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The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought [Paperback]

Thomas S. Kuhn , James Bryant Conant
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 31, 1992 0674171039 978-0674171039

For scientist and layman alike this book provides vivid evidence that the Copernican Revolution has by no means lost its significance today. Few episodes in the development of scientific theory show so clearly how the solution to a highly technical problem can alter our basic thought processes and attitudes. Understanding the processes which underlay the Revolution gives us a perspective, in this scientific age, from which to evaluate our own beliefs more intelligently. With a constant keen awareness of the inseparable mixture of its technical, philosophical, and humanistic elements, Mr. Kuhn displays the full scope of the Copernican Revolution as simultaneously an episode in the internal development of astronomy, a critical turning point in the evolution of scientific thought, and a crisis in Western man's concept of his relation to the universe and to God.

The book begins with a description of the first scientific cosmology developed by the Greeks. Mr. Kuhn thus prepares the way for a continuing analysis of the relation between theory and observation and belief. He describes the many functions--astronomical, scientific, and nonscientific--of the Greek concept of the universe, concentrating especially on the religious implications. He then treats the intellectual, social, and economic developments which nurtured Copernicus' break with traditional astronomy. Although many of these developments, including scholastic criticism of Aristotle's theory of motion and the Renaissance revival of Neoplatonism, lie entirely outside of astronomy, they increased the flexibility of the astronomer's imagination. That new flexibility is apparent in the work of Copernicus, whose DE REVOLUTIONIBUS ORBIUM CAELESTIUM is discussed in detail both for its own significance and as a representative scientific innovation.

With a final analysis of Copernicus' life work--its reception and its contribution to a new scientific concept of the universe--Mr. Kuhn illuminates both the researches that finally made the heliocentric arrangement work, and the achievements in physics and metaphysics that made the planetary earth an integral part of Newtonian science. These are the developments that once again provided man with a coherent and self-consistent conception of the universe and of his own place in it.

This is a book for any reader interested in the evolution of ideas and, in particular, in the curious interplay of hypothesis and experiment which is the essence of modern science. Says James Bryant Conant in his Foreword: "Professor Kuhn's handling of the subject merits attention, for... he points the way to the road which must be followed if science is to be assimilated into the culture of our times."

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The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought + The Construction of Modern Science: Mechanisms and Mechanics (Cambridge Studies in the History of Science) + The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450
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Editorial Reviews


An illuminating account of the intellectual transformation which laid the foundations of modern science and philosophy, and which may therefore be said to have created the modern world. (Scientific American)

No other book is so patient, so comprehensive, so sensitive, in its recovery of the experience and the outlook from which the older scientific theories emerged. No other book so enables us to see the intellectual hurdles that existed and to relive something of the process of actual scientific discovery. (American Historical Review)

In this study of the Copernican Revolution, [Thomas Kuhn] brings to a common focus the considered approach of the historian, the technical understanding of the scientist and the skill and experience of an able teacher. No careful reader of this well-wrought volume can fail to appreciate the nicely balanced interplay of these elements in the full explication of one of the major turning points in the evolution of scientific thought. For those concerned with the teaching of the history of science, Dr. Kuhn's discussion of the issues involved in the Copernican Revolution will prove to be indispensable, a superb analysis of the 'anatomy of revolution.' Those drawn to the question of meaning which the historian of science can give to the evolution of ideas will find this book equally valuable, a paradigm of synthesis and interpretation. (Isis)

Reading this book in the current age of extrasolar planets, genetics and string theory is eye-opening. (Caleb Scharf Nature 2012-07-01)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 31, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674171039
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674171039
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #44,941 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996)was professor emeritus of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His many books include The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding Elucidation September 29, 2003
This book, written before his Structures, is condensed, well written and, for me at any rate, highly entertaining. No one with a casual understanding of the history of astronomy can read this and not be surprised. Of special interest is the illumination of the fact that at the time Copernicus offered his Helio-centric cosmology there was no good, scientific reason for accepting it - it being a geometric inversion of the Ptolemaic system and thus inheriting exactly all of the Ptolemaic deficiencies. Kuhn explores the reason for the gradual shift to Copernicanism and the effects a moving earth had on other sciences.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Kuhn masterfully depicts the changes which, not only brought about the Copernican Revolution, but also, more abstractly, links them to prevaling modes of western thought as they differ from eastern models of the universe. Kuhn's attempt succeeds at placing the reader on the road to scientific revelation, not only the Copernican Revolution per se, but the political and religious currents which not only resisted it, but made it necessary. His work traces the early work of Greek astronomers and the problems they dealt with in depicting the motions of the planets and the position of the earth in the universe. He moves into Copernicus' work as a quasi-scientific endeavor synthesizing neo-Platonic forms and astute astronomical observation. This he elucidates fully, by infusing the work of other astronomers, namely Kepler,Galileo and Brahe. On a whole the book is a good example of how attitudes are changed by a revolutionary figure and a radical departure from established "paradigms" of science. Moreover, Kuhn shows us the genre of scientific history which is so important to understanding these types of issues. His book is easy to understand given cursory astronomical background and will prove invaluable in understanding not only the thought of Copernicus himself, but more precisely, the real revolution which it began. It is a must for all history students and would provide interesting topical information for science majors and star-gazers alike. You should come away with the idea that "astronomers" of the past were not as scientific as we would expect them to be, and furthermore, revolutions do not take place in a vacuum but rather are dependent on an atmosphere and necessity for acceptance.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Transcendent, more than 5 stars March 2, 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It is a pity that the Amazon rating system is limited to only 5-stars. This book is, in my opinion, worth many more. I must admit that I hesitated getting this book for many years as I was misled by the sub-title "Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought". I believed this to be a thick and imponderable philosophical tome - it is not. The book is clearly written, and does not require that the reader have a mathematical, philosophical or astronomical background. The book describes the paradigm shift from an earth-centered universe to a sun-centered one. It thus begins with the astronomical beliefs of the ancient Greeks and shows the evolution of astronomy from this to that of Copernicus and then to Newton's explanation using his equations of gravity.

I learned a lot from this book. For instance,
1. I learned a bit about solar and celestial navigation.
2. I never even realized that the seasons are of unequal length, now I do and I understand why.
3. I now have a reasonable idea of the complexity of the Ptolemaic (earth-center) view of the cosmos and why it was believed for 2000 years. Kuhn does a great job of explaining and describing the essence of this very complex system.
4. I now understand some of the influences that led Copernicus to believe that the Ptolemaic paradigm needed to be replaced. The reasons for this shift were many and complex, but are clearly stated.
5. I always thought that the system developed by Copernicus was what we believe today, but now I realize that it was much more complex, but that while it was as complex as that of Ptolemy it was not more accurate in its predictions. I also see why some of the incorrect assumptions made by Copernicus led to this complexity and lack of accuracy.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating book January 3, 2001
This book is an excellent and entertaining book for a scientific reader and/or for a general reader who doesn't mind being challenged a bit by logical arguments. Don't let this discourage you, though, since the logical arguments are not too difficult and really need to be discussed for completeness sake. The historical background adds to the book in a way comparable to Carl Sagan's 'COSMOS' series or to 'The Mechanical Universe' series. This book should be required reading for all enlightened westerners. It's THAT good.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New Respect for Ancient Astronomy February 24, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a great review of astronomy prior to Copernicus and how astronomy then changed. The old Aristotle/Ptolemaic constructions were much more thoughtful than I had learned in secondary school and their predictive power was much better too. So in both a qualitative and quantitative way these theories were hard to dispute even with Copernicus' new sun centered universe, which did not do any better quantitatively. Gradually, as the telescope came into existence (Galileo) so that the observational data pushed the astronomers away from the circles and epicycles to the ellipses, did astronomy advance to predictions quantitatively better. This book shows how that all came to be and how it affected the world outside astronomy. It shows how the old cosmology had come to be adopted as a world view in religion and why they clung to it so. Anyone reading this book will gain a greater respect for what the ancients accomplished and how brilliant they were in building the cosmology that was replaced by Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. It also showed how these built on others who are not so well known. It is a fascinating read.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Astronomical Delight
From time to time I have given presentations on astronomical history topics. I found this book to be a fantastic resource. Read more
Published 19 months ago by John J. Beck
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Job!
The product was exactly as described. And shipping was fast. Very good, will buy again.
Published on August 29, 2010 by Elizabeth
5.0 out of 5 stars The Copernican Revolution
I had wanted to read this book for along time (50 years?) and finally did it. Very satisfying & intellectually challenging.
Published on December 23, 2009 by Bruno Conegliano
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Great book, even if you do not understand the specific details of the developments that were going on during this time. Read more
Published on September 24, 2009 by Melanie M. Tague
5.0 out of 5 stars a wonderful trip trough the sky
This is a good book about one of the most exciting developments of the science. Very well written and full of images.
Published on September 22, 2009 by Francesc
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and readable
Some readers might find some parts slow going, but this classic work remains an excellent introduction into how and why our understanding of the heavens (and ourselves) changed so... Read more
Published on July 17, 2008 by Orkblork
4.0 out of 5 stars The Heavens: From Antquity to the Newtonian Synthesis
Kuhn's The Copernican Revolution was written as a text for an undergraduate course in the intellectual history of science. Read more
Published on March 7, 2008 by David Liebers
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent exposition, questionable interpretation
This is a great overview of the development of the Copernican system. The main text is very clear and readable and the "technical appendix" has good expositions of key mathematical... Read more
Published on December 5, 2007 by Viktor Blasjo
5.0 out of 5 stars An idea that change the world
I asked my son when he was 4 years old why the Sun moved across the sky over the day. He answered me "because the earth turns". Read more
Published on November 5, 2007 by S. Donoho
5.0 out of 5 stars Case Study of a Scientific Revolution
"The Copernican Revolution" tells the epochal story of how the earth-centered cosmology of Ptolemy was replaced by the sun-centered cosmology of Copernicus and Kepler. Read more
Published on February 15, 2007 by not me
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