The Limits of the World

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On 24 May, 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus lay on his death bed. He had been incapacitated for some time, an earlier stroke having left his entire right-hand side paralyzed and useless. For well over the last quarter-century of his life, Copernicus had been working on a new and a radical theory concerning the structure of the heavens, and finally, on the day of his death, so the story goes, his faithful helper George Donner gently raised the invalid astronomer so that he might see the first pages of his newly printed magnum opus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

While the youthful and oft times wayward mathematician George Joachim Rheticus looked after the publishing details of his great text, Copernicus was probably only vaguely aware that his new ideas had finally been brought into print. Such was the sadness that permeated the final hours of this great philosopher. As Copernicus set out upon his final journey, his newly published text set the Earth on a new and fantastic journey of its own. Wrenched from the very core of the then-known universe, Copernicus put the Earth in motion. This new philosophy that poet John Donne complained ''put all in doubt,'' set Earth adrift in space, third planet out from the Sun. Transposed one with the other, the Sun replaced Earth at the center of all things, for, as Copernicus wrote, ''Who would place this lamp of a very beautiful temple in another or better place.'' While no longer the stationary socket about which the great axle of the celestial sphere indomitably turned, the Earth was still a special place since it was (and, of course, still is) the cradle and home of humanity.

M. Beech, Teiiafoiming, Astronomers' Universe 45

DOI 10.1007/978-0-387-09796-1_4, © Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

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