The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order

The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order

by Robert Westman

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In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus publicly defended his hypothesis that the earth is a planet and the sun a body resting near the center of a finite universe. But why did Copernicus make this bold proposal? And why did it matter? The Copernican Question reframes this pivotal moment in the history of science, centering the story on a conflict over the credibility of astrology that erupted in Italy just as Copernicus arrived in 1496. Copernicus engendered enormous resistance when he sought to protect astrology by reconstituting its astronomical foundations. Robert S. Westman shows that efforts to answer the astrological skeptics became a crucial unifying theme of the early modern scientific movement. His interpretation of this "long sixteenth century," from the 1490s to the 1610s, offers a new framework for understanding the great transformations in natural philosophy in the century that followed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520948167
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/28/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 704
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Robert S. Westman is Professor Emeritus of History of Science and a founding member of the Science Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego. He was the 2018–2019 Sarton Chair and recipient of the Sarton Medal in the History of Science at the University of Ghent, Belgium, awarded for lifetime achievement. 

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The Copernican Question

Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order

By Robert S. Westman


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94816-7


The Literature of the Heavens and the Science of the Stars


In the fifteenth century, a vast and complex literature described, explained, and invoked the motions of the heavens and their influences on the Earth. From the 1470s onward, the learning of the heavens, much of it inherited from the ancient and medieval worlds, began to acquire a new sort of accessibility as it was reproduced in the medium of print. This chapter describes the broad contours of that literature and its various classifications. It shows how those categories evolved, how it worked as a body of knowledge, and the peculiar forms that it took in the sixteenth century. This corpus of writings—rather than an exclusive and autonomous stream of planetary theory—constituted the foundational categories of the intellectual world in which Copernicus was educated at Krakow and Bologna in the 1490s and in which his work took form and was later evaluated.

Interest in astrological prognosticating had begun to catch on in the Latin West as far back as the twelfth century, with the arrival of sophisticated Arabic astrological writings. Among the most influential of such works was the Great Introduction to Astrology of Albumasar (Abu'Mashar), which emphasized the preeminent effects of great planetary conjunctions. Soon, a good many medieval practitioners were attracted by the prospect of using the heavens in medical prognosis as well as retrospective diagnosis. The popular "zodiac man," representations of which abounded by the fourteenth century, mapped signs of the zodiac onto the body parts that they ruled: it assisted surgeons in deciding when to bleed the patient and guided physicians in prescribing a diet that would counteract a specific disease. The Black Death (or bubonic plague) of 1347–51, which killed one-quarter to one-third of Europe's inhabitants, greatly accelerated a sense of loss of social control and, with it, augmented the special credibility of Albumasarian causal explanations grounded in the power of planetary conjunctions. In the last decade of the fifteenth century, another new and frightening disease entity appeared, accompanying the massive movement of French armies into Italy. It too killed, but first by attacking the genitals. Was this "French disease," as many non-Frenchmen called it, caused by a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on 25 November 1484? Was it, soon afterward, augmented by a "horrible" solar eclipse on 25 March 1485? Or did God act directly, without need of celestial influence, to punish men for their sins? Whatever the preferred explanation, "astrology had come to stay," as Olaf Pedersen has aptly observed, "and many scholars came to regard astronomy principally as a theoretical introduction to astrological practice."

It is difficult to generalize with confidence about the full range of astrological works that were composed before the era of print. The extant remains of the considerable library of Simon de Phares, astrologer to the French king Charles VIII, may be a useful indicator; it was principally a collection devoted to the destinies of individuals. Insofar as medical astrology concerned individual patients, that would partly account for such a focus. However, the arrival of syphilis with Charles's marauding armies spawned a genre of writing about the new plague that applied not just to individuals but to groups. Ptolemy had already classified prognostications into two kinds—those concerning "whole races, countries and cities" (general) and those relating to individuals (specific). Print technology made possible the first kind in a way that had not previously existed. Just over twenty years after Gutenberg published the first book in the West, an almanac for the year 1448, the urban or regional forecast became a standard part of the literature of the heavens and soon dwarfed all other types. Although these annual prognostications occasionally circulated in manuscript, by the 1470s they appeared regularly in print and gradually began to displace hand-produced predictions.

Annual astrological prognostications were part of a larger pattern. Overwhelmingly, the celestial productions that the early printers chose to put on their trade lists were short works intended for practical use: single-leaf wall calendars, almanacs, ephemerides (tables of daily planetary positions), lunar tables, and eclipse forecasts. Ernst zinner's bibliography of "astronomical literature" published in "Deutschland" over the period 1448–1630, comprising more than five thousand items, illustrates this contention by enabling a gross count of different sorts of writings produced by publishers in the domains of the Holy Roman Empire. One can only guess at bibliometric patterns for the rest of Europe, and it is impossible to determine absolute numbers of copies.

Gradually the emerging culture of print dressed up its products. It used a variety of new techniques to encode already existing literatures of heavenly representation, such as visually compelling title pages; epistolary dedications to a patron or general dedications to the general reader; and didactic woodcuts displaying spheres, circles, angles, and movable planetary discs, or volvelles. Regiomontanus, the earliest printer of celestial works, pioneered techniques of setting type for astronomical woodcuts, including those that he used to illustrate the models for Peurbach's New Theorics of the Planets. Print technology also had undeniable consequences for the conditions of prognostication that expanded the limited possibilities previously open to the hand copyists. First, it made possible the rapid replication and distribution of forecasts. Second, as the annual prognostication became a unique feature of print, it helped to make the astrologer into a more public figure. It also fostered demand for astrology's theoretical-foundational texts and further promoted the authority of the works of theoretical astronomy on which they depended. And third, because such works were public rather than private, it changed the possibilities for offering advice to rulers and hence the conditions of prognosticatory authorship. How this shift in the social and literary conditions of forecast and advice occurred and how it was implicated in Copernicus's astronomical project is an important concern of this and the two following chapters.

Some preliminary chronological parameters will assist. Between roughly the 1480s and the 1550s, the fundamental texts of Greek and Arabic astrology were published in one edition after another. By 1524, the date for which an enormous quantity of prognostications predicted a flood of biblical proportions, the forecasting literature itself reached a scale unimaginable prior to the invention of printing. This surge in heavenly writings issued from those regions where printing had initially taken hold in various cities of the Holy Roman Empire—notably Nuremberg, Leipzig, Augsburg, and Wittenberg—and the great northern Italian city-states (particularly venice): soon these sites were joined by another great port, Antwerp, and its neighboring university town, Louvain.

Zinner's bibliography need not be regarded as a definitive count of editions of the literature of the heavens so much as a heuristic for questioning the meaning that planetary theory held for contemporaries. Much of the received historiography makes planetary theory the core of a narrative that leads, willy-nilly, to the undeniably major achievements of Newton. Such narratives generally take their endpoints as justification for the inquiry into what precedes. What they do not explain is the vast quantity of prognosticatory literature that contemporaries viewed as significant and the relation of the genre of planetary theory to it. The primary reason that the calculation of planetary positions held such great importance was that it was necessary for the production of quantitatively based knowledge of the future of the human realm. This book, while also ending with Newton, arrives there by a route that makes prognostication central rather than peripheral.


Why should this matter of prediction be of any concern to a study about Copernicus and the subsequent meanings that contemporaries ascribed to his achievements? Copernicus's formidable position in the history of astronomy and in the historiography of the Scientific Revolution is hardly open to dispute. yet both among his biographers and among many historiographers of the Scientific Revolution, Copernicus appears as something of a pristine figure in relation to astrology, let alone the bibliometrics to which I have referred. Despite some suspicion that this view is not quite viable, no one has yet seriously challenged the strong position articulated by Edward Rosen. "Did Copernicus believe in astrology?" asked Rosen, and he answered his own question as follows: "This is an extraordinary aspect of Copernicus's mentality. He lived in an age when many of those in power as well as of those on the lower rungs of the social ladder believed in astrology. [Copernicus] did not." And, in his comments on the single instance of the term astrology in Copernicus's extant writings, he stated forcefully: "Fortune-telling astrology received absolutely no support from Copernicus. In this respect he differed markedly from Brahe, Galileo, and Kepler, to mention only a few of the celebrated astronomers who believed in astrology and practiced it for one reason or another. In particular, the contrast between Copernicus and his disciple Rheticus in this regard is complete. Nowhere in the Revolutions nor anywhere else in the unquestionably authentic writings of Copernicus can the slightest trace of belief in astrology be found. On the other hand, Rheticus's addiction to astrology is notorious."

Even authors quite willing to admit into account considerations rejected by Rosen have not found Copernicus easy to integrate into their narratives. "The Copernican Revolution provides the blueprint for the Scientific Revolution as a whole," Charles Webster declared in his influential 1980 Eddington Memorial Lectures. But Webster began with Paracelsus because he could find no evidence to link Copernicus himself with prophecy and eschatology, let alone astrology. And in one of an excellent collection of essays devoted to assessing astrology in early modern science, Keith Hutchison presented a great quantity of convincing illustrations from churches, town halls, instruments, and frontispieces showing that the sun was frequently placed symbolically at the center or associated with the figure of the king, but he did not find any direct evidence linking Copernicus to astrology.

The closest that anyone has come to drawing a plausible connection was J. L. E. Dreyer in his 1905 classic History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler. Dreyer called attention to a political prophecy inserted near the middle of Rheticus's Narratio Prima (1540), the first work to describe Copernicus's claims in print. This cyclical prophecy predicted that as the Earth's eccentricity slowly changed, different kingdoms would rise and fall. Dreyer admitted that "nothing of this theory of monarchies is mentioned by Copernicus himself" but then suggested that Rheticus would not have inserted such a prophecy without Copernicus's permission. Rosen effectively dismissed Dreyer's speculation. He wrote off the forecast as superstitious nonsense, ascribing it to Rheticus's exuberance and youth while absolving Copernicus of any association with it whatsoever.

The Rosen-Dreyer disagreement still divides scholars. yet in my opinion Dreyer was on the right track: indeed, his observation can be taken a good deal further. Here I briefly anticipate a preliminary argument against Copernicus's supposed immunity from astrological concerns. Planetary order became problematic for Copernicus within a shared structure of literary and epistemic possibilities that included both the domains of planetary theory and the prognostication of earthly effects. One reason that the link to astrological prognostication is not so obvious is that Copernicus, like other authors of his time, followed conventions of compositional form that included and excluded certain subjects. The prevailing view, widespread among the humanists, held that ancient works represented the ideal stylistic models for the organization and presentation of knowledge. Stylistic models, however, were not merely the subject of high literary theory; stylized conventions were communicated by repetition through the curriculum of Renaissance grammar schools. This practice is well documented for Italy, where students were given Cicero's writings—especially his letters—as examples to be closely emulated for vocabulary, content, and form. Early modern authors thus had a well-schooled sense of rhetorical boundaries and decorum. Copernicus's major work was thus not exceptional in closely following the organization of Ptolemy's treatise of theoretical astronomy, the Mathematical Syntaxis (commonly latinized as the Almagest, after the Arabic). The Almagest provided the models and parameters from which one could make specific predictions for the planets' angular positions but said nothing about its effects on particular persons or geographical regions. For Ptolemy, the prediction of specific effects fell into the separate domain of astrology, and to that subject he devoted a separate work, the Tetrabiblos (or Quadripartitum). Later I will show that, for sixteenth-century readers, the Tetrabiblos was effectively more than a single work.


The question of Copernicus's exceptionalism is entangled in a dense thicket of knowledge categories and forms of presentation that are anything but obvious. If we want to make sense of his stated intentions as well as his silences (which are many), our account should try to mirror the thickness of these representational resources. To begin, however, it is useful to remind ourselves of what they were not. Copernicus did not present his work in a culture of emerging specialization and professionalization like that of, say, nineteenth-century Germany or England. There were no self-conscious specialty groups with their own journals, no characteristic research techniques and professional ideals of academic advancement, let alone a concern with common standards of measurement. The late-fifteenth-or early-sixteenth-century academic practitioner of Copernicus's time had little resemblance to his counterpart in the bureaucratic university of the late twentieth century, which one historian has called a "factory system"—"the student ... a 'pair of hands' working for the greater glory of his supervisor, the department as a conveyor belt for the production of Ph.D.s, the publication of papers as a sort of dividend."

The sixteenth-century sense of the learned professions and disciplines was hierarchical. Some writers imagined the organization of the professions as a mirror of the aristocratic hierarchy of social ranks or the order of the natural world. But a variety of different criteria were employed for organizing the ranks of knowledge. They might include the subject matter's moral dignity, nobility, historical ancestry, or degree of abstraction; its degree of certitude; its practical value; and the order in which the disciplines were best taught—or some combination thereof. The Renaissance rhetorical fashion for praising or satirizing the professions depended on which of these criteria were favored and in which combination. Regiomontanus, for example, praised Euclid's theorems for possessing the same certitude as they had a thousand years earlier, while opposing them to the uncertainties betokened by the many branches of scholastic philosophy. Copernicus praised the heavenly art ("which is labeled astronomy by some, astrology by others") for the perfection of its subject matter and for its pleasures in contemplation prior to describing the disagreements of its practitioners about principles and assumptions. For Francesco Capuano de Manfredonia, a prolific commentator on John of Sacrobosco's Sphere—the standard, elementary introduction—astronomy's subject matter was physical in its concern for bodies in motion, celestial spheres, and influences, and, in that sense, it fell under natural philosophy; but its methods were also mathematical and, in that sense, were capable of secure demonstrations. yet, ultimately, Capuano decided that astronomy's demonstrations were "more physical than mathematical." A century after Regiomontanus, Tommaso Garzoni imagined a "universal piazza of all the professions in the world," a survey that ranged from university professors and theologians to cooks, chimney sweeps, prostitutes, and latrine cleaners. Even as Garzoni used comic inversion to rebuke and undermine, he assumed the hierarchical pretensions of the higher professions. yet pedagogically, the early modern academic could have competences in quite different subjects and was capable of teaching in quite different disciplines while respecting and never challenging the boundaries separating them. Although some prominent early seventeenth-century voices favored the discovery of new knowledge, research as an ideal that embodied originality did not emerge until at least the German philology seminars of the late eighteenth century.


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Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Tables
Preface and Acknowledgments

The Historical Problematic
Summary and Plan of This Work
Categories of Description and Explanation

Part I. Copernicus’s Space of Possibilities

1. The Literature of the Heavens and the Science of the Stars
Printing, Planetary Theory, and the Genres of Forecast
Copernicus’s Exceptionalism
Practices of Classifying Heavenly Knowledge and Knowledge Makers
The Science of the Stars
The Career of the Theorica/Practica Distinction
Theoretical Astrology: From the Arabic to the Reformed, Humanist Tetrabiblos
The Order of the Planets and Copernicus’s Early Formation
Copernicus’s Problematic: The Unresolved Issues

2. Constructing the Future
The Annual Prognostication
The Popular Verse Prophecies
Sites of Prognostication

3. Copernicus and the Crisis of the Bologna Prognosticators, 1496–1500
The Bologna Period, 1496–1500: An Undisturbed View
From the Krakow Collegium Maius to the Bologna Studium Generale
Bologna and the "Horrible Wars of Italy"
The Astrologers’ War
Pico against the Astrologers
Domenico Maria Novara and Copernicus in the Bologna Culture of Prognostication
Prognosticators, Humanists, and the Sedici
Copernicus, Assistant and Witness
The Averroists and the Order of Mercury and Venus
Copernicus’s Commentariolus or, Perhaps, the Theoric of Seven Postulates
Copernicus, Pico, and De Revolutionibus

Part II. Confessional and Interconfessional Spaces of Prophecy and Prognostication

4. Between Wittenberg and Rome: The New System, Astrology, and the End of the World
Melanchthon, Pico, and Naturalistic Divination
Rheticus’s Narratio Prima in the Wittenberg-Nuremberg Cultural Orbit
World-Historical Prophecy and Celestial Revolutions
Celestial Order and Necessity
Necessity in the Consequent
The Astronomy without Equants
Principles versus Tables without Demonstrations
The Publication of De Revolutionibus: Osiander’s "Ad Lectorem"
Holy Scripture and Celestial Order
De Revolutionibus: Title and Prefatory Material
The "Principal Consideration"

5. The Wittenberg Interpretation of Copernicus’s Theory
Melanchthon and the Science of the Stars at Wittenberg
The Melanchthon Circle, Rheticus, and Albertine Patronage
Rheticus, Melanchthon, and Copernicus: A Psychodynamic Hypothesis
Erasmus Reinhold, Albrecht, and the Formation of the Wittenberg Interpretation
The Prutenic Tables, Patronage, and the Organization of Heavenly Literature
The Consolidation of the Wittenberg Interpretation
The Advanced Curriculum at Wittenberg
Germany as the "Nursery of Mathematics"

6. Varieties of Astrological Credibility
Marking the Dangers of Human Foreknowledge
Becoming a Successful Prognosticator
Multiplying Genitures
From Wittenberg to Louvain: Astrological Credibility and the Copernican Question
John Dee and Louvain: Toward an Optical Reformation of Astrology
Jofrancus Offusius’s Semi-Ptolemaic Solution to the Variation in Astral Powers
Skirting the Margins of Dangerous Divination

7. Foreknowledge, Skepticism, and Celestial Order in Rome
De Revolutionibus at the Papal Court: A Stillborn (Negative) Reaction
The Holy Index and the Science of the Stars
Making Orthodoxy: Learned Advice from Trent
Astrology, Astronomy, and the Certitude of Mathematics in Post-Tridentine Heavenly Science
The Jesuits’ "Way of Proceeding": The Teaching Ministry, the Middle Sciences, Astrology, and Celestial Order
Clavius on the Order of the Planets
Disciplinary Tensions
Astronomy in a Hexameral Genre: Robert Bellarmine

Part III. Accommodating Unanticipated, Singular Novelties

8. Planetary Order, Astronomical Reform, and the Extraordinary Course of Nature
Astronomical Reform and the Interpretation of Celestial Signs
The New Piconians
Mistrusting Numbers
The Rise of the Theoretical Astronomer and the "Science" of the New Star of 1572
The Generic Location of the New Star
Court Spaces and Networks: Uraniborg, Hapsburg Vienna and Prague
Hagecius’s Polemic on the New Star
An Emergent Role for a Noble Astronomer: Tycho Brahe and the Copenhagen Oration
Tycho and Pico, Generic and Named Adversaries
The Tychonian Problematic, 1574
A Tychonic Solution to Pico’s Criticism? Naibod’s Circumsolar Ordering of Mercury and Venus
The Comet of 1577 and Its Discursive Space
Astrological and Eschatological Meanings of Comets
The Language, Syntax, and Credibility of Cometary Observation
Place and Order, the Comet and the Cosmos: Gemma, Roeslin, Maestlin, and Brahe

9. The Second-Generation Copernicans: Maestlin and Digges
Michael Maestlin (1550–1631): Pastor, Academic, Mathematicus, Copernican
Maestlin’s Hesitations about Astrology
The Practice of Theorizing: Maestlin’s Glosses on Copernicus
Thomas Digges: Gentleman, Mathematical Practitioner, Platonist, Copernican
Digges on Copernicus in Wings or Ladders
(Re)Classifying the Star
The Mathematicians’ Court
Reorganizing Copernicus
Thomas Digges’s Infinite Universe "Augmentation" in Leonard Digges’s Prognostication Euerlastinge
The Plummet Passage

10. A Proliferation of Readings
The Emergence of a Via Media
Along the Via Media: Tycho’s Progress
Negotiating the Spheres’ Ontology
Rothmann’s Transformation and the First Copernican Controversy
Giordano Bruno: "Academico di nulla Academia detto il Fastidito"
Bruno’s Visual, Pythagorean Reading of Copernicus
Bruno and the Science of the Stars

Part IV. Securing the Divine Plan

11. The Emergence of Kepler’s Copernican Representation
The Copernican Situation at the End of the 1580s
Counterfactual Kepler
Kepler’s Copernican Formation at Tübingen, 1590–1594
Kepler’s Shift in the Astronomer’s Role
Kepler’s Physical-Astrological Problematic and Pico
Dating Kepler’s Encounter with Pico: A Tübingen Scenario?
The Gold Nugget
Prognosticating (and Theorizing) in Graz
Kepler’s Copernican Cosmography and Prognostication
The Divine Plan, Archetypal Causes, and the Beginning of the World
From Kepler’s Polyhedral Hypothesis to the Logical and Astronomical Defense of Copernicus

12. Kepler’s Early Audiences, 1596–1600
The Mysterium Cosmographicum: The Space of Reception
The Tübingen Theologians and the Duke
The German Academic Mathematicians: Limnaeus and Praetorius
Kepler’s Mysterium and the Via Media Group

Part V. Conflicted Modernizers at the Turn of the Century
13. The Third-Generation Copernicans: Galileo and Kepler
Galileo and the Science of the Stars in the Pisan Period
Galileo and the Wittenberg and Uraniborg-Kassel Networks
Galileo on Copernicus: The Exchange with Mazzoni
Galileo and Kepler: The 1597 Exchange
Galileo as a "Maestlinian"
Paduan Sociabilities: The Pinelli Circle and the Edmund Bruce Episode, 1599–1605
1600: Bruno’s Execution
1600: William Gilbert’s Project for a Magnetical Philosophy
The Quarrel among the Modernizers: New Convergences at the Fin de Siècle
Galileo’s Silence about Bruno
Galileo’s First Run-In with the Inquisition
The Copernican Problematic and Astrological Theorizing after Bruno’s Trial
Kepler’s Continuing Search for Astrology’s Foundations

14. The Naturalist Turn and Celestial Order: Constructing the Nova of 1604
The Predicted Conjunction of the Three Superior Planets and the Unforeseen Nova of 1604
Galileo and the Italian Nova Controversies
Honor and Credibility in the Capra Controversy
Galileo and Kepler’s Nova
Celestial Natural Philosophy in a New Key: Kepler’s De Stella Nova and the Modernizers
The Possibility of a Reformed Astrological Theoric: Kepler for and against Pico (Again)
The Copernican Question in the Stella Nova: Kepler for Gilbert, against Tycho
Making Room: Kepler between Wacker von Wackenfels and Tycho Brahe
Generating the Nova: Divine Action and Material Necessity
Summary and Conclusion

15. How Kepler’s New Star Traveled to England
Kepler’s Star over Germany and Italy
Kepler’s English Campaign

Part VI. The Modernizers, Recurrent Novelties, and Celestial Order

16. The Struggle for Order
The Emergent Problematic of the Via Moderna
Many Roads for the Modernizers: The Social Disunity of Copernican Natural Philosophy
Along the Via Moderna

17. Modernizing Theoretical Knowledge: Patronage, Reputation, Learned Sociability, Gentlemanly Veracity
Theoretical Knowledge and Scholarly Reputation
Patron-Centered Heavenly Knowledge
Patronage at the Periphery: Galileo and the Aristocratic Sphere of Learned Sociability
Florentine Court Sociabilities
Galileo’s Decision to Leave Padua for Florence
Stabilizing the Telescopic Novelties
Conclusion: Gentlemanly Truth Tellers?

18. How Galileo’s Recurrent Novelties Traveled
The Sidereus Nuncius, the Nova Controversies, and Galileo’s "Copernican Silence"
Through a Macro Lens: The Reception of the Sidereus Nuncius and the Telescope, Mid-March to Early May 1610
Kepler’s Philosophical Conversation with Galileo and His Book
Galileo’s Negotiations with the Tuscan Court, May 1610
Virtual Witnessing, Print, and the Great Resistance
Magini’s Strategic Retreat and the 7/11 Problem
Galileo and Kepler: The Denouement
Scottish Scientific Diplomacy: John Wedderburn’s Confutatio
Galileo’s Novelties and the Jesuits

Conclusion. The Great Controversy
Astrological Prognostication and Astronomical Revolution
Copernicans and Master-Disciple Relations
Seventeenth-Century Thoughts about Belief Change
The End of the Long Sixteenth Century
The Era of Consolidation: World Systems and Comparative Probability
From Philosophizing Astrologers to New-Style Natural Philosophers
Weighing Probables: The Via Moderna versus the Via Media at Midcentury
The Copernican Question after Midcentury
Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, and the Crucial Experiment
The Copernican Question: Closure and Proof


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