Early Astronomy in the University of Michigan Collections

Andreas Osiander

In a conciliatory preface dedicated to Pope Paul III, Copernicus expresses his original reluctance to publish this book, arguing that his revolutionary thesis should not be considered blasphemous. He also anticipates that those lacking knowledge of mathematics would criticize his work:

Perhaps there will be empty heads who, although they are completely ignorant of mathematics, claim an opinion on the subject, and will dare to find fault in my undertaking and attack it by badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose.

Ironically, the first misunderstanding of Copernicus’s work would appear in the book itself. An anonymous preface to the reader, Ad lectorem de hypothesibus huius operis (to the reader on the hypotheses in this work), was inserted without the consent of the author. It repeatedly highlights the hypothetical nature of the treatise, stating that “these hypotheses need not to be true nor even probable.”

This misleading preface was written by the Lutheran pastor Andreas Osiander. On the verso of the title page of his Astronomia Nova (1609), Johannes Kepler included a short letter addressed to Peter Ramus, whereby Kepler defended the truthfulness of the hypotheses presented in the De Revolutionibus. At the end of this letter, Kepler revealed to the world the identity of the author of the infamous preface:

But would you like to know who originated this tale, at which you are so upset? “Andreas Osiander” is written in my copy [of the De Revolutionibus] in the hand of Hieronymus Schreiber of Nuremberg. This Andreas, when he was in charge of publishing Copernicus, thought this preface most prudent which you consider so absurd (as may be gathered from his letters to Copernicus), and placed it within the front matter of the book, Copernicus himself being dead, or certainly unaware of this. Thus Copernicus does not mythologize, but seriously presents paradoxes; that is, he philosophizes. Which is what you wished from the astronomer.

De Revolutionibus (1543)



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