Harvard Science Historian Publishes Results of Unprecedented 30-Year Census of Copernican Masterpiece

Press Release From: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Posted: Friday, October 18, 2002

Cambridge, MA -- Owen Gingerich, a Research Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science at Harvard University and senior astronomer emeritus at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, has completed a feat unique in the annals of bibliography-a survey and census of more than 600 sixteenth-century copies of the landmark book De revolutionibus by Nicholas Copernicus. Gingerich's survey has led to new understanding of how scientists communicated in the late 1500s. The survey also has provided new insights into the extent of the Roman Inquisition's censorship of science in the days of Galileo.

Unique Study of a World-Changing Text

First published in 1543, Nicholas Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium introduced the world to the concept of a heliocentric, or sun-centered, universe. In it, Copernicus detailed how the motions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars could be explained if the earth orbited the sun-a revolutionary idea when most scientists were sure that all celestial objects revolved around the earth.

Starting in the 1970s, Gingerich began surveying all known copies of this work from its first two printings in 1543 and 1566. He compiled his results into An Annotated Census of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus, which describes the provenances, annotations and margin notes, and condition of all surviving sixteenth-century copies of this major Renaissance text. The completed census eventually included 277 copies of the first edition and 324 of the second.

"I began this census to gain new insights about Copernicus at the 500th anniversary of his birth in 1973, but the project took on a life of its own as I gradually began to realize how much we could learn about the early reception of Copernicus' radical ideas. Radical not for us, but for those 16th-century skeptics, and that's of course what makes it so interesting," says Gingerich. "The final results of my census give us new understanding of that scientific revolution in the making."

The compilation of Gingerich's census took three decades; the worldwide cooperation of librarians, dealers and collectors; and hundreds of thousands of miles of travel. It will serve as a landmark reference for scholars, historians, librarians and collectors for decades to come.

Church Censorship

The mountains of data that Gingerich collected enabled him to study the pattern of Roman censorship and the extent of Papal influence on the European continent. Interestingly, he found that censorship of Copernicus' work was more local than might have been expected.

Catholic church authorities were displeased by passages in Copernicus' text that seemed to contradict Scriptural teachings. But, the Inquisition decided not to ban De revolutionibus outright because its observations might be needed in the future to adjust the Gregorian calendar. Instead, a Papal decree in 1620 demanded alterations in ten specific places in the text. Those alterations emphasized that the heliocentric theory was hypothetical and not intended to be a real description of the physical world.

Gingerich found that about 60 percent of the copies of De revolutionibus in Italy at the time of the decree were "corrected." However, virtually none of the copies outside Italy were touched. Clearly, the rest of the continent viewed the Copernicus controversy as a local dispute.

A Silent Network

Gingerich also studied notes made in the margins by the books' original owners, who included many top scientists of the time. He found a pattern of multiple copies of the most important annotations, demonstrating the existence of a silent network that connected sixteenth-century astronomers.

"It was the sixteenth-century equivalent of e-mail," says Gingerich.

Trials and Tribulations

The compilation of this census took Gingerich all over the world, from the Soviet Union just after the fall of the Berlin Wall to the witness stand in the Federal District Court in Washington. His testimony at the latter helped lead to the conviction of a thief who stole a copy of De revolutionibus from a library collection.

"Unfortunately, because of thefts, I hold the dubious distinction of having seen more copies of the first edition of Copernicus' work than can now be located," says Gingerich.

Gingerich is now working on a book describing his 30-year quest to conduct this census. He will account the many trials, tribulations and adventures involved in the compilation of An Annotated Census, a few of which are briefly described in a chapter of the 2002 National Geographic book Beyond Earth. Gingerich's next book will be published by Walker Publishing.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists organized into six research divisions study the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.

For more information, contact:

David A. Aguilar
Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Christine Lafon
Public Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Phone: 617-495-7463, Fax: 617-495-7016

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