An Old Urban Legend

Dr. Dennis Danielson, professor of English at the University of British Columbia, has some advice: Don't believe everything you read in textbooks. Speaking at the meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation in July, Danielson noted that the conventional wisdom says that when scholars thought the earth was the center of the universe, then humans were the king of the cosmic hill, creatures in God's image. But when Copernicus discovered Earth orbited the Sun, man concluded that he was a mere animal -- or so the story goes. After nearly a decade of research, however, Danielson, who has specialized in linking the humanities and science, has debunked that story. As a student, Danielson learned that when Copernicus discovered that Earth orbited the Sun, this demoted our planet. Instead of the center of the universe, Earth became one planet in a myriad. This "standard interpretation" is generally assumed to be historical fact. But Danielson has called it "the great Copernican cliche." First, the cliche misstates what thinkers before Copernicus believed. Though they believed the earth was the center around which the universe revolved, they didn't think that position put Earth at the top of the cosmic heap. To the contrary, they had a low view of the center of the universe. The fifteenth-century philosopher Pico called it "a dung heap." Instead, Earth orbiting the Sun was seen as a promotion for the earth. Copernicus's student Rheticus wrote, "The globe of the earth has risen, while the Sun has descended to the center of universe." So why did scholars resist the evidence that Earth moved around the Sun? Danielson found, "It was objected to because it ran counter to centuries of established astronomical tradition . . . [and] because it involved the absurd idea that terra firma was in motion." Then where did textbook writers get the idea that moving Earth from the center of the universe gave Earth and humans inferior status? Danielson's research indicates that one hundred years after Copernicus, a writer of satire -- not a scientist -- started the story. Bouvier de Fontenelle wrote satirically that Copernicus had "humbled the vanity of mankind," whose arrogance had imagined himself as the center of the universe. This interpretation caught on and became the "unquestioned version of the Enlightenment." In our lifetimes, the late astronomer Carl Sagan spoke of "billions and billions" of stars in the universe, with Earth being a small speck. Danielson notes an even "larger pattern" of demotion that appears in all of Carl Sagan's books. Danielson summarizes: The "stage version of this transformation features the dark forces of religion and the Church locked in mortal combat with the enlightening power of science. Science has demonstrated the insignificance of mankind and the universe overall, and it has established -- you guessed it -- the centrality and importance of scientists in showing us how cosmically unimportant we are." It's a convenient story for scientists and naturalists alike, but the Copernican cliche is nothing but an urban legend. Debunk it the next time you hear it. For further reading and information: A tape or CD of Danielson's lecture "Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot" is available from Florian Audio Visual. For information, e-mail Listen to Danielson's lecture or read it online. Learn more about Dennis Danielson and his work. Dennis Danielson, ed., The Book of the Cosmos (Perseus, 2002). Nicole Winfield, "Vatican stargazers clear up image," Chicago Tribune, 31 August 2003. Steve Goldstein, "The Pope's telescope," Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 September 2002. "Danielson Debunks 'Copernican Cliche'," Newsletter of the American Scientific Affiliation, September/October 2003. (Free Adobe Acrobat Reader required.) See BreakPoint commentaries "Of Science and Religion" and "Wagging the Dog." (Archived commentaries; free registration required.) Visit the website for Reasons to Believe, with Christian astrophysicist Hugh Ross; it includes daily updates titled "Today's New Reason to Believe." Guy Consolmagno, Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist (McGraw-Hill, 2001). Eric C. Barrett and David Fisher, Scientists Who Believe (Moody Press, 1984).


Chuck Colson



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