A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter IV
The new cosmology
Copernicus to Kepler and Galileo
We have seen that the Ptolemaic astronomy, which was the accepted doctrine throughout the Middle Ages, taught that the earth is round. Doubtless there was a popular opinion current which regarded the earth as flat, but it must be understood that this opinion had no champions among men of science during the Middle Ages. When, in the year 1492, Columbus sailed out to the west on his memorable voyage, his expectation of reaching India had full scientific warrant, however much it may have been scouted by certain ecclesiastics and by the average man of the period. Nevertheless, we may well suppose that the successful voyage of Columbus, and the still more demonstrative one made about thirty years later by Magellan, gave the theory of the earth's rotundity a certainty it could never previously have had. Alexandrian geographers had measured the size of the earth, and had not hesitated to assert that by sailing westward one might reach India. But there is a wide gap between theory and practice, and it required the voyages of Columbus and his successors to bridge that gap.

After the companions of Magellan completed the circumnavigation of the globe, the general shape of our earth would, obviously, never again be called in question. But demonstration of the sphericity of the earth had, of course, no direct bearing upon the question of the earth's position in the universe. Therefore the voyage of Magellan served to fortify, rather than to dispute, the Ptolemaic theory. According to that theory, as we have seen, the earth was supposed to lie immovable at the centre of the universe; the various heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolving about it in eccentric circles. We have seen that several of the ancient Greeks, notably Aristarchus, disputed this conception, declaring for the central position of the sun in the universe, and the motion of the earth and other planets about that body. But this revolutionary theory seemed so opposed to the ordinary observation that, having been discountenanced by Hipparchus and Ptolemy, it did not find a single important champion for more than a thousand years after the time of the last great Alexandrian astronomer.

The first man, seemingly, to hark back to the Aristarchian conception in the new scientific era that was now dawning was the noted cardinal, Nikolaus of Cusa, who lived in the first half of the fifteenth century, and was distinguished as a philosophical writer and mathematician. His De Docta Ignorantia expressly propounds the doctrine of the earth's motion. No one, however, paid the slightest attention to his suggestion, which, therefore, merely serves to furnish us with another interesting illustration of the futility of propounding even a correct hypothesis before the time is ripe to receive it - particularly if the hypothesis is not fully fortified by reasoning based on experiment or observation.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.