The pink triangle is an established symbol for a gay man. There can be no more appropriate symbol for the subject of today’s article, because the triangle was also fundamental to this man’s place in the history of science and mathematics. But most significantly, this man was responsible for letting the world know that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system. No, I’m not referring to Nicolas Copernicus, but the only man who thought Copernicus’s work was important enough to be published – Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514-1574).
A heliocentric solar
system wasn’t a new idea when Copernicus came up with his theory, and parts of
his theory didn’t go as far as others (he believed that the Sun was the centre
of the universe and that the stars and planets were fixed onto invisible
crystal spheres). He didn’t publish his findings, however, but distributed
outlines of his theories to some friends. The earliest reference to one of
these manuscripts comes in 1514, ironically the year Rheticus was born, and he
was to be so instrumental in getting Copernicus’s theory published, again
ironically, in the year Copernicus died.
Georg Joachim Rheticus was
born into a wealthy family in what is now Austria. He was legally stripped of
his real family name after the execution (for fraud and sorcery) of his father.
Georg used his mother’s maiden name for a while, and when he began studying at
Wittgenburg University he adopted a surname which referred to the region of his
birth, the old Roman province of Rhaetia.
In 1536 Rheticus was
appointed professor of lower mathematics, arithmetic and geometry at
Wittenburg. Two years later he took a couple of years leave to travel around
Europe studying and networking with other mathematicians and astronomers. This
is what brought Copernicus to his attention and he went to study under him in
It was 25 years since
Copernicus let a few select people know about his heliocentric theory. He was
still working on it and was writing a full treatise, but he wasn’t that eager
to publish it. Rheticus, however, immediately recognised the scientific value
of his work and published a summary in 1540, a kind of “Beginner’s Guide”. This
was well-received and fired Rheticus’s enthusiasm to see Copernicus complete
his work and have it published in full. First, however, Copernicus agreed only
to publish one section, that on the subject of trigonometry.
Trigonometry was one of
Rheticus’s specialist areas. I’ve never been good with numbers, and at school
hated trigonometry and all its sines and cosines, etc. All of this was due to
Rheticus (the sines and cosines, that is, not my hatred of trigonometry). He
produced innovative tables which he published in this one section of
Copernicus’s treatise, in 1542. The tables were instrumental in the development
of trigonometric maths and were still in use well into the 20th
But it wasn’t enough for
Rheticus, because he wanted to publish the whole of Copernicus’s treatise.
Finally, in 1543, Copernicus relented and passed the whole manuscript to
Rheticus for printing. There’s some underhand tactics shortly afterwards when
Rheticus had to take up a professorship in Leipzig. He handed the supervision
of publication to a creep called Andreas Osiander, who wrote an introduction
declaring Copernicus’s theory was just that – theory, not fact. Unfortunately
it was too late for Copernicus, who received a copy of the newly published book
just before he died.
The later controversies
surrounding Copernicus’s book and heliocentric theory don’t concern us here,
but the later controversy surrounding Rheticus does.
After travelling around
Europe again Rheticus returned to teach in Leipzig. In 1551 one of his students
was the son of a local merchant. In April this merchant accused Rheticus of
getting his son drunk and having sex with him. Since there are no records of
Rheticus having any romantic involvement with women, or that he married, we
suppose that his sexual interests were homosexual.
Rheticus left Leipzig
hurriedly to avoid arrest and trial and finally settled in Krakow. He was tried
in his absence in Leipzig and found guilty and sentenced to 101 years exile
from the city.
In Krakow he also
continued his trigonometric studies and published more tables. The Emperor
Maximilian II paid him to teach 6 research assistants, so that he did not
eventually die in poverty like so many contemporaries accused and convicted of
We have no better
authority than Edward Rosen (1906-1985), the world’s leading expert on
Copernicus, who once stated, “Is it going too far to claim that without
Rheticus, no Copernicus…?” Rosen, never one to mince his words, gained a
reputation as someone who would point out (quite often with strong criticism)
errors published by fellow scientists, who then corrected them in later
publications. So it must have been with a degree of certainty that Rosen, and
therefore us, should recognise Rheticus’s significant contribution to the way
we see the universe. Copernicus could easily have died without having his
heliocentric theory published, and it is Rheticus we have to thank for
persuading him do so. This, together with his trigonometric work, truly makes
Georg Joachim Rheticus the “Pink Triangle who Pointed to the Centre of the