Saturday, August 2, 2008

How important did people think Earth was before Copernicus and Carl Sagan came along and set us straight?

The so-called Copernican revolution was a big theme of Carl Sagan's (= Copernicus showed us that we were not important after all, and Earth is just a "pale blue dot").

A friend points me to mid-twentieth century Brit R. G. Collingwood's accurate assessment of what nonsense that is!:
It is commonly said that its effect was to diminish the importance of the earth in the scheme of things and to teach man that he is only a microscopic parasite on a small speck of cool matter revolving around one of the minor stars. This is an idea both philosophically foolish and historically false. Philosophically foolish, because no philosophical problem, whether connected with the universe, or with man, or the relation between them, is at all affected by considering the relative amount of space they occupy: historically false because the littleness of man in the world has been a familiar theme of reflection. Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, which has been called the most widely read book of the Middle Ages, contains the following words:

“Thou hast learnt from the astronomical proofs that the whole earth compared with the universe is no greater than a point, that is, compared with the sphere of the heavens, it may only be thought of as having no size at all. Then, of this tiny corner, it is only one-quarter that, according to Ptolemy, is habitable to living things. Take away from this quarter the seas, marshes, and other desert places, and the space left for man hardly even deserves the name of infinitesimal” (Book ii, Prosa vii).

Every educated European for a thousand years before Copernicus knew that passage, and Copernicus had no need to risk condemnation for heresy in order to repeat its substance.

- R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature, Clarendon Press, 1945
My friend writes, "For the record, “a thousand years before Copernicus” is 1500 years before Carl Sagan." Well, yes, but Boethius did not live in the age of spin, and Carl Sagan did. So Sagan's Hollywood continues the spin.

And it spins constantly. We must make a determined effort to get off.

See also: Carl Sagan and celebrity cosmology: Was he the best cosmology could do?

(Note: The image is from Library of Congress: An Illustrated Guide to European Collections. It is a manuscript of Boethius.)