Sunday, 10 May 2015

Stargayzing : The Pink Triangle that Pointed to the Centre of the Solar System

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 1539.

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 century.

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 sodomy.

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 Solar System”.

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