pave the way for many significant predecessors with his ideas of celestial movement. Those ideas not only contradicted the church’s teachings, but also served as a basis for a new line of thought to astronomy and physics. However, it was Newton’s mathematical achievements which were able to conclusively prove that the Earth (and other bodies) orbited the Sun. Copernicus paved the way for reasoning which led to a scientific process. According to that process, if a problem cannot be tested and solved, then everything that it stands for can only be considered speculation. And in the face of scientific reasoning, acceptance of proof based on speculation would be no better than the rhetoric being given by the Church. Without Newton’s discovery of gravity, none of the achievements of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and countless others, could have been conclusively achieved.
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