At the beginning of the 16th century, European philosophers and members of the Christian clergy were largely in agreement that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. The heavens above were immutable, and humanity ruled supreme.
Then in 1543, after a decade spent fearing ridicule, a young Polish scientist named Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) decided to publish his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. In it he proposed an alternative: that the sun was at the centre of our universe and that the Earth was one of a number of orbiting satellites — a theory at odds with Christian dogma.
Using only mathematical calculations, Copernicus was suggesting that humanity’s entire world view was wrong, explains Christie’s books and manuscripts specialist Barbara Scalvini. ‘His theory, however, didn’t initially cause much scandal within the Catholic church,’ she says, ‘because the lack of tangible, irrefutable evidence meant that it could remain just that: a theory.’ Copernicus died just months after his work was published.
Three decades later, an astronomer named Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was completing his education at the universities of Northern Renaissance Europe, where Copernicus’s book had been in circulation. On 11 November 1572, as he did every night, Brahe trained his sextant, quadrant and naked eye on the Milky Way from an observatory outside an abbey in his native Denmark.
Looking up, he saw a bright, new star had appeared — a star known today as the supernova SN 1572, which is some 7,500 light years from Earth. This new, journeying star, says Scalvini, was the evidence Brahe needed to prove that Copernicus was in fact correct.
‘Within a few months Brahe published his findings in this seemingly innocuous pamphlet,’ she says. ‘It was a publication that ultimately forced mankind to come to terms with the fact that we’re not the centre of everything, and that our only real power in this vast, changeable universe is to observe.’
Brahe’s discovery also proved that sensory evidence could not be trusted. It challenged the traditional reliability of perceived wisdom and paved the way for modern scientific practices based on sophisticated tools and empirical evidence. For the church, however, this kind of evidence proved a challenge too far, and the theory was condemned as blasphemous.
Some 28 years later, in 1610, Galileo (1564-1642) published Sidereus Nuncius, which described the lunar phases of the night sky as seen through the newly invented telescope. ‘It confirmed the work of Copernicus and Brahe,’ explains Scalvini. ‘Yet in 1616 his books were banned by the Catholic church under a decree of Pope Paul V that declared the idea of Earth’s motion false and contrary to scripture.’ On the same day that Galileo’s work was banned, so too was Copernicus’s book of 1543.
A second judgement of heresy was passed down against Galileo in 1633, for placing the sun at the centre of the universe. This led to him being put under house arrest in the hills above Florence for the rest of his life.
It wouldn’t be until more than a century later, in 1758, that the church finally dropped its prohibition against books promoting heliocentrism — the astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around the sun at the centre of the solar system.
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‘The tireless efforts of these three men, outlined in these three books, changed how we understand the universe and our own place within it,’ says the specialist.
‘This is only the third copy of Brahe’s book to be auctioned since 1930, alongside the groundbreaking work of Copernicus and Galileo — in the same year that a black hole has been photographed for the first time. It serves as a reminder that feats of science like these are a testament our amazing, indomitable pursuit of knowledge.’