5 March 1616
On this day in 1616 the Catholic Church banned Nicolas Copernicus’ seminal work on heliocentric theory De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).
Published in 1543 shortly before Copernicus’ death On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres offered an alternative view to the long accepted Ptolemaic, geocentric, view of the cosmos and the relationship between the earth, the sun and the heavens.
The geocentric view is also the view reflected in the Bible in the book of Joshua at Joshua Ch. 10 v. 13:
‘And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.‘
As it is implied in the Bible that the sun moves through the heavens and also taught by Ptolemy that the earth is the centre of the universe it was accepted as physical and canonical truth that this was so and because to say otherwise was to teach contrary to Biblical scholarship to hold the contrary view was a heresy. Indeed it is said of Copernicus that the only thing that saved his life was that publication of his book was not widely known before his death.
The Ptolemaic view, the Biblical view and the canonical teachings of the Catholic Church were of course wrong. This possibility was of course not thought possible back in 1543 and to suggest so was again, heresy.
“We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
Carl Sagan was a planetary astronomer, astrophysicist and science educator who was a driving force behind the SETI program. He was also the writer of one of the most influential books in my life. That book ‘Cosmos‘ and the television series hosted by him based upon that book awakened in me a love of learning and knowing and inquiry which have served me well through my teenage years, through my university days and into my professional life. If you can get a hold of the series do not delay. Do it immediately. You will not regret it, not for a moment. Alternatively, or rather additionally, get hold of the book and read it and re-read it and read it to your children and let them read it too.
Sagan is gone but his legacy lives on in the light his work in science and science education has shone on the subjects he has touched for the generations privileged to be touched by his genius during his lifetime and through this illumination for generations to come.
The quote I have extracted above is indicative of the concern he had for the state of the balance of power and understanding in the world. Where politics is a cult of personality where those in power are not versed in the technology behind the power at their disposal and where vested interests have interests in keeping the method and mechanism behind the technology and science which is the engine of their success mysterious, esoteric and the exclusive province of the narrowly focussed. The powder keg is primed and the fuse is lit and unless someone has the will and the power to shine an illuminating light on the way in which the wheels that power the engines of industry, society and innovation turn then someone is going to press the button marked ‘idiot‘ and let the genie out of the bottle. Once the bottle is unstoppered and the genie is out then there’s no way to get it to return to the bottle.