Primary sources 

Back in June of 2018 I wrote a blog post entitled: History of Astronomy – reading the classics, which opened with the following:

Most non-specialists get their knowledge of the history of astronomy from general surveys of the subject or from even more general surveys of the history of science. The information contained in these on Ptolemaeus, Copernicus and the other boys in the history of astronomy band is often from secondary if not tertiary or even quaternary sources and as a result also often inaccurate if not completely false. The solution to this problem is of course to read the originals but not all of us are blessed with the linguistic abilities necessary to tackle second century Greek or Early Modern Latin, to say nothing of Galileo’s seventeenth century Tuscan. However, the current scholar interested in the classical texts from the history of astronomy is blessed with modern, annotated English translations of these and in this post, I want to briefly present these and some secondary literature to assist in understanding them.

I gave brief accounts of translations of Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis more commonly known by its Arabic name, the Almagest, Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), Kepler’s Astronomia nova, his Harmonice Mundi, Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, his Dialogo and Newton’s Principia as well as explanatory secondary literature. 

This is all very well, and I still stick to what I wrote back then, but even if you just stick to the Early Modern Period and only acquire Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, Kepler’s Astronomia nova, Galileo’s Dialogo, and Newton’s Principia, it is going to set you back about $/€ 170-180. On top of this a lot of readers only want the explanatory texts in these volumes and not the pages and pages of complex mathematical calculations. One can of course borrow the volumes from your local, friendly university library, if you have access to one, public libraries don’t on the whole have such titles on their shelves. However, if you wish to consult them for a longer period or more often this can also be somewhat irritating. 

Do not despair, Penguin Classics and Aviva Rothman have come up with a wonderful solution to this dilemma. This solution is The Dawn of Modern Cosmology: From Copernicus to Newton[1] edited by Aviva Rothman and is what is known as a source book, that is a collection of original texts in translation on a given topic making them easily available to those interested in the given topic, which in this case is as the title says, cosmology in the Early Modern Period. And what a collection of texts is made available here! 

What Rothman and Penguin Classics deliver up is a cornucopia of cosmological texts starting with the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) and continuing through a very long list of major and minor, well-known and not so well-known texts and authors up to James Ferguson (1756). What Rothman delivers her readers is the explanatory texts supplied by those writing about astronomy and cosmology in the second half of the sixteenth, the seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries, leaving out the technical and mathematical bits. She explains:

Much, though not all, of the actual story is highly technical and mathematical, and in this sense the excerpts in this book are not fully representative. Though Copernicus, echoing Plato before him, opened his own book by warning the reader that technical expertise was a prerequisite – ‘let no one untrained in geometry enter her’, he wrote – this book does not presume such knowledge. Instead, I have chosen excerpts that should be accessible to any reader with some patience and interest and offer short introductory comments for each excerpt to help to get your bearings before you begin. Further reading and more technical detail are contained in the Appendix at the end of the book, I list full translation in each text (when available), along with other works of interest.[2]

The paragraph quoted above is on the second page of a thirty-nine-page introduction to the book. Following the quoted paragraph having set the scene of what the situation was before the publication of De revolutionibus in 1543, Rothman takes on a quick survey of the history of astronomy and cosmology from Copernicus to Newton, which is a masterclass in concise, precise, information packed communication.

In some places I would have wished for more detail. For example, when talking about the invention of the telescope and the astronomical discoveries made with it, I think it’s very important to point out that, although Galileo was the first to publish, he was not the first to use the telescope as an astronomical instrument. Also, all the discoveries that he made were made contemporaneously by several other observers, who often made the discoveries before Galileo. This, which mostly gets ignored in popular accounts, played a significant role in the acceptance of those discoveries. Having said that, however, I assume Rothman was constrained by a word count on how much she could pack into the introduction.

In the penultimate section of the introduction, Rothman devotes five pages to Genre and Language:

So far, I’ve charted the basic contours of the idea behind our story. But this story is not only about ideas, but also about the forms that those ideas take.  The selections included here span a wide variety of genres, many of which are quite different from the technical, impersonal scientific journal article you would expect to read today.[3]

Digges, Frontispiece, A Perfect Description of the Celestial Orbs, 1576

She briefly discusses dedicatory letter, letters establishing priority, the use of Platonic dialogues, popular proto-science-fiction, poems, the change from Latin to the vernacular, and particularly important illustrations and frontispieces. The whole section is an important contribution to the historical discussion. The introduction closes with a brief discussion of the ‘Copernican Revolution’ as metaphor. 

I couldn’t begin to describe the extraordinary range of texts and illustrations that Rothman supplies for her readers. I couldn’t think of anything of relevance that she has not included, her selection is truly comprehensive. You can find the table of contents online here. Each selection starts with a clear and concise explanatory text from Rothman, all of which I have read. I only found one minor error, but I didn’t make a note of it and can’t remember what or where it was!

John Wilkins, Frontispiece, A Discourse Concerning A New World & Another Planet, 1640

I particularly like the inclusion of James Ferguson’s Astronomy, Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles, and Made Easy to Those Who Have Not Studied Mathematics, 1756 at the end. Even in the modern English translation, Principia, is almost incomprehensible, even for astronomers and mathematicians. This promoted the famous quip, supposedly uttered by a Cambridge student about Newton, “there goes a man who has written a book that even he doesn’t understand”! Beginning in the early eighteenth century there were a whole series of academics, who devoted their lives to explaining Newton’s theory in a form that people could understand, and these people played an important role in the dissemination of his ideas. 

The book closes with an appendix: Other Translations and Works of Interest.

Below you will find a list of many of the principal characters in this book, including translations of their relevant work (when available) and a short list of works, of interest related to each. For the latter, given the broad intended audience of this book, I have focused on books when possible, rather than scholarly articles. At the end, I have also included a selection of books that focus on the Copernican Revolution more broadly.[4]

 There is also a very extensive index.

Rothman has complied an important and highly useful source book on early modern astronomy and cosmology and anybody and everybody who teaches a course on the history of astronomy, or the history of early modern astronomy, or the so-called Copernican Revolution, or Renaissance science, or, or, or… should include this volume near the top of their reading lists. It is also very important that this wonderful collection of original material is available in a form and at a price that is easily affordable for students. (RRP £16.99 For comparison Amazon prices UK£14.23 USA $22 Germany €20.30)

[1] The Dawn of Modern Cosmology: From Copernicus to Newton, edited by Aviva Rothman, Penguin Classics, 2023

[2] The Dawn of Modern Cosmology, pp. xii-xiii

[3] The Dawn of Modern Cosmology, p. xxxiii

[4] The Dawn of Modern Cosmology, p.585