Thanks to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, among other things, the Renaissance period is perhaps best known for its art and culture. But science went through a real Renaissance during the Renaissance as well. Astronomy, in particular, was a field that saw a number of significant discoveries.
As everyone knows, astronomy in the pre-Renaissance Middle Ages was based on Ptolemy’s geocentric model (i.e., Earth is the center of the universe). It is highly unlikely, however, that many astronomers of the Middle Ages had actually read Ptolemy’s writings. Derivations of Ptolemy’s work were more common points of reference, including a series of textbooks known collectively as the Theorica Planetarum—roughly translated, “Planetary Theory”.
To predict planetary motion across the heavens, Renaissance astronomers utilized the Alfonsine Tables. These tables were based on models presented in Ptolemy’s Almagest, but incorporated a number of modifications developed by later stargazers.
Round about 1450 CE, Austrian astronomer Georg “Gorgeous George” von Peuerbach took up a lecturer’s position at the University of Vienna, in the heart of the land of tiny sausages. A student of Peuerbach’s with the name of a dinosaur discovered in Montana, Regiomontanus, collected lecture notes and published them as the Theoricae Novae Planetarum in the 1470s. This “New Planetary Theory” then became the go-to textbook for advanced astronomy.
In 1496, the Epitome of the Almagest, a work begun by Peuerbach and completed by Regiomontanus after his mentor’s death, was published. A summary of, commentary on, and companion piece to Ptolemy’s earlier work, its publication gave many scientists across Europe their first exposure the latest advances in Ptolemaic astronomy.
Copernicus Drops the Mic
Nicolas “Big Nick” Copernicus was the first of the New Wave of Renaissance Astronomers, taught with the Theoricae Novae Planetarum, to sign with a major label. In the early 1510s, Copernicus began to research a wild new theory—that the Earth revolves around the Sun!
For the rest of his days, Big Nick attempted to prove heliocentrism via a mathematical proof. His magnum opus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (or “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”), was finally published in 1543 as he was literally on his deathbed. Though the book proved that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of our solar system, Copernicus’ work is not as revolutionary as it is often deemed. The latter scientist’s writing is really more of an extension of the latter’s, as Copernicus follows Ptolemy’s methods and order of presentation to deduce a logical extension of and conclusion to the Almagest.