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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/121

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117
COPERNICUS.

nicus accepted. The precession of the equinoxes was discovered by Hipparchus by comparing his own observations of stars with preceding ones. He saw that the longitudes of the stars changed progressively and fixed the annual change as 1° in seventy-five years. Later observers determined the amount of precession by comparing their own observations with preceding ones. The motion of the origin of longitudes—the equinox—is really uniform. An unlucky Jew—Tabit ben Korra—in the ninth century, came to the conclusion that the motion was not uniform, but variable, sometimes at one rate, sometimes at another. The variable motion was the trepidation. Copernicus admitted the reality of this phenomenon and thereby introduced a fault. Tycho Brahé, who had no important data on this point that was inaccessible to Copernicus, rejected the idea of trepidation and freed astronomy from a blemish that had endured for centuries.

It is impossible and unnecessary to exhibit in this place the details of the heliocentric theory of Copernicus. In Kepler's account of Copernican astronomy there is a section on the explanation of the retrogradations of the planets. "Here," he says, "is the triumph of the Copernican astronomy. The old astronomy can only be silent and admire; the new speaks and gives rational account of every appearance; the old multiplies its epicycles; the new, far simpler, preserves everything by the single motion of the earth around the sun." In describing the stationary points of the planets he declared: "Here the old astronomy has naught to say."

We must try to put ourselves in the place of the students of those days who heard the two explanations of the world—the geocentric and the heliocentric—expounded by the same professor in the same lecture-room as alternative hypotheses. Each hypothesis offered a possible explanation. That of Copernicus was so simple that its intellectual acceptance was immediate. It was possible; but was it true? If it were accepted, what implications did it bring in its train? The real difficulty was moral, not intellectual. "Was the whole edifice of Ptolemy to be destroyed? No—some of it was indubitably true. If some, why not all? What was to become of the authority he had held for a thousand years? Was all knowledge to be made over? Even the idea that part of the 'Almagest' was true and part false was not to be lightly accepted.

The conception that every physical problem has one and only one solution was also entirely new; until it was fully received students balanced one explanation against another, and even held two at once, strange as this may seem to us with our new standards in such matters. The heliocentric theory eventually prevailed not because the logic of Ptolemy was broken down, but because all mere authority was weakened. The dicta of philosophers were looked at in a new light. It was