The Popular Creation Story of Astronomy Is Wrong
In the early years of the 17th century, Johannes Kepler argued that the universe contained thousands of mighty bodies, bodies so huge that they could be universes themselves. These giant bodies, said Kepler, testified to the immense power of, as well as the personal tastes of, an omnipotent Creator God. The giant bodies were the stars, and they were arrayed around the sun, the universe’s comparatively tiny central body, itself orbited by its retinue of still tinier planets.
This strange view of the universe held by Kepler, the innovative astronomer who set the stage for Isaac Newton and the advent of modern physics by freeing astronomy from the perfect circles of Aristotle and working out the elliptical nature of orbital motion, was held by a number of early supporters of Nicolaus Copernicus and his heliocentric (“sun-centric”) theory. Kepler’s view was the view that science—repeatable observations of the stars and rigorous mathematical analysis of the data gleaned from those observations—demanded. It was also the Achilles’ heel of the Copernican theory.
Astronomers who maintained that the Earth sits immobile, at the center of the universe, attacked the giant stars as an absurdity, concocted by Copernicans to make their pet theory fit the data. The story of this “giant stars” view of the universe has been all but forgotten. That is unfortunate.
The story of Kepler and the giant stars illustrates a robust dynamism present in science from its very birth. That dynamism stands in contrast to the usual tales we are told about the birth of science, stories portraying the debates around the Copernican theory as occasions when science was suppressed by powerful, entrenched establishments. Stories of scientific suppression, rather than scientific dynamism, have not served science well.
The story of giant stars does.