Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/128

This page has been validated.
124
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

became a firm believer in the new heliocentric astronomy, which he was well prepared to receive and to expound.

A letter from Rheticus, written a few months after his arrival at Frauenburg, affords one of the very few personal views of Copernicus that have come down to us. The letter was published with a long Latin title, in 1540, and is known as 'Narratio Prima.' "I beg you to have this opinion concerning that learned man, my preceptor: that he had been an ardent admirer and follower of Ptolemy; but when he was compelled by phenomena and demonstration, he thought he did well to aim at the same mark at which Ptolemy had aimed, though with a bow and shafts of very different material from his. We must recollect what Ptolemy has said: 'He who is to follow philosophy must be a freeman in mind.'" "My preceptor was very far from rejecting the opinions of ancient philosophers from love of novelty, and except for weighty reasons and irresistible facts. His years, his gravity of character, his excellent learning, his magnanimity and nobleness of spirit are very far from any such temper (of disrespect to the ancients)." This letter, addressed by Rheticus to his old master Schoner, was the first easily accessible account of the new theory. The life-giving sun, he says, is placed in its appropriate place, and a single motion of the earth explains all the planetary motions. All is harmony as if they were bound together with a golden chain. He praises the great simplicity and reasonableness of the new doctrine, as well as the almost divine insight and the uncommon diligence of the master. He had formerly no idea, he says, of the immense labor required in such works, and the example of Copernicus leaves him in astonishment. Copernicus had made a complete collection of all known astronomical observations, and by these his theory was tested. The master was not content until every hypothesis had been fully proved.

Rheticus showed his admiration for Copernicus not only in these public, but also in private, ways. Books that he presented to the master (which are often annotated by Copernicus 's own hand) are still to be found in various libraries of Sweden, where they were taken after the plundering of Ermeland in the thirty years' war. At Wittenburg Rheticus and his colleague Reinhold, Copernicans both, were by the conditions of their professorships obliged to teach the Ptolemaic system, just as Galileo, at Padua, a Copernican, had to confine himself to the exposition of Sacrobosco. It may safely be surmised, however, that their pupils did not leave them without hearing something of the true doctrines. In the 'Narratio,' Rheticus, who was a firm believer in astrology, uses the data of the 'De Revolutionibus' as bases for wide-reaching astrological predictions. They are of no interest in themselves, but as the letter was written under the eye of Copernicus, they lead to the conclusion that they were not disapproved by the latter.