Copernicus: The Brilliance of Beauty
By Gabriel Blanchard
The first reason we learn things is thoroughly sentimental: because they are interesting.
The Copernican Revolution was, in some respects, the beginning of modern science. Where layers of epicycles had been necessary to make sense of the observed movements of the planets correspond to the assumptions of Ptolemaic astronomy, the elegant straightforwardness of Copernicus’ theory helped pave the way for its acceptance, a century before Galileo set eye to telescope. As C. S. Lewis described it in The Discarded Image, “The human mind will not long endure such ever-increasing complications if once it has seen that some simpler conception can ‘save the appearances’ [i.e., explain the observed facts]. … The new astronomy triumphed not because the case for the old became desperate, but because the new was a better tool; once this was grasped, our ingrained conviction that Nature herself is thrifty did the rest.”
But Copernicus did not set out to found modern science. He did not foresee the internal combustion engine or the Hubble Space Telescope. He did not even set out to revolutionize astronomy. He studied the stars because they were interesting.
We are apt today to think of the sciences, and of all branches of knowledge, as tools; and they certainly serve that purpose. But this utilitarian approach to knowledge, while not wrong exactly, ignores or forgets the first reason that we all asked questions as children—the pure human appetite of curiosity. Many of the most useful discoveries in history have been byproducts of, or even accidents during, investigations driven by something as abstract as the satisfaction of knowing. Being interested in things is one of the ways that the beautiful impinges on our lives; it excites us, allures us even.
Copernicus’ place on our author bank is a reminder of this reality of human nature, stated and restated from as long ago as ancient Athens. He himself published his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres only after friends and colleagues urged him to; he wrote it originally, as he studied its subject originally, for the mere pleasure of understanding and articulating how the universe worked. It was, if you will, a work of mental hedonism. We sometimes forget that element in education; it is (among other things) the process of acquiring certain tastes that we might miss or skip or fumble on our own, but that are well worth the acquisition. It is not only true to point to the Orion Nebula and say that it is a nursery of infant stars—it’s exciting! It is more than informative to look at the massy, glowing colors and sprawling loops of darkness that define the nebula, and meditate on the aeons it has taken that light and shadow to travel through space to reach us; it’s a thrill.
Background photo of the Orion Nebula by Bryan Goff, licensed via Wikipedia Creative Commons.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.