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Posts Tagged ‘Copernicus’

On pages 76-7 of his “Is There a Universe” Jaki has this interesting passage:

It should be observed, parenthetically, that Munitz [whose work on cosmology he has been critiquing for a few pages] is wrong in thinking that the idea of a cosmos “as an ordered totality that binds all phenomena in a universal scheme and whose details are accessible to patient rational enquiry” is a bequest of the Greeks of old to human civilization. For all Greek philosophers, and notably for the greatest – Plato and Aristotle – among them, the universe was partly ordered, partly disordered. Emphatic insistence on the full orderliness of the universe first appears only centuries later, in the anti-Arian writings of Athanasius. It was he who claimed that a fully ordered universe could alone issue from the creative power of a fully divine, and therefore infinitely rational, Logos.

It’s just an unavoidable fact that the idea of a Creator-God who is all-powerful is linked to the idea of a universe in which all parts are related, and that this in turn is linked back to the idea of God who is all-wise. When the idea of God is not the idea of an all-powerful One, then the universe is not conceived to be a genuine and meaningful totality. If God is not real or is irrational, then so is the universe not quite real or not quite rational – therefore not fully subject to rational study. No matter what anyone says about an accidental and survivalist evolution of the universe, it always turns out that this irrational concept is linked to an empty concept of God and then also to an empty concept of his children, a denial of human dignity.

So it was a saint fighting a heresy about the nature of Jesus who clearly saw that when St. John said, “In the beginning was the Word… and all things were made through Him” he thereby laid the foundation for a certainty that the entire universe is rational. It’s hard to understand, but it’s rational. It’s big, but it’s ordered throughout.

The universe, simply the totality of material reality, is such an overwhelming idea that people who don’t habituate themselves to the vast by thinking about God simply can’t face up to it. They look as far as they can, and then they say that beyond that horizon is the void, if not of material reality, of ordered material reality.

Beyond my vision, chaos. How silly is that?

Jaki quotes Bertrand Russell as saying that the idea of the universe was “a mere relic of pre-Copernican astronomy.” In other words, Russell was saying that there could be no possible way of conceiving of a genuine totality, and everyone who thought there was had been out of date since the mid-16th century. Copernicus – and presumably Bruno – had made nonsense of totality.

Russell said this in 1917, just as Einstein was offering a coherent definition of space. In other words, he said it just at the moment when it was shown to be certainly wrong. And way back at the beginning of rational cosmology, it was a saint and a theologian who had the ability to see out to the edges of the universe and affirm its rationality.

There is a universe, Bert.

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In closing:


It is important to bear in mind, during any kind of discussion about the meeting of faith and science, that God Himself is not subject to measure, weight, or number, and, as such, he is not a subject of the physical sciences. There can be no “scientific” proof for the existence of God as long as the word “scientific” refers to the specific fields of the natural sciences, of which he is not an appropriate subject. We cannot count his parts, we cannot weigh him; we cannot observe him in a physical manner. In the larger definition of Science – reasoning from evidence to conclusions – there are several proofs for his existence, and scientific men often appreciate them and talk about them: they are not anti-scientific, but they are not “scientific” in the modern, limited, physical sense of the word, and cannot be.

On the other hand, as the story of Robert Jastrow shows, a cosmology of infinite space and eternal piling up of accident does cause within men a needlessly deep separation between the realms of the natural sciences and the philosophical sciences as well as theology. People do in fact gain and lose their faith over these things, and they do represent a genuine cultural battleground.

The pre-Copernicans thought they perceived a finite world of earthly physics and an infinite surrounding spiritual world, some portion of which was visible in the sky, it not being fully clear that light is a part of material creation. Most believed that our Earth was the center of the universe until he (Copernicus) laid it out that the Sun was in the center of Earth’s orbital motions and in this way definitively started man down the long path of verifying the minority and simplicity of our position in the universe.

Over the next 500 years, the physics of Earth reached out to encompass a steadily larger universe, in which the place of Earth is clearly not central — not to the solar system, not to the galaxy, not to the universe in any meaningful physical sense — though it is uniquely safe and beautiful.

Intermittently throughout all this history, the theme of an infinite and accidental universe, in which civilized creatures are commonplace and ephemeral, or merely ephemeral, has repeatedly been proposed, junked, and re-proposed. This theme received a body blow in the Big Bang cosmology and its verification, but is now resurrected as Hawking’s multiverse, opposed by philosophy and by Gonzalez’ recognition of non-trivial privileges in our universe situation.

Cosmology now

The true history of cosmology is the story of coming to consensus about just three things:

  • The universe is lawful and rational throughout.
  • The universe is finite in space in time.
  • The universe was designed as our home.

It is worthwhile for Christian teachers of the natural sciences to become familiar with this history as a way of laying out the reasonableness of our hope, and of providing support for their students’ rational embrace of faith in our heavenly Father.

[This is the 14th and last post serialized from a summer speech on the history of cosmology, from Copernicus to the early 21st century. The first of these posts was August 3, 2010, Full Circle from Copernicus. The rest follow day by day, with a few interruptions. A list of the posts may be found on the Cosmology page.]

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Let us begin to speak of the universe, using the following simple list of fifteen steps by orders of a billionth to remind us of the universe layout. This is in lieu of the Matreshka figures which keep the idea visual:

1027 * 1024 * 1021 galaxy size * 1018 * 1015 *

1012 * 109 sun size * 106 * 103 * 100 =1 people size

10-3 * 10-6 * 10-9 molecules * 10-12 * 10-15

Cosmology to 1543: Copernicus

In the time of Copernicus, the known universe was divided into two realms: one extended from the size of a gnat’s head (the lowest reach of human vision), to just over the size of the earth, this being thought to be composed of earth, air, fire and water; a second division of the universe, the heavens, extended from the Moon, the Sun, and the planets, out to the single sphere of fixed stars. This latter division was composed, not of earth, air, fire and water, but of a fifth substance, quintessence, having a unique physics in which all bodies are spherical, inherently luminous, and traveling in perfect circles, just as we see them in the sky.

We could represent the pre-Copernican universe like this, where the orders of magnitude listed in underlined, bold, red are understood as our earthly physics; the purple, underlined, bold ones are seen but not understood to be part of our earthly physics; and the blue bold ones are seen without the slightest concept of their nature or distance. The black is not even on the mental radar except as the sense of infinity and an indistinct concept of atoms or elements.

1027 * 1024 * 1021 galaxy size * 1018 * 1015 *

1012 * 109 sun size * 106 * 103 * 100 =1 people size

10-3 * 10-6 * 10-9 molecules * 10-12 * 10-15

Early in the 16th century, about the same time as Luther was posting his 95 Theses, Copernicus was commissioned by the Catholic Church to study the motions of the heavenly bodies so that the calendar could be reformed. The spring and fall equinoxes were ten days off from the date on which they had originally fallen in the Julian calendar, and it was a progressive problem, making the date of Easter increasingly difficult if not impossible to forecast in time to celebrate Lent.

In the context of working through this difficult task, making his observations whenever the weather and other responsibilities allowed (beside the sometimes foggy banks of the Vistula River) Copernicus came to the conclusion that Aristarchus the Greek had correctly proposed that the Sun, rather than Earth, lies in the center of the whole system. After 40 years of careful observation, he wrote his report, dedicated it to the Pope, and died in peace.

It was a strange idea, this heliocentrism, already anathema to Luther, and peculiar to others partly because the new orbits implied a vastly enlarged universe – the orbit of Saturn, in particular, must lie several times farther out. It was hard to believe, and of course it meant that Biblical references to the rising of the sun must be interpreted metaphorically: the sun does not really rise; the earth turns round so we can greet it anew each day. In spite of these difficulties, Copernicus had made it possible to reform the calendar, and after forty years, when Shakespeare and Galileo were both 11 years old, October 4 was followed by October 15, and a new calendar without leap years (or rather leap days) on most of the centennials was put in place. We still use that calendar.

But what of the “fixed” stars? Were they really fixed at a single distance from the sun, or were they just too far for parallax?

You know what parallax is – basically your binary vision gives you parallax on everything nearby, one eye looking from the left, and one from the right, and how much they cross telling you how far away things are. And you know what is meant by “too far for parallax” because you remember how the Moon always comes along when you are driving – because it’s too far for visual parallax. You see the trees from different angles as you drive, but the Moon is always from the same angle.

Still, the Moon’s parallax can be discovered in other ways, because it moves against the background of the stars. And it’s not so very far: Get a friend a few hundred miles away with a cell phone and take simultaneous pictures of the Moon (with cameras that get the stars as well as the moon, not really so easy to do) and you will have a parallax.

As I said, however, no parallax can be found for the stars, so are they stuck on a sphere, or are they seriously distant?

Note: Copernicus had the Sun in the center of the universe, not just the solar system, which was not yet distinguished from the universe.

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In the middle of July, Communion and Liberation held their annual education conference, and I had the opportunity to present a workshop on the history of cosmology over the last 500 years. I would like to share it here, edited as an essay, in sections:

Is humanity at the center of the Universe?

That is our topic today.

In the time of Copernicus, the universe – “heaven and earth” – was thought to be a relatively intimate affair: Earth, our home, rested in the center of a majestic dance of planets and Sun, all encircled by a single crystalline sphere of fixed stars – clearly a single sphere because no star moved against the background of another, and obviously crystal since it could not be seen as it upheld the bright orbs of heavenly light perfectly in place, year after year.

Over the 500 years that followed Copernicus, it became clear that the universe was much larger than had been imagined; then much, much larger; then enormously, outrageously larger. At each enlargement, voices were raised to say: if so much larger, perhaps the universe is infinite, and certainly it cannot have been made just for man. Our earth is so tiny, so absolutely not central – not central to the solar system, nor to the galaxy, nor to anything else – we can be no more than a passing mote on the face of an ominously large universe, possibly inhabited by intelligences too awful to imagine, or else uninhabited outside our tiny camp, dreadfully silent, and destined to become fully silent, as an intelligent habitation, if we cannot avoid blowing ourselves up.

This cosmological vision is now called the Copernican principle: that Earth, our home, has no special place in the universe and we ourselves are no more than a brief accident on the faceless abyss.

Yet that is not the end of it. At the end of all these years of enlargement, and at the end of innumerable quarrels about the boundaries or habitability of the universe, another vision has emerged: we are not central in any physically definable sense, but we wouldn’t want to be. The center of the solar system is hot with atomic fusion, and the center of the galaxy is worse: either place would oppress our dust with brilliant light and scorching radiation. No, we are in a uniquely beautiful, optically open, and otherwise protected spot, in a universe that is as precisely sized for us as the pre-Copernican universe seemed to be.

We are unique, and the universe is our home.

That is the story I want to tell.

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