Devlin's Angle

March 2000

Stealing Copernicus

The theft last month of a first edition copy of Nicolaus Copernicus's classic text De revolutionibus orbium coelestium ("On the revolution of the heavenly spheres") was the seventh such disappearance of this valuable work in recent years -- a chain of thefts that has left police from the United States to the former Soviet Union doing what the missing texts say the planets do around the sun: going round in circles. For De revolutionibus, as it is more commonly known, was the book in which Copernicus first presented the heliocentric model of the solar system. It is arguably the first scientific text of the modern scientific era.

First published in 1543, there are 260 known copies still in existence from the first-edition printing of (it is thought) about 500, currently worth up to $400,000 each. All the major scientific figures who came after Copernicus owned copies of the book (though not necessarily the first edition), including Brahe, Kepler, Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Halley. In many cases they annotated their copy, thereby making it even more valuable on today's rare-books market. (The original handwritten version is kept at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, the university where Copernicus received his education. You can view the entire manuscript on their website:

The discovery in early February of the latest theft, from the Academy of Sciences Library in St. Petersburg, led Russian police to seek the assistance of Interpol in trying to recover it.

An earlier theft, in Kiev, Ukraine, occurred in 1998, when a thief used a fake police ID to gain access to the archives at the Ukrainian National Library. According to the librarians, the man first asked to examine six books, including De revolutionibus. Some time later, he returned the books, obtained a receipt, and left to take a break. When he came back, he requested more books, again including the Copernicus. Then, when he left the building just before closing time, he showed the guard the initial receipt to "prove" that he had returned the book.

Three months later, a man in his forties walked into the library of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Krakow, Poland, and asked to read a first-edition copy of De revolutionibus valued at $320,000. A short while later he told the authorities he had to use the bathroom, from where he slipped out with the book, leaving behind only its cover.

Copies have also disappeared from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and the Mittag-Leffler Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Two of the stolen copies were subsequently recovered when they surfaced on the international rare-book market, but five remain missing.

Recovery of any stolen copy offered for sale publicly is made virtually certain because of a detailed catalog of all known copies drawn up over a twenty-five year period by Owen Gingerich, a professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Commenting in the press following the recent theft, Gingerich says there is no evidence to suggest an international conspiracy to steal copies of the treatise.

Since Gingerich's extensive catalog means that stolen copies cannot be offered for public sale, it is likely that the thefts are the work of isolated individuals who simply want to own a copy of one of the most pivotal publications in human history -- the work that established our present-day understanding of the solar system as having the sun at the center, with the planets, including Earth, rotating around it. Thieves might be tempted by the fact that, although first-edition copies are of considerable value, with at least 260 of them in existence few are kept under great security, and many copies are easily accessible in the reference sections of public libraries.

Certainly, the thieves are not stealing the book because they are in search of a gripping read. For one thing, it's in Latin, as were all scientific publications at the time. Second, for the most part the book consists of page after page of long and tedious numerical and geometric reasoning, interspersed with numerical table after numerical table, with only the 142 geometric illustrations to break the monotony. (It took Copernicus over thirty years to complete the book.) For what Copernicus does is work out all the arithmetic details of a model of the solar system consisting of the sun at the center and the six known planets -- Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn -- revolving around the sun in concentric circular orbits. Since one of his original goals in writing the book was to provide a more reliable ecclesiastical calendar, he also provides a number of tables that allow readers to predict the positions of planets and determine the dates of various religious observances.

Astronomy from Vodka

Although the sudden spate of thefts of De revolutionibus make for an intriguing news story, it is nothing compared to the story behind the original publication of the work, which has humor, drama, tragedy, a deathbed scene that Hollywood could not have scripted better, and all the intrigue, behind-the-scenes activity, excesses, politics, and hype we associate with the present-day publication of a sure-fire bestseller.

In fact, the story really begins back in ancient Greece. For, contrary to popular belief, Copernicus was by no means the first to suggest that the sun was the center of the solar system (more accurately, of the entire universe, which was then thought to consist of the five planets and the sun, all surrounded by an outer sphere of stars). The first person who seems to have seriously considered the possibility was Aristarchus of Samos. He rejected the hypothesis only on the grounds that to reconcile heliocentricity with the observed motions (or lack of motion) of some of the stars required that the stars are much further away (by a factor of forty or so) than was assumed at the time to be the case. (In fact, we now know that the nearest stars are much, much further away than the distance that misled Aristarchus.)

What Copernicus did, that no one had done previously, was work out the mathematical details of the heliocentric model, based on the astronomical data available at the time. This, of course, is exactly what Ptolemy had done for the geocentric model of the universe over a thousand years earlier, in the second century AD. There were two reasons why Copernicus's work was accepted almost immediately, and Ptolemy's abandoned. First, it was conceptually much simpler and (consequently) mathematically easier to deal with. In order to account for the observational data, Ptolemy had to assume the sun and the planets moved around the fixed earth on complicated orbits consisting of circles drawn on circles (so-called epicycles), leading to some complicated geometry and tricky arithmetic. In Copernicus's model, the orbits of the planets around the sun are simply concentric circles, for which the arithmetic is easy. (Actually, Copernicus had to use some epicycles to account for the astronomical observations, but fewer than half the number Ptolemy required. Of course, as Kepler was subsequently to demonstrate, the orbits are not circles but ellipses -- and even that is only approximately true.) The second advantage of the Copernican system over the Ptolemaic was that it was marginally more accurate. In particular, it was easier to locate Venus and Mercury accurately in the Copernicus model.

Copernicus was born in 1473 in Torun. When he was ten years old, his father, a prosperous merchant, died, and Nicolaus went to live with his maternal uncle, Bishop Lucas Watzenrode, the Lord of Warmia, a tiny Polish feudal holding of the Catholic Church. His early schooling was first in Torun, then Wloclawek, where he first encountered astronomy. The teacher who introduced Copernicus to the subject he was to revolutionize was a man named Vodka -- a man who, according to an oft-repeated story, followed the common practice among scholars of adopting a Latinized version of their name by naming himself "Vodka Abstemius."

In 1491, Copernicus began his university studies in Krakow. Although the principal objects of his study were intended to be canon law and the Latin and Greek classics, we know he spent some time learning mathematics and astronomy since he bought several books on the subjects, at least some of which are still extant, complete with marginal notes written in his own hand.

From Krakow, he went to Bologna in 1496, where again his growing interest in astronomy tended to push aside his studies of church law and the classics.

In 1500, Copernicus made an Easter pilgrimage to Rome, where, along with 200,000 fellow pilgrims, he received the blessing of Pope Alexander VI. The following year he made a brief trip back to Warmia to be appointed to the Chapter of Frombork Cathedral, returning to Italy to continue his studies in Padua and then in Ferrara, where he obtained the degree of Doctor of Canon Law in 1503. Degree in hand, he returned home to Warmia, to serve as canon of the Cathedral Chapter of Frombork. It was from the turret in which he lived that he made his astronomical observations, although he was far more a theoretical astronomer than an observer, and based his work on the heliocentric model of the universe mostly on the observations of others.

Don't blame the messenger

Copernicus knew from the start that publication of his work would lead to trouble with the Roman Catholic church, and decided that his best strategy would be to allow his results to trickle out slowly. Thus, although De revolutionibus was starting to take shape, Copernicus did not seek to have it published. Instead, some time before 1514, he released a short summary of his work called Commentariolus, which began to circulate in handwritten form. It is known that one copy found its way into the hands of the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Eventually, rumors of Copernicus's work reached Georg Rheticus, a young professor of mathematics at the Lutheran University of Wittenberg in Germany. Fascinated by what he heard, in 1539 Rheticus traveled to Poland to visit Copernicus. The two hit it off, and Rheticus ended up staying at Frombork for two years, during which time he persuaded Copernicus to let him study the virtually completed De Revolutionibus.

Rheticus was enthralled, and tried to persuade Copernicus to publish the work. When his efforts proved in vain, the young German wrote a brief summary, publishing it in 1540 under the title Narratio Prima ("First Report"). The little booklet was enthusiastically received, and, probably as a result, when Rheticus left Frombork in 1541, Copernicus allowed him to take a complete copy of De revolutionibus to arrange for its publication. Rheticus entrusted publication of the manuscript to Johann Petrius, in Nuremberg, one of the leading scientific publishers of the day.

Unfortunately, Rheticus left Wittenberg soon afterward to take up a professorship at Leipzig, and left oversight of the printing to a Lutheran theologian called Andreas Osiander -- unfortunate because the latter saw fit to do some unauthorized tinkering with the manuscript. When Rheticus received the first copies of the printed book in April 1543, he saw that the title had been changed. Instead of De revolutionibus, which was Copernicus's title, the printed version read De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.

In addition to the change in the title, someone had also inserted an anonymous introduction, that read in part:

Since the novelty of the hypotheses of this work has already been widely reported, I have no doubt that some learned men have taken serious offense because the book declares that the Earth moves; these men undoubtedly believe that the long established liberal arts should not be thrown into confusion. But if they examine the matter closely, they will find that the author of this work has done nothing blameworthy. For it is the duty of an astronomer to record celestial motions through careful observation. Then, turning to the causes of these motions he must conceive and devise hypotheses about them, since he cannot in any way attain to the true cause. ... The present author has performed both these duties excellently. For these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable; if they provide a calculus consistent with the observations, that alone is sufficient. ... Now when there are offered for the same motion different hypotheses, the astronomer will accept the one which is the easiest to grasp. ... let no one expect anything certain from astronomy, which cannot furnish it, lest he accept as the truth ideas conceived for another purpose, and depart from this study a greater fool than when he entered it. Farewell.

Rheticus suspected (correctly, as it turned out) that Osiander had made the changes. He vowed that if he ever had concrete proof, he would beat Osiander up. In the event, Rheticus limited his response to striking out both the preface and the additional words in the title with a red pen in the two copies in his possession. No one knows what Copernicus himself thought of the changes, since the first he saw of the printed version of his magnum opus was when it was delivered to him on his deathbed. (Or so the story goes; publication certainly took place close to 24 May, 1543, the day of Copernicus's death.)

In addition to the title change and the addition of an unauthorized preface, someone -- presumably either Rheticus or Osiander -- adorned the cover with an introduction every bit as hyped and flowery as might adorn a present-day bestseller:

Diligent reader, in this work, which has just been created and published, you have the motions of the fixed stars and planets, as these motions have been reconstituted on the basis of ancient as well as recent observations, and have moreover been embellished by new and marvelous hypothesis. You also have most convenient tables, from which you will be able to compute those motions with the utmost ease for any time whatever. Therefore, buy, read, and enjoy.

This breathless passage is followed by the slogan, taken from the entrance to the famed Plato's Academy in ancient Greece: Let no one untrained in geometry enter here.

Although he had been persuaded to have his work published, Copernicus remained mindful of the likely reaction of the Roman Catholic church -- his church. He prefaces the book -- and but for the insertion of Osiander's introductory remarks, this would have been the first words to greet the reader -- with a letter written to him by his friend Nicholas Schoenberg, the Cardinal of Capua. In that letter, Schoenberg praises Copernicus's prowess as an astronomer, and urges him to publish his important new theory:

I have also learned that you have written an exposition of this whole system of astronomy, and have computed the planetary motions and set them down in tables, to the greatest admiration of all. Therefore, with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars.

Not content with this endorsement, Copernicus follows it up with a lengthy letter, addressed "TO HIS HOLINESS, POPE PAUL III, NICHOLAS COPERNICUS' PREFACE TO HIS BOOKS ON THE REVOLUTIONS." In this letter, Copernicus acknowledges that many readers are likely to be shocked by the new theory. He stresses that, mindful of such reactions, he delayed publication for many years. The final decision to publish, he says, came after much soul searching, and then only at the strong urging of Cardinal Schoenberg, Bishop Tiedemann Giese of Chelmo, and other prominent clerics and scholars.

He was, he continues, forced into the conclusions he reached by the overwhelming mass of the evidence, evidence that, as a scientist, he could not ignore, however unpalatable some might find those conclusions. He quotes from Plutarch to show that the ancient Greeks also considered the possibility that the sun remains still while the earth and the other planets revolve around it. And don't forget, he adds, that my initial reason for engaging on this work in the first place was the need for a more accurate ecclesiastical calendar.

What Pope Paul's reaction to Copernicus's work was is not known. Certainly, there was no great furor over the heliocentric model until Galileo forced the issue a generation later by instigating a showdown with the church authorities. For the most part, scholars seemed to view De revolutionibus in much the way that Andreas Osiander suggested in his unauthorized preface: not so much as a theory of how things really were, but rather as a useful piece of mathematics that happened to be based on a particular hypothesis.

Or did they? Perhaps they just wanted to stay out of trouble in the event that a furor did erupt. After all, there was no shortage of scholars eager to read the book, and the first edition soon sold out, leading to the publication of a second edition in Basel in 1566. Would they have taken the trouble to study the book so closely, as many of them did, if they had viewed is as "purely


Tracking the first editions

And so to the present day. Or rather to 1970, when Gingerich embarked on his quest to track down all remaining copies of the first edition -- a literary detective story not without its lighter moments.

For instance, Gingerich found that Trinity College Cambridge possessed not one but three first edition copies of De revolutionibus. Did they really need three? you might ask. Apparently, Trinity College wondered the same thing at one time. Deciding that two copies easily met their needs, they contemplated selling off one copy at auction. But someone had the good sense to imagine how it would look to the rest of the world if England's oldest and most wealthy college, the home of Sir Isaac Newton, no less, were to sully its hands selling off such a valuable piece of scientific history. And so Trinity College continues to own three first edition copies.

Another two copies that Gingerich traced were owned by Eton College in England, though quite why an elite, private preparatory school should want even one copy of such a work is not clear, unless the school authorities at the time felt that the future ruling class of His Majesty's kingdom would somehow benefit from breathing in air infused by the vapors from such a revered masterpiece.

On one occasion, Gingerich recounts, he heard of a second-edition copy held, rather improbably, by a library in Liverpool, a predominantly poor, working class, industrial port in the north of England. He wrote to the library asking for details. The librarian obliged, adding: "I suppose it is the second edition you are particularly interested in for we do have two copies of the first!"

Another first edition turned up at the Victoria and Albert Museum on London, which had acquired it purely as an example of decorative art! At some time in its life, the volume in question had been given a highly decorative cover, modeled after a Grolier binding.

Some of the copies Gingerich located had suffered damage of one kind or another, water, damp, and, in not a few cases, being nibbled away by mice to make a nest. But many first-edition copies still exist, in excellent condition. Thus, the recent rash of thefts is unlikely to put this important historical document beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen. Still, as someone who sees scientific knowledge as being common property, it does strike me as a little obscene that a few individuals seek private and exclusive ownership of a scientific work that its creator published to make it available for all mankind.

Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month.
Keith Devlin ( is Dean of Science at Saint Mary's College of California, in Moraga, California, and a Senior Researcher at Stanford University. His latest book InfoSense: Turning Information Into Knowledge, which shows how a mathematical approach to information can help us to understand information flow and manage it more efficiently, was published by W. H. Freeman last August.