the revolutions that didn't happen

on the importance of sharing your thoughts

The Copernican Revolution changed the reality in which we lived. It took us from "We know the Earth stands still at the centre of the Universe" to "No it does not, instead it's just one of the many planets revolving around the Sun."

The revolution started with a book called On the Revolutions by a Polish polymath Nicholas Copernicus. However, it did not mark its end. Copernicus's system had multiple shortcomings that would have to be rectified by later astronomers.

With integral discoveries from Galileo, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the work that would finally bring an end to this journey of mapping the planets and their movements was the Principia, by Sir Isaac Newton.

I am not going to dwell much upon the contents of these books or the impact they have had on our advancement, because much has already been written about that. Some of which is even comprehensible for the layman.

Instead, I will be talking about how both these books were almost never published and the importance of putting your ideas out in the public sphere, even if they sound ridiculous.

Especially if they sound ridiculous.


The man who moved the Sun

Copernicus had mostly completed his seminal work on heliocentricity (the astronomical model in which the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun at the center of the Solar System) by the year 1532 but was not too keen on publishing it despite encouragement from friends.

One reason for that being the probable repercussions that his book would cause from the Vatican. Being a distinguished priest himself, Copernicus knew the Church's views on the Earth's position at the centre of the universe, and how tenaciously it held to that view. By proposing his theory, Copernicus was questioning the word of God.

Though by some accounts, a backlash from the Church was least of his worries. He was more concerned about the astronomical observations and mathematical proofs required to give weight to his ideas.

As a researcher of Copernicus' De revolutionibus Owen Gingerich points out:

[Copernicus] was far from the major international centers of printing that could profitably handle a book as large and technical as De revolutionibus. On the other [hand], his manuscript was still full of numerical inconsistencies, and he knew very well that he had not taken complete advantage of the opportunities that the heliocentric viewpoint offered…Furthermore, Copernicus was far from academic centers, thereby lacking the stimulation of technically trained colleagues with whom he could discuss his work.

Copernicus eventually changed his mind towards the end of his life and On the Revolutions was published in 1543. Copernicus was fortunate enough to first see a copy of his work on the day he died, thanks to his apprentice Georg Joachim Rheticus.

Rheticus had been studying under the guidance of Copernicus for two years when he released a book outlining Copernicus' theory in 1542. The book received a favourable reception from Rheticus' close friends which motivated him to push Copernicus to publish his complete works.

Rheticus utilized his previously forged social connections and strategically cultivated new ones just to bring the book to publication. Without Rheticus' pressure and resourcefulness, Copernicus would have probably taken this consequential knowledge with him to the grave.

In the next few decades, inspired by Copernicus' works and their own observations, many astronomers came together to solve this puzzle of planetary movement. Galileo made a telescope that had enough magnification to study other planets and the Moon. While Kepler discovered that the planets revolved around the Sun in elliptical orbits, rather than in circles. But as to why the orbits should be circles rather than ellipses, he had no idea. Could there be some simple mathematical law to describe this? 


Enter Sir Isaac

This final piece of the puzzle was put in place by Isaac Newton. But in a clear case of 'great minds think alike', he had no interest in publishing his work whatsoever.

One day in August 1684, Edmond Halley asked Newton about the kind of curve that a planet would follow in its orbit around the Sun. Newton immediately replied "Ellipse!", and that he had already done the calculations some five years ago.

Two months later Newton sent Halley a nine-page manuscript going through the calculations. The nine pages that would eventually give birth to modern science.

Excited and dumbfounded, Halley raced back to Cambridge where Newton lived as a recluse. He pleaded Newton to collate all his work into a book and as a fellow of the Royal Society, assured the Society's support in getting the book published.

To Halley's misfortune, the society told that they had already spent almost their entire annual budget on a book about fishes named Historia Piscium, or History of Fishes. The Society was so cash-strapped, that they had to pay even Halley's salary with this poor-selling book. The Royal Society could not fulfill the promise to finance Newton's groundbreaking book.

It was time for Halley to take things in his own hands. Halley not only edited the book for Newton but even paid for the publishing from his pocket. Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica was finally published on July 5th, 1687.

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Without Edmond Halley, probably the most important book in the history of science would have never been written or published.

Newton's Principia closed the chapter of one revolution and opened the doors for a thousands more. Doors that would have remained invisible for who knows how many more decades if Halley wouldn't have pushed Newton and taken significant troubles to see through that the book is published.


This story always makes me wonder about random luck, serendipity, self-doubt and confidence. How different would the world be today if Rheticus never met Copernicus or Halley Newton? What could be the opportunity cost for us humans for missing out on similar revolutionary discoveries that never saw the daylight? How many Newtons do we not know about for they went to their graves without ever sharing their wisdom? Only if they had a Halley or Rheticus for themselves.

I love this tweet from @Kpaxs here:

Lucky are those who can consistently come up with ideas that sound crazy to everyone. Though only a tiny number of them would be game-changing, there is only one way to know which ones — share them with the world.

If you are reading this, you have all the logistical luxuries that people in the sixteenth century could never imagine. Copernicus' pain point was being far from the centers of printing, today they are right in your pocket. It took nearly seventy years before On The Revolutions gained some momentum and captured eyeballs, while today not only you can push your thoughts to thousands within seconds but even discuss them with other smart like-minded people without ever meeting them in person. 

Internet is the biggest advantage we have over the prior generations, and I believe that we are still in it’s early days. 

Those who know Edmond Halley today, probably know him for calculating the orbit of a comet that was later named after him, Halley's Comet. But I would argue that making sure that Newton's Principia sees the light of the day was an equally important contribution to humanity, if not more.

So though I would highly doubt it, but if you think you do not have any worthwhile ideas to share of your own, be someone else's Halley. Make sure that that friend of yours with bubbling curiosity does not take her observations to the grave. 

It wasn't until 1992 that the Church agreed that Galileo was right. The same Church which put him under house arrest until his death some 350 years ago. So never give up on your craft, and keep sharing it. It might shake the world, or it might go unnoticed. So what?

And as Cicero once said:

The only life worth living was one dedicated in substantial part to good outcomes one cannot possibly survive to see.


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I also wrote this short Twitter thread on Isaac Newton sometime back which you might enjoy. And while you’re there, feel free to say Hi @yawyr_vk!