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The work of the Best and Greatest Artist: a forgotten story of religion, science, and stars in the Copernican Revolution.

IN 1576 THE ENGLISH ASTRONOMER Thomas Digges (1546-95) published his English translation of Nicholaus Copernicus's (1473-1543) De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium together with a sketch of the Copernican universe under the heading "A Perfit description of the Coelestial Orbes" (fig. 1). Because Digges's sketch shows the planets circling the Sun, surrounded by an infinite expanse of stars, it is often hailed as a forerunner of the modern, scientific understanding of an infinite universe in which the Earth is but a speck. (1) However, Digges was illustrating not the insignificance of Earth but the greatness of a universe of stars that testified to the omnipotence and magnificence of God. Ideas such as Digges's played a prominent role in Copernican thought, so much so that Copernicans cited Divine Omnipotence to answer one of the most powerful scientific objections to the heliocentric theory. This Copernican use of religion to answer a scientific objection to heliocentrism greatly troubled one of the most prominent defenders of geocentrism, the Italian Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598-1671). The story of Digges, Riccioli, and the stars challenges the modern portrayal of the Copernican Revolution as being a contest of religion versus science: geocentricism versus heliocentrism. It also raises questions about how historians and scientists, and in particular Catholic historians and scientists, could forget such a dynamic part of the history of ideas.

Writers today commonly portray a Copernican infinite universe, such as Digges envisioned, as rendering irrelevant human beings or the Earth or even God--usually with reference to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) being burned at the stake, supposedly for advocating such a universe. Consider, as a very recent example, some quotes from David Wootton's newly published biography of Galileo, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies.
  Galileo was prepared to say that there is no way of telling
  whether the Universe is finite or infinite. This was dangerous
  territory. Bruno had argued that the universe was infinite, and
  that not only were the stars suns, but they were circled by
  innumerable inhabited planets (a view which would imply
  innumerable Christs, for each world would need its own saviour).
  Moreover, it was difficult to see how an infinite universe could
  be the work of a creator: an infinite universe must surely have
  existed (as Aristotle claimed) throughout eternity. (2)

And later:
  Indeed [heliocentrism] offered a view of the cosmos in which
  humankind, and the things that matter to humankind--love and
  hatred, virtue and vice, mortality and immortality, salvation
  and damnation--were irrelevant. Far from embodying a scheme of
  values, far from embodying a telos or purpose, Galileo's universe
  appeared to be indifferent to moral and metaphysical issues, and
  even indifferent to our own existence. ... Galileo's greatest and
  at the same time most disturbing achievement was to recognize that
  the universe was not made for the sake of human beings, and that it
  teaches us nothing about right or wrong, and offers us neither
  salvation nor damnation. (3)

The largest illustration in Watcher, aside from the frontispiece portrait of Galileo himself, is Digges's sketch of the infinite Copernican universe. (4)

The notion that the vastness of the Copernican cosmos indicates purposelessness and insignificance is so common today as to be cliche. Yet Copernicans apparently were of the mind that the vastness of the universe testified to human beings about the power and magnificence of God. Copernicus himself first connects the vastness of the universe to God. In the Copernican theory, the Earth changes position with respect to the stars as it circles the Sun. That motion should reveal itself in the stars, an effect known to astronomers as "annual parallax." Yet no such parallax appears to the naked eye. To Copernicus, this indicates that Earth's motion around the Sun is negligible compared to the distances to the stars, and in those vast distances is seen God's handiwork.
  But that there are no such appearances among the fixed stars
  argues that they are at an immense height away, which makes the
  circle of annual movement or its image disappear from before our
  eyes since every visible thing has a certain distance beyond which
  it is no longer seen, as is shown in optics. For the brilliance of
  their lights shows that there is a very great distance between
  Saturn the highest of the planets and the sphere of the fixed
  stars. It is by this mark in particular that they are
  distinguished from the planets, as it is proper to have the
  greatest difference between the moved and the unmoved. How
  exceedingly fine is the godlike work of the Best and Greatest
  Artist! (5)

Digges advocated this view with passion. In his 1573 Alce seu Scalce Mathematicce (Mathematical Wings or Ladders) he argues that a brilliant new star or nova that had recently appeared in the heavens presented a chance to prove Copernicus correct through parallax measurements. Digges describes the nova as being a terrifying and wonderful miracle of God--the Star of Bethlehem returned again. And indeed, its brilliance (it could be seen by daylight) and its auspicious location (on the vernal equinox and passing directly overhead as seen from England) must have been awe-inspiring. In the concluding paragraph of Alce, Digges issues a rousing call to arms for astronomers. This Monster of the Heavens, he says, may provide the long - awaited chance to emend and correct the old geocentric theory with that of "divinely inspired Copernicus -- him of more than human ingenuity." (6) Truly, says Digges (and here I paraphrase), I see no better method by which we might understand the amazing work of God; this is why men are given eyes! Those blessed with astronomical and mathematical skills must join in the Olympic battle and make the measurements and do the calculations, for we have the mathematical ladders needed to scale the towers of the heavens, to measure the distances and structures of the universe, and to investigate this portentous Star that once announced the birth of Christ to the Magi. "Thus we may indubitably testify about a stupendous Miracle of GOD to others, and indeed to all to whom is not given to lift up their faces from the Earth; so all might know the mighty works of GOD, to whom alone is due all PRAISE, HONOR, and GLORY, for all time." (7)

In his "Perfit Description," which he published shortly after Alce, Digges again discusses the heavens in religious terms. Within his sketch of the infinite universe (fig. 1) is

In his translation of Copernicus, Digges adds:
  Herein can we never sufficiently admire this wonderful &
  incomprehensible huge frame of God's work proponed to our senses.
  ... we may easily consider what little portion of God's frame our
  Elementary corruptible world is, but never sufficiently of that
  fixed Orb garnished with lights innumerable and reaching up in
  Spherical altitude without end. ... And this may well be thought
  of us to be the glorious court of the great God, whose
  unsearchable works invisible, we partly by these his visible,
  conjecture; to whose infinite power and majesty, such an infinite
  place, surmounting all other both in quantity and quality, only is
  convenient. (9)

The reader may be surprised to learn that Digges was not merely adding a little religious improvisation onto Copernicus's work--there was actually some scientific basis for this flowery language. Digges was quite the competent astronomer and mathematician (10)--the Alce's call to arms and references to God might not seem very scientific to the modern reader, but its detailed analysis of possible measurements, and discussions of instruments and sources of error would (fig. 2). And yes, Digges's Copernican stars "FARR EXCELLING OUR SONNE" follow directly from observation and measurement.

Anyone who observes the night sky will see that some stars are more prominent than others. There are a few great luminaries, such as the stars Sirius, Capella, or Arcturus; there are many lesser lights. Astronomers have traditionally ranked stars as first-rate stars (the three mentioned rank among these), second-rate stars, and so on, although the term astronomers use is magnitude. To the eye, first magnitude stars appear larger than second, which appear larger than third, and so forth.

Regarding things the eye sees, there is a trade-off between size and distance. The more distant an object of a given apparent size is, the larger its actual physical size must be. For example, to the eye that watches them rise or set, the Sun and Moon appear similar in size. If their diameters are measured with a precise sort of protractor, each will be found to measure about half a degree in apparent size. But in fact the Sun, being much more distant, is much larger in physical size. Even stars of the first magnitude appear much smaller than the Sun or Moon of course, but their vast distances under the Copernican theory translated those small apparent sizes into vast physical sizes. Indeed geometry said that their physical sizes dwarfed that of the Sun. To a Copernican, stars "FARR EXCELLING OUR SONNE" simply followed from observations.

This physical immensity of each star was one of the major scientific objections to the Copernican theory. The great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the finest and most prolific observer prior to the invention of the telescope, objected to the Copernican theory for this reason. An old encyclopedia entry on Brahe tells this story well.
  The stars, to the naked eye, present diameters varying from a
  quarter of a minute (11) of space, or less, to as much as two
  minutes. The telescope was not then invented which shows that this
  is an optical delusion, and that they are points of immeasurably
  small diameter. It was certain to Tycho Brahe, that if the earth
  did move, the whole motion of the earth in its orbit did not alter
  the place of the stars by two minutes, and that consequently they
  must be so distant, that to have two minutes of apparent diameter,
  they must be spheres as great a radius at least as the distance
  from the sun to the earth. This latter distance Tycho Brahe
  supposed to be 1150 times the semi-diameter of the earth, and the
  sun about 180 times as great as the earth. Both suppositions are
  grossly incorrect; but they were common ground, being nearly those
  of Ptolemy and Copernicus. It followed then, for any thing a real
  Copernican could show to the contrary, that some of the fixed
  stars must be 1520 millions of times as great as the earth, or
  nine millions of times as great as they supposed the sun to be.
  ...Delambre, who comments with brief contempt upon the several
  arguments of Tycho Brahe, has here only to say, 'We should now
  answer that no star has an apparent diameter of a second.'
  Undoubtedly, but what would you have answered then, is the reply.
  The stars were spheres of visible magnitude, and are so still;
  nobody can deny it who looks at the heavens without a telescope;
  did Tycho reason wrong because he did not know a fact which could
  only be known by an instrument invented after his death? (12)

Tycho's reasoning was sound--the Copernican theory demanded a universe of titanic stars. To Digges, this was testimony to God's infinite power and majesty. To Tycho, this was scientific absurdity.

Star sizes are not a scientific absurdity today. As mentioned in the encyclopedia article, the telescope eventually revealed the star sizes perceived by the eye to be illusory. Stars appear as mere points of light through any modern telescope, entirely consistent with their being merely Sun-sized objects at Copernican distances.

However, the telescope did not initially solve the problem of star sizes in a Copernican universe. Owing to the wave nature of light, a phenomenon called diffraction, and the sensitivity of the human eye, small telescopes, such as those used by Galileo and other astronomers throughout much of the seventeenth century, create entirely spurious, disk-like images of stars--disks that are larger for brighter stars and smaller for fainter ones. (13) In fact, seen with a small telescope (14) a star of first or second magnitude appears nicely defined (fig. 3). Its apparent size can be measured consistently and easily. (15) Early telescopic astronomers thought a telescope removed glare from a small, brilliant object (be that Venus or the star Arcturus), revealing its true globe--Galileo says in his letters on Sunspots of 1612/1613 that the telescope reveals the globe of a star just as it reveals the phases of Venus (fig. 4). (16) Galileo and other telescopic astronomers in the first half of the seventeenth century had no idea that the telescopic stellar disks were spurious.

Scholars have overlooked the telescopic disks of stars until recently. Modern astronomy tells us that stars appear as points in modern telescopes. Furthermore, in his 1610 Sidereus Nuncius, Galileo remarks that stars seen through a telescope have "the aspect of blazes," appearing "of a shape similar to that which they present to the naked eye." (17) Scholars have taken this remark as recognition of the modern understanding that stars remain points as seen with a telescope, (18) and have left the matter to rest there, with the implicit (or explicit, as seen in the earlier encyclopedia quote) assumption that the telescope answered Tycho's "titanic stars" objection to the Copernican theory. (19) The idea that through the telescope stars "remained mere points in the heavens" is found in even the most recent scholarship. (20)


Yet Galileo wrote the Nuncius after he had been observing the heavens with a telescope for only a few months. In his later writings, when he is a more experienced observer, he consistently describes stars seen through a telescope as being disks or globes; (21) so do many other astronomers of the time. (22) For example, the German astronomer Simon Marius (1573-1624; who claimed co-discovery of Jupiter's moons with Galileo, and who gave them the names we now use: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto) noticed the telescopic disks of stars. In his 1614 Mundus Iovialis, Marius criticizes Galileo for the "blazes" comment in the Nuncius and calls attention to the problem the star sizes issue posed for the Copernican theory. (23) Another example, the Italian Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli (who among other things introduced the system of lunar nomenclature still used today; the "Sea of Tranquility"--"Mare Tranquillitatis"--which became an icon of modern culture in 1969 when the Apollo 11 "Eagle" landed there, was named by Riccioli) (24) wrote extensively on the subject of star sizes a generation after Galileo and Marius. He and fellow Jesuit Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618-63; who would later go on to discover and name the phenomenon of diffraction mentioned earlier) published in Riccioli's 1651 Almagestum Novum a table of the apparent sizes of many stars measured telescopically (along with a detailed description of their observing methods so that anyone could reproduce their results), and a table of the physical sizes stars would have were they to lie at the distances required by the Copernican theory (distances that had grown larger thanks to increasingly sensitive, but still fruitless, efforts to detect annual parallax). Their results were similar to Tycho's: The stars had to be titanic if Copernicus was correct--comparable in size to the sphere enclosed by Earth's orbit. (25) The telescope did not answer Tycho's objection, but confirmed it.

Yet what is titanic to God? Recent work by Rienk Vermij illustrates that the Diggesian appeal to the Divine as regards the issue of star sizes remained in force with Copernicans well into the era of the telescope. Vermij discusses the Dutch Copernican Philips Lansbergen's 1629 Considerations on the Diurnal and Annual Rotation of the Earth, as Well as on the True Image of the Visible Heaven; Wherein the Wonderful Works of God are Displayed. (26) Vermij describes this book as being widely read and influential, the first in Europe whose purpose was to popularize the Copernican theory among a non-mathematical audience. The greater portion of the book deals with a description of the cosmos, and in it Lansbergen (1561-1632) accepts the immense sizes of the stars, as "to him these rather showed the divine nature of the heavens." (27) Lansbergen, taking 2 Corinthians 12 literally--"I know a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not, or out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up to the third heaven" (28)--assumed that there was a tripartite division of the heavens. The first heaven was that of the planets, extending from the Sun to Saturn. The second heaven was that of the fixed stars. Vermij writes,
  Lansbergen stated that the second heaven is of an immense size as
  compared to the first heaven, each star being about as large as
  the Earth's orbit. The light of the stars illuminates the whole of
  the second heaven, which is therefore full of an immense splendor.
  Now, this immense size and splendor are not without purpose. They
  give us an image of God's infinity. The heavens are like a
  fore-court in front of God's palace. The third heaven or coelum
  empyreum, God's throne and the domicile of the blessed, is again
  immensely larger and immensely more resplendent than the second
  heaven. The immense size and splendor of the second heaven
  compared to the first, gives us an indication of the greatness of
  the third heaven compared to the second. Man thus gets an
  indication of the "inapproachable light" in which God dwells. (29)

Digges clearly would have approved. (30)

Riccioli did not approve. In book nine of the Almagestum Novum, Riccioli analyzed the debate between heliocentric and geocentric theories. However, to Riccioli (and to most astronomers of the day), the debate was not between the two "chief" theories Galileo had discussed in his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic & Copernican, but between the Copernican theory and a hybrid geocentric theory in which the Sun, Moon, and "Fixed" stars circle the Earth, while the planets (the "Wandering" stars) circle the Sun. With his telescopic observations (such as observations of the phases of Venus, which clearly showed it to circle the Sun), Galileo had long since overthrown Aristotelian/Ptolemaic geocentrism, in which everything circles the Earth. But versions of hybrid geocentrism dated back to Martianus Capella in the fifth century A.D. Tycho had been a recent advocate for it. Hybrid geocentrism offered all the advantages of Copernican heliocentrism regarding the Sun, Moon, and planets (including compatibility with Galileo's telescopic discoveries), for it was mathematically identical to the Copernican theory insofar as those bodies were concerned, without Copernican heliocentrism's disadvantages. Of course under hybrid geocentrism, with its unmoving Earth, there were no issues with annual parallax and vast stellar distances, and thus no titanic stars. Additionally, in the Copernican theory, Earth rotated, and thus one might expect to be able to experimentally detect that rotation (Tycho sought to do this). (31) Under hybrid geocentrism, with its fixed Earth, the lack of such experimental evidence was not a problem. In the Copernican theory, the Aristotelian system of physics and elements--in which heavy bodies tended toward their natural state (of rest) at their natural place (the center of the universe) via rectilinear motion, while incorruptible and ethereal celestial bodies whirled around the center of the universe with their natural circular motions--was overturned. Copernicus had proposed that the Earth did circle the Sun more than a century before Newtonian physics would explain how a heavy Earth could be made to circle the Sun. Under hybrid geocentrism, Aristotle's physics and elements remained intact. And in the Copernican theory, traditional ideas about the immobility of the Earth, many grounded in Christian scripture, were challenged. Thus Copernicus wrote, "if perchance there are certain 'idle talkers' who take it upon themselves to pronounce judgment, although wholly ignorant of mathematics, and if by shamelessly distorting the sense of some passage in Holy Writ to suit their purpose, they dare to reprehend and to attack my work; they worry me so little that I shall even scorn their judgments as foolhardy." (32) Under hybrid geocentrism, these traditional ideas remained in place. Thus hybrid geocentrism had significant strengths. Tycho said that the Copernican hypothesis "expertly and completely circumvents all that is superfluous or discordant in the system of Ptolemy. On no point does it offend the principles of mathematics. Yet it ascribes to the Earth, that hulking, lazy body, unfit for motion, a motion as fast as the ethereal torches, and a triple motion at that." (33) While hybrid geocentrism was an idea that "offended neither the principles of physics nor Holy Scripture." (34) Thus heliocentrism versus hybrid geocentrism was the debate analyzed in the Almagestum Novum (fig. 5).

For the Almagestum Novum analysis of the heliocentrism versus geocentrism debate, which Edward Grant has described as "the lengthiest, most penetrating, and authoritative analysis made by any author of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries," (35) Riccioli assembled 126 arguments put forward by both sides: 49 favored heliocentrism; 77 favored geocentrism. (36) To Riccioli, however, the vast majority of arguments on both sides were unconvincing. Some were unconvincing because they were so bad (Riccioli says he is ashamed to bring up some, but does so because they have been used by various people). (37) Others were reasonable, but still unconvincing. For example, consider pro-heliocentrism argument number 22: "The sun is the center of the Planetary System--as is demonstrated in the case of Mercury and Venus [by telescopic observations of their phases], and conjectured in the case of the others--so it ought to be the center of the Universe." (38) A very reasonable argument, but Riccioli notes that the geocentrists have a valid answer to it: The Sun is not the center of the Moon's orbit; it is not the center of motion for the fall of heavy bodies and the rise of fire; and it is not the center of the Fixed stars. (39) Or consider pro-geocentrism argument number 42, which says that the weighty Earth must be at the center of the Universe, for there is no explanation as to what would keep it in any other position. Here Riccioli notes that the heliocentrists can answer that the entire Earth has a natural circular motion about the center of the Universe, in which its weight is not a factor. (40) Then there is pro-geocentrism argument number 53 (one of only two that involve religious questions), which says that if Earth is not the center of the universe, then hell is not at the lowest place, and someone going to hell could conceivably ascend in doing so. Riccioli says that the answer to this argument is that hell is a place defined by comparison to this world on which men travel and to God's heaven; the relationship between heaven, hell, and the world of men is not affected by whether Earth moves. (41) However, Riccioli found a select few arguments to be convincing--all pro-geocentrism arguments against which the heliocentrists had no good answer. One of these concerned the issue of detecting Earth's rotation--Riccioli produced a very cogent analysis of this issue, showing that a rotating Earth must produce certain observable phenomena in projectiles and falling bodies, which were in fact not observed (Isaac Newton himself would later echo Riccioli's work in this regard; fig. 6). (42) But the one that Riccioli apparently thought was the most convincing concerned the issue of the Copernican titanic sizes of stars.

Riccioli devotes at least two chapters in the Almagestum Novum to the star sizes issue, in which he includes the observations and calculations mentioned earlier and gives a detailed mathematical analysis of the issue. He also brings the issue up in a line of pro-geocentrism arguments (numbers 67-70), (43) and uses it to counter a pro-heliocentrism argument (number 9). (44) And while he acknowledges the possibility that a rotating Earth might escape detection by physics experiment because experiments could be insufficiently precise, (45) he grants no such escape to the Copernicans on the problem of star sizes. Their only answer to this argument, he says, is their appeal to Divine Omnipotence. (46)

Riccioli cannot deny the power of God, so he cannot fully refute the Copernicans. But, he says, "Even if this falsehood cannot be refuted, nevertheless it cannot satisfy the more prudent men." (47) Besides, he says, "If God wanted to make his glory known, might not he have chosen some means less arcane than stars which appear to us to be so small and which we only deduce to be large by means of this theory?" Might he not at least have provided "a few other pieces of information detectible by us that would allow us to come into certain acquaintance of this distance and size ... since all Astronomical phenomena may be explained without the Copernican hypothesis; and truly the physical experiments involving falling bodies, and the firing of projectiles clearly refute that fraudulent hypothesis?" (48) Furthermore, Riccioli notes, what clues we do have from God (i.e., scripture) do not support the Copernicans. He cites the Psalms: "He hath set his tabernacle in the sun: and he, as a bridegroom coming out of his bride chamber, Hath rejoiced as a giant to run the way: His going out is from the end of heaven, And his circuit even to the end thereof: and there is no one that can hide himself from his heat," (49) and Ecclesiastes, "The firmament on high is his beauty, the beauty of heaven with its glorious shew. The sun when he appeareth shewing forth at his rising, an admirable instrument, the work of the most High. At noon he burneth the earth, and who can abide his burning heat?" (50)--and notes that the Bible mentions only the countless numbers of stars, not any supposed vast sizes. He quips that according to Copernican ideas, the Sun that the Bible calls "the giant" and "the admirable instrument" is reduced to "the pygmy" and "the contemptible little tool" on account of the Fixed stars. (51) To Riccioli, there is neither scientific merit nor religious merit in the Copernicans' appeal to the power of God as a solution to their theory's problems.


Consider Digges and Riccioli in light of that well-known sort of "modern morality play in which brave Reason suffers at the hands of villainous Superstition before triumphing in the sunny dawn of Science," (52) and in which scientific merit and religious merit oppose one another. In that play, Galileo's 1632 Dialogue "masterfully demonstrates the truth of the Copernican system ... proving, for the first time, that the earth revolves around the sun," (53) and Galileo is Einstein's characterization of him: a representative of rational thinking who stands up against those who support anthropocentric and mythical thinking and hold opinions that have no basis but authority. That play's narrative is continually challenged by scholars of the history of science, who are well aware that it is false insofar as the scientific evidence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was by no means strong enough at the time to demonstrate the truth of Copernican heliocentrism over hybrid geocentrism. (54) But granting that reducing the narrative to "Aristotelian/Ptolemaic geocentrism backed by authority and tradition and religion vs. Copernican heliocentrism backed by the telescope and science" is painting with too broad of a brush and neglects many details historians would rather we knew, is not the play's narrative ultimately correct? Religion called heliocentrism "foolish and absurd." (55) Is not the bottom line that science backed heliocentrism, and religion backed geocentrism?

In light of Riccioli, apparently not. View the Copernican theory as Riccioli and Lansbergen did--as the telescopic appearance of stars and the lack of annual parallax of their time said they must view it--with titanic stars that could only be explained as the stupendous work of the Best and Greatest Artist, the fore-court of God's heaven for people to see. Scientifically speaking, is this not, indeed, absurd?

Over time, of course, the scientific absurdities of heliocentrism would vanish. Annual parallax would finally be detected in the nineteenth century. Riccioli's unanswerable arguments would outlast hybrid geocentrism (which itself lasted for quite some time--fig. 7) to become subjects of scientific investigation all the way into the nineteenth century, and to become associated with the names of nineteenth-century scientists: the "Coriolis" effect observed in projectiles; the "Airy" disk observed in telescopes. And even though Riccioli was a "reknowned astronomer" (56) and the Almagestum Novum a well-known reference, which "astronomers all over Europe used ... for its encyclopedic treatment of technical astronomical issues," (57) his work would be largely forgotten.

The reader who peruses secondary sources for information on Riccioli and his arguments will find (if he or she finds much at all) comments to the effect of these:
  Father Riccioli put forward a series of arguments in contradiction
  of the Earth's movement. These arguments, seventy-seven in
  number, were marvellously absurd. "Would the birds," said Father
  Riccioli, for example, "dare to rise in the air if they saw the earth
  passing away from beneath them?" From such a specimen we may judge of
  the rest of the egregious structure. (58)
  Thorough and up-to-date though it was, Riccioli's treatment of the
  cosmological controversy was a sterile exercise. Astronomical issues
  could no longer be settled by a preponderance of scientific and
  scriptural authority or by any number of decrees from Rome. (59)
  Riccioli was a serious astronomer and knew that Ptolemy's universe
  could no longer be upheld, but his religious beliefs forced him to
  argue against the Copernican hypothesis. ... In the [Almagestum
  Novum], he produced forty-nine arguments that were in favor of
  heliocentrism, and seventy-seven that were against, and thus the
  weight of the argument favored an Earth-centered cosmology! (60)
  In Riccioli's ultimate acceptance of the immobility of the earth,
  biblical and theological arguments proved decisive. (61)
  Riccioli had no real arguments to support the geocentric system
  other than the Bible and the authority of the Church. (62)

Moreover, the only author to attempt even a partial listing of the 126 arguments, the nineteenth-century historian of science Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre (mentioned in the earlier encyclopedia quote regarding Tycho), does not distinguish between those arguments to which Riccioli believes there is a valid answer, and those to which Riccioli believes there is no valid answer. Delambre grants but a single line to the all-important argument concerning the size of the stars--"Diameters, motions and distances of the Fixed stars: Nothing is certain on either side." (63) However, that is one line more than the reader will find on the subject from most any other secondary source. And even though an old Catholic publication cites the Almagestum Novum as being "the most important literary work of the Jesuits during the seventeenth century," (64) Catholic or Jesuit sources have forgotten Riccioli and his titanic stars no less. (65)

This seems most remarkable, for Riccioli's work seems an obvious counterpoint to the modern morality play, in which of course the role of villainous Superstition is played by the Church. Indeed, David Wootton has recently argued that Pope Urban VIII gave Galileo permission to reopen the debate on heliocentrism and was willing to see a new science triumph. (66) Might the Almagestum Novum (or at least book nine of it) be the book Pope Urban VIII was hoping Galileo would write? (67) Such speculations aside, the story of Riccioli and his upholding a scientific approach to the universe against heliocentrists such as Digges, Lansbergen, and even Copernicus himself, who viewed the vastness of their universe and the titanic stars within it as the glorious work of the Best and Greatest Artist, should not be a forgotten part of Catholic history. It is a story that is relevant to modern discussions regarding science and religion. It illustrates how different are our modern assumptions from what was thought during the Copernican Revolution, when heliocentrists saw in the vastness of the cosmos, not the absence of God and the insignificance of man, but God making his magnificence known to man; and Jesuit geocentrists employed science and the telescope against an "absurd" and "fraudulent" theory that required Divine Omnipotence to solve its scientific problems. (68)


(1.) Francis R. Johnson, Sanford V. Larkey, and Thomas Digges, "Thomas Digges, the Copernican System, and the Idea of the Infinity of the Universe in 1576," The Huntington Library Bulletin, 5 (April 1934): 69-117.

(2.) David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 180.

(3.) Wootton, Watcher of the Skies, 258.

(4.) Wootton, Watcher of the Skies, plate 3.

(5.) Nicolaus Copernicus, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres, trans. C. G. Wallis (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), 26-27. The planets Uranus and Neptune were not known to astronomers, nor were dwarf planets such as Pluto.

(6.) Thomas Digges, Alce seu Scalce Mathematicce (London, 1573), "Operis Conclusio" (last paragraph): "a diuino illo plusquam humani ingenij Copernico."

(7.) Digges, Alce, "Operis Conclusio" (especially last paragraph). I have translated, paraphrased, and condensed Digges's words, although the last sentence is a fairly close translation of the last sentence of Alce: "indubieque alijs stupendum dei Miraculum testificari, quibus non datum est a Terris sursum attollere vultus, vt cunctis denique; innotescant magnalia dei, cui soli omnis lavs, honor, et gloria, exhibeatur in Aeuum." For a discussion of Digges's Alce, see Robert Goulding, "Wings (or Stairs) to the Heavens: The Parallactic Treatises of John Dee and Thomas Digges", in John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought, ed. Stephen Clucas (Dordrect, the Netherlands: Springer, 2006), 41-63.

(8.) Johnson, Larkey, Digges, "Thomas Digges," 78.

(9.) Ibid., 88-89. However, I have opted to quote a version with somewhat modernized spelling, found in Dennis Richard Danielson, The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 2000), 137.

(10.) Ibid., 71.

(11.) One minute of space is one sixtieth of a degree, or approximately one thirtieth the apparent size of the Sun or Moon.

(12.) "Brahe, Tycho" in The Penny Cyclopcedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, vol. 5 (London: Charles Knight, 1836), 326. The author of the encyclopedia article uses the word "great" when making comparisons in terms of volume.

(13.) Christopher M. Graney and Timothy P. Grayson, "On the Telescopic Disks of Stars: A Review and Analysis of Stellar Observations from the early 17th Through the middle 19th centuries," Annals of Science, 68 (2010): 351-73.

(14.) "Small" here means a telescope with aperture of an inch or less (smaller than virtually any telescope that even a beginning amateur astronomer might use today). Anyone who owns a telescope may see the spurious disks of stars directly by placing a cardboard mask with a hole of an inch or less in diameter over his or her telescope's aperture and observing a bright star.

(15.) The seventeenth-century Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius would produce highly precise telescopic measurements of the apparent sizes of stars. Christopher M. Graney, "17th Century Photometric Data in the Form of Telescopic Measurements of the Apparent Diameters of Stars by Johannes Hevelius," Baltic Astronomy 18 (2009): 253-63.

(16.) Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1957), 137.

(17.) Ibid., 47.

(18.) Ibid., 47 (footnote).

(19.) Christine Schofield, "The Tychonic and semi-Tychonic World Systems," in The General History of Astronomy, ed. M. A. Hoskin, vol. 2A (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 41. Schofield writes that "the absolute size of stars was no longer a problem" because of the telescope.

(20.) Wootton, Watcher of the Skies, 96.

(21.) Galileo generally ignored the problems that arose from observations of the telescopic disks of stars. See Christopher M. Graney, "But Still, It Moves: Tides, Stellar Parallax, and Galileo's Commitment to the Copernican Theory," Physics in Perspective 10 (2008): 258-68.

(22.) Graney, Grayson, "Disks of Stars."

(23.) Christopher M. Graney, "Seeds of a Tychonic Revolution: Telescopic Observations of the Stars by Galileo Galilei and Simon Marius," Physics in Perspective 12 (2010): 4-24.

(24.) M. Bolt, ed., Mapping the Universe (Chicago: Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, 2007), 60.

(25.) Christopher M. Graney, "The Telescope Against Copernicus: Star Observations by Riccioli Supporting a Geocentric Universe," Journal for the History of Astronomy 41 (2010): 453-67.

(26.) Rienk Vermij, "Putting the Earth in Heaven: Philips Lansbergen, the early Dutch Copernicans and the Mechanization of the World Picture" in Mechanics and Cosmology in the Medieval and Early Modern Period, eds. M. Bucciantini, M. Camerota, and S. Roux (Florence, Italy: Olski, 2007), 121-41.

(27.) Ibid., 123-24.

(28.) Duoay-Rheims version.

(29.) Vermij, "Earth in Heaven," 125.

(30.) Between Digges and Lansbergen we find the German Copernican Christoph Rothmann using the same language. Responding to Tycho's assertion that giant stars were a scientific absurdity, Rothmann wrote--
  What is so absurd about a star ... having size equal to the
  Earth's orbit? What of this is contrary to divine will, or is
  impossible by divine Nature, or is inadmissible by infinite
  Nature? These things must be entirely demonstrated by you, if you
  will wish to infer from here anything of the absurd. These things
  that common men see as absurd at first glance are not easily
  charged with absurdity, for in fact divine Sapience and Majesty is
  far greater than they understand. Grant the vastness of the
  Universe and the sizes of the stars to be as great as you
  like--these will still bear no proportion to the infinite Creator.
  It reckons that the greater the king, so much greater and larger
  the palace befitting his majesty. So how great a palace do you
  reckon is fitting to god?

[(Letter of April 18, 1590 from C. Rothmann to Tycho Brahe, in Tycho Brahe, Epistolarum Astronomicarum Libri, Nuremberg, 1601), 167. See also C. Graney, "Science Rather than God: Riccioli's Review of the Case for and against the Copernican Hypothesis," Journal for the History of Astronomy 43 (2012): 215-16].

(31.) Since the Earth's circumference at the equator is 25,000 miles and the Earth completes one rotation every 24 hours, the speed of objects at the equator owing to this motion is in excess of 1,000 miles per hour. At mid latitudes the speed is still many hundreds of miles per hour. Nonetheless, detecting this motion experimentally is difficult. The Foucault pendulum, common in museums and college science buildings today as a demonstration of Earth's rotation, finally provided a reliable means to experimentally detect Earth's rotation. However, the pendulum demonstration was not developed by J. B. L. Foucault until the nineteenth century.

(32.) Copernicus, On the Revolutions, 7.

(33.) Owen Gingerich and J. R. Voelkel, "Tycho Brahe's Copernican Campaign," Journal for the History of Astronomy 29 (1998): 23-24.

(34.) Ibid., 1.

(35.) Edward Grant, Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 652.

(36.) Giovanni Battista Riccioli, Almagestum Novum (Bologna, 1651), pt. II, bk. 9, sec. 4, 193-536.

(37.) For a example of such an argument on the heliocentrism side, see Ibid., chap. 33, 468 (par. XV). For an example on the geocentrism side, see Ibid., chap. 34, 476 (par. LXII).

(38.) Ibid., chap. 33, 469 (par. XXII): "Sol est centrum systematis Planetarij, cum circa illud iam certum sit moueri Mercurium ac Venerem, vnde de alijs similis sit coniectura. Ergo debet esse centrum Vniuersi."

(39.) Ibid., chap. 33, 469 (par. XXII, Responsum).

(40.) Ibid., chap. 34, 475-76 (par. XLII & Responsum).

(41.) Ibid., chap. 34, 476 (par. LIII & Responsum).

(42.) Riccioli foresaw the "Coriolis Effect" in artillery projectiles and falling bodies--effects that were far more difficult to detect than Riccioli, or Newton, imagined. See "Forces and Fate," New Scientist (January 8, 2011), 6; Jennifer Ouellette, "Did Riccioli 'Discover' the Coriolis Effect?" DiscoveryNews, January 27, 2011, For a detailed discussion, see Christopher M. Graney, "Contra Galileo: Riccioli's 'Coriolis-Force' Argument on the Earth's Diurnal Rotation," Physics in Perspective 13 (2011), 387-400.

(43.) Riccioli, Almagestum Novum, pt. II, bk. 9, sec. 4, chap. 34, 477 (par. LXII through LXX & Respondent).

(44.) Ibid., chap. 33, 467 (par. IX & Responsum).

(45.) Ibid., chap. 34, 474 (par. XVII & Respondent).

(46.) Riccioli remarks that the Copernicans also try to argue that the size of stars in the heliocentric theory is no more absurd than the speed of stars circling Earth in a geo-centric theory. However, Riccioli points out that, since either Earth or the heavens rotates, whichever moves does so as a unit once every 24 hours, and that all speeds are proportionally identical (i.e., be it on a rotating Earth or in a rotating heavens, everything travels through one circumference per day). See Ibid., chap. 30, 460-63 and chap. 33, 467 (par. XI & Responsum).

(47.) Ibid., chap. 34, 477 (par. LXX & Respondent): "etsi falsitatis redargui non possit; prudentioribus tamen viris non posse satisfacere."

(48.) Ibid., chap. 30, 463 (col. 1: "Sed nulla"): "vel certe aliquo alio indicio sensibili nobis permisisset venire in certam notitiam huius distanti? ac magnitudinis ... cum omnia phaenomena Astronomica salua sint sine Copernicaea hypothesi; physica vero experimenta grauium, et percussiones proiectorum euidenter illam hypothesim falsitatis redarguant."

(49.) Ibid., Riccioli only gives a short phrase, "exultasse ut gigantem ad curredam viam" (which can be compared to "exultavit ut gigans ad currendam viam suam" from the Vulgate Psalm 18:6). I have included a longer quote from the Douay-Rheims version to provide context. In modern versions of the Bible this is Psalm 19.

(50.) Ibid., Riccioli gives the short phrase, "vas admirabile opus excelsi" (matching the Vulgate Ecclesiasticus 43:2). English quote from the Douay-Rheims version Eccle-siasticus 43:1-3a.

(51.) Ibid.

(52.) Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle's Children (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2003), x.

(53.) Galileo Galilei, Stillman Drake, Dialogue Concerning the two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican (NewYork: Modern Library/Random House, 2001), back cover.

(54.) For example, Kerry Magruder recently writes--Given the diversity of cosmological views circulating in the mid-17th century, it seems ... misleading simply to characterize that debate as the collision between the Copernican and the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic worldviews--although this rhetorical trope was famously employed by Galileo in his 1632 Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. When Galileo wrote that dialogue, the Ptolemaic system already had been set aside. ... Observations to empirically distinguish between a multiplicity of systems proved elusive. ... What we now disparagingly refer to as "hybrid systems" were not regarded as short-term compromises with an inexorably-advancing Copernicanism, but as provisional experiments that seemed at least as warranted as the Copernican extreme. The Scientific Revolution is far more interesting than a conflict between two chief world systems.--Kerry V. Magruder, "Jesuit Science After Galileo: The Cosmology of Gabriele Beati," Centaurus 51 (2009): 208-09.

(55.) Maurice Finocchiaro in his The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), notes that on February 24, 1616 a committee of eleven consultants for the Roman Inquisition reported unanimously that heliocentrism was "scientifically untenable [29]." Finocchiaro's translation of the words of the Consultants' Report on Copernicanism: "this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy [146]."

(56.) J. L. E. Dreyer, History Of The Planetary Systems From Thales To Kepler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1906), 419.

(57.) A. Van Helden, "Galileo, Telescopic Astronomy, and the Copernican System," in The General History of Astronomy, ed. M. A. Hoskin, vol. 2A (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 103.

(58.) L. Figuier, Earth and Sea, trans. W. H. D. Adams (London: Nelson and Sons, 1870), 89. This is pro-geocentric argument number 27. Figuier does not mention the response Riccioli provides: This argument can be answered by the Copernicans "because in the Copernican hypothesis birds, ships, etc. have not only their own motion, but also a common motion by which they move equally with the Earth [quia aues, naues etc. non solo motu proprio, sed communi etiam pariter cum Terra mouentur in Copernici hypothesi]." Almagestum Novum, pt. II, bk. 9, sec. 4, chap. 34, 475 (par. XXVII & Responsum est).

(59.) Van Helden, "Galileo," 103.

(60.) C. M. Linton, From Eudoxus to Einstein: A History of Mathematical Astronomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 226-27.

(61.) E. Grant, Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 63.

(62.) A. Dinis, "Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science of His Time," in Jesuit Science and the Republic of Letters, ed. Mordechai Feingold (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 209.

(63.) J. B. J. Delambre, Historie de L'Astronomie Moderne (Paris, 1821), 678: "Diametres, mouvemens et distances des fixes. Rien de certain de part ni d'autre."

(64.) James J. Walsh, Catholic Churchmen in Science (Philadelphia: Dolphin Press, 1909/ 1969), 200. This same assessment also appears in older versions of the Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1913); see vol. 13, 40. Thanks to the on-line version of that encyclopedia,, it is present in many places on the Internet.

(65.) The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Thomson Gale/Catholic University of America, 2003) has no entry for Riccioli.

(66.) Wootton also argues that Galileo sabotaged that opportunity by betraying Urban, his ally and friend (Watcher of the Skies, 260-63).

(67.) I owe this turn of phrase to a blogger: M. Francis, "The Book Galileo Was Supposed to Write," April 21, 2011,

(68.) I thank Christina Graney for her invaluable assistance in translating the work of Digges and Riccioli.
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Author:Graney, Christopher M.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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