Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/119

This page has been validated.
115
COPERNICUS.

hundred years. Would any other hypothesis explain them? In the first place, Copernicus affirms the rotation of the earth on its axis. The rising and the setting of the stars is caused by this.

The question of the rotation of the earth had been examined by Ptolemy. He rejects the notion, saying: "If the earth turned in twenty-four hours around its axis every point on its surface would be endowed with an immense velocity, and from the rotation a force of projection would arise capable of tearing the most solid buildings from their foundations and of scattering their fragments in the air." The force of projection depends, we know, not only on the absolute velocity of points on the turning earth (and this velocity is immense), but also on the angular velocity about this axis. The latter is slow. The hour hand of a clock turns twice as fast as the earth. The projective force at its maximum is just sufficient to diminish the weight of a ton by six pounds. A feeble force of the sort is not fitted to tear trees up by their roots or buildings from their foundations, as Ptolemy supposed.

Copernicus adopted the theory of a rotating earth, although he was no better able than Ptolemy to explain the difficulty. The science of mechanics was not born till the time of Galileo. The reasoning of Copernicus is: "The rotation of the earth being a natural movement, its effects are very different from those of a violent motion; and the earth, which turns in virtue of its proper nature, is not to be likened to a wheel that is constrained to turn by force." He seeks to escape the difficulty by a trick of scholastic philosophy. No other issue was open in his day. Examples of this sort are well fitted to give us a vivid idea of the state of science in those times. It was not easy for our predecessors to take a forward step. More honor to them that the steps were taken.

In the preface to the 'De Revolutionibus' Copernicus declares that he was dissatisfied with the want of symmetry in the theory of eccentrics and weary of the uncertainty of the mathematical conditions. Searching through the works of the ancients, he found that some of them held that the earth was in motion, not stationary. Philolaus, for example, taught that the earth revolved about a central fire.[1] Copernicus makes no mention of the theory of Aristarchus. We must assume that he did not know it, though his ignorance in this respect is hard to explain. We have no list of his library, which was, however, extensive for the time.

"Then I too," says Copernicus, "began to meditate concerning the motion of the earth; and although it appeared an absurd opinion, yet since I knew that, in earlier times, others had been allowed the privilege of imagining what circles they might choose in order to explain


  1. The central fire of Philolaus was, however, not the sun; for in his theory the earth, the sun, the moon and all the planets revolved about a fire so placed at the center of the system as to be forever invisible to the earth.