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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index C > Nicolaus Copernicus Quotes

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Nicolaus Copernicus
(19 Feb 1473 - 24 May 1543)

Polish astronomer.


Science Quotes by Nicolaus Copernicus (13 quotes)

After I had addressed myself to this very difficult and almost insoluble problem, the suggestion at length came to me how it could be solved with fewer and much simpler constructions than were formally used, if some assumptions (which are called axioms) were granted me. They follow in this order.
There is no one center of all the celestial circles or spheres.
The center of the earth is not the center of the universe, but only of gravity and of the lunar sphere.
All the spheres revolve about the sun as their mid-point, and therefore the sun is the center of the universe.
The ratio of the earth's distance from the sun to the height of the firmament is so much smaller than the ratio of the earth's radius to its distance from the sun that the distance from the earth to the sun is imperceptible in comparison with the height of the firmament.
Whatever motion appears in the firmament arises not from any motion of the firmament, but from the earth's motion. The earth together with its circumjacent elements performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, while the firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.
What appears to us as motions of the sun arise not from its motion but from the motion of the earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the sun like any other planet. The earth has, then, more than one motion.
The apparent retrograde and direct motion of the planets arises not from their motion but from the earth's. The motion of the earth alone, therefore, suffices to explain so many apparent inequalities in the heavens.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'The Commentariolus', in Three Copernican Treatises (c.1510), trans. E. Rosen (1939), 58-9.
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Among the authorities it is generally agreed that the Earth is at rest in the middle of the universe, and they regard it as inconceivable and even ridiculous to hold the opposite opinion. However, if we consider it more closely the question will be seen to be still unsettled, and so decidedly not to be despised. For every apparent change in respect of position is due to motion of the object observed, or of the observer, or indeed to an unequal change of both.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'Book One. Chapter V. Whether Circular Motion is Proper to the Earth, and of its Place', in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A. M. Duncan (1976), 40.
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I can well appreciate, Holy Father, that as soon as certain people realise that in these books which I have written about the Revolutions of the spheres of the universe I attribute certain motions to the globe of the Earth, they will at once clamour for me to be hooted off the stage with such an opinion.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'To His Holiness Pope Paul III', in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A.M. Duncan (1976), 23.
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I have no doubt that certain learned men, now that the novelty of the hypotheses in this work has been widely reported—for it establishes that the Earth moves, and indeed that the Sun is motionless in the middle of the universe—are extremely shocked, and think that the scholarly disciplines, rightly established once and for all, should not be upset. But if they are willing to judge the matter thoroughly, they will find that the author of this work has committed nothing which deserves censure. For it is proper for an astronomer to establish a record of the motions of the heavens with diligent and skilful observations, and then to think out and construct laws for them, or rather hypotheses, whatever their nature may be, since the true laws cannot be reached by the use of reason; and from those assumptions the motions can be correctly calculated, both for the future and for the past. Our author has shown himself outstandingly skilful in both these respects. Nor is it necessary that these hypotheses should be true, nor indeed even probable, but it is sufficient if they merely produce calculations which agree with the observations... For it is clear enough that this subject is completely and simply ignorant of the laws which produce apparently irregular motions. And if it does work out any laws—as certainly it does work out very many—it does not do so in any way with the aim of persuading anyone that they are valid, but only to provide a correct basis for calculation. Since different hypotheses are sometimes available to explain one and the same motion (for instance eccentricity or an epicycle for the motion of the Sun) an astronomer will prefer to seize on the one which is easiest to grasp; a philosopher will perhaps look more for probability; but neither will grasp or convey anything certain, unless it has been divinely revealed to him. Let us therefore allow these new hypotheses also to become known beside the older, which are no more probable, especially since they are remarkable and easy; and let them bring with them the vast treasury of highly learned observations. And let no one expect from astronomy, as far as hypotheses are concerned, anything certain, since it cannot produce any such thing, in case if he seizes on things constructed for another other purpose as true, he departs from this discipline more foolish than he came to it.
Assumed by contemporary readers to be written by Copernicus himself, this preface suggested the earth's motion was merely a mathematical device and not to be taken seriously.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'To the Reader on the Hypotheses In this Work', Unsigned preface by Andreas Osiander to Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A. M. Duncan (1976), 22-3.
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I myself consider that gravity is merely a certain natural inclination with which parts are imbued by the architect of all things for gathering themselves together into a unity and completeness by assembling into the form of a globe. It is easy to believe that the Sun, Moon and other luminaries among the wandering stars have this tendency also, so that by its agency they retain the rounded shape in which they reveal themselves, but nevertheless go round their orbits in various ways. If then the Earth also performs other motions, as for example the one about the centre, they must necessarily be like those which are similarly apparent in many external bodies in which we find an annual orbit.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'Book One. Chapter IX. Whether several motions can be attributed to the Earth, and on the centre of the universe', in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A. M. Duncan (1976), 46.
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I therefore took this opportunity and also began to consider the possibility that the Earth moved. Although it seemed an absurd opinion, nevertheless, because I knew that others before me had been granted the liberty of imagining whatever circles they wished to represent the phenomena of the stars, I thought that I likewise would readily be allowed to test whether, by assuming some motion of the Earth's, more dependable representations than theirs could be found for the revolutions of the heavenly spheres.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'To His Holiness Pope Paul III', in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A. M. Duncan (1976), 26.
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In the first book I shall describe all the positions of the spheres, along with the motions which I attribute to the Earth, so that the book will contain as it were the general structure of the universe. In the remaining books I relate the motions of the remaining stars, and all the spheres, to the mobility of the Earth, so that it can be thence established how far the motions and appearances of the remaining stars and spheres can be saved, if they are referred to the motions of the Earth.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'To His Holiness Pope Paul III', in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans, A. M. Duncan (1976), 26.
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Mathematics is written for mathematicians.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'To His Holiness Pope Paul III, in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A. M. Duncan (1976), 27.
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Since, then, there is no objection to the mobility of the Earth, I think it must now be considered whether several motions are appropriate for it, so that it can be regarded as one of the wandering stars. For the fact that it is not the centre of all revolutions is made clear by the apparent irregular motion of the wandering stars, and their variable distances from the Earth, which cannot be understood in a circle having the same centre as the Earth.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'Book One. Chapter IX. Whether several motions can be attributed to the Earth, and on the centre of the universe', in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A. M. Duncan (1976), 46.
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The two revolutions, I mean the annual revolutions of the declination and of the centre of the Earth, are not completely equal; that is the return of the declination to its original value is slightly ahead of the period of the centre. Hence it necessarily follows that the equinoxes and solstices seem to anticipate their timing, not because the sphere of the fixed stars moves to the east, but rather the equatorial circle moves to the west, being at an angle to the plane of the ecliptic in proportion to the declination of the axis of the terrestrial globe.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'Book Three. Chapter I. The Precession of the equinoxes and solstices', in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A. M. Duncan (1976), 141.
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Then if the first argument remains secure (for nobody will produce a neater one, than the length of the periodic time is a measure of the size of the spheres), the order of the orbits follows this sequence, beginning from the highest: The first and highest of all is the sphere of the fixed stars, which contains itself and all things, and is therefore motionless. It is the location of the universe, to which the motion and position of all the remaining stars is referred. For though some consider that it also changes in some respect, we shall assign another cause for its appearing to do so in our deduction of the Earth's motion. There follows Saturn, the first of the wandering stars, which completes its circuit in thirty years. After it comes Jupiter which moves in a twelve-year long revolution. Next is Mars, which goes round biennially. An annual revolution holds the fourth place, in which as we have said is contained the Earth along with the lunar sphere which is like an epicycle. In fifth place Venus returns every nine months. Lastly, Mercury holds the sixth place, making a circuit in the space of eighty days. In the middle of all is the seat of the Sun. For who in this most beautiful of temples would put this lamp in any other or better place than the one from which it can illuminate everything at the same time? Aptly indeed is he named by some the lantern of the universe, by others the mind, by others the ruler. Trismegistus called him the visible God, Sophocles' Electra, the watcher over all things. Thus indeed the Sun as if seated on a royal throne governs his household of Stars as they circle around him. Earth also is by no means cheated of the Moon's attendance, but as Aristotle says in his book On Animals the Moon has the closest affinity with the Earth. Meanwhile the Earth conceives from the Sun, and is made pregnant with annual offspring. We find, then, in this arrangement the marvellous symmetry of the universe, and a sure linking together in harmony of the motion and size of the spheres, such as could be perceived in no other way. For here one may understand, by attentive observation, why Jupiter appears to have a larger progression and retrogression than Saturn, and smaller than Mars, and again why Venus has larger ones than Mercury; why such a doubling back appears more frequently in Saturn than in Jupiter, and still more rarely in Mars and Venus than in Mercury; and furthermore why Saturn, Jupiter and Mars are nearer to the Earth when in opposition than in the region of their occultation by the Sun and re-appearance. Indeed Mars in particular at the time when it is visible throughout the night seems to equal Jupiter in size, though marked out by its reddish colour; yet it is scarcely distinguishable among stars of the second magnitude, though recognized by those who track it with careful attention. All these phenomena proceed from the same course, which lies in the motion of the Earth. But the fact that none of these phenomena appears in the fixed stars shows their immense elevation, which makes even the circle of their annual motion, or apparent motion, vanish from our eyes.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'Book One. Chapter X. The Order of the Heavenly Spheres', in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A. M. Duncan (1976), 49-51.
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Therefore on long pondering this uncertainty of mathematical traditions on the deduction of the motions of the system of the spheres, I began to feel disgusted that no more certain theory of the motions of the mechanisms of the universe, which has been established for us by the best and most systematic craftsman of all, was agreed by the philosophers, who otherwise theorised so minutely with most careful attention to the details of this system. I therefore set myself the task of reading again the books of all philosophers which were available to me, to search out whether anyone had ever believed that the motions of the spheres of the, universe were other than was supposed by those who professed mathematics in the schools.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'To His Holiness Pope Paul III', in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A. M. Duncan (1976), 25.
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Those who knew that the judgements of many centuries had reinforced the opinion that the Earth is placed motionless in the middle of heaven, as though at its centre, if I on the contrary asserted that the Earth moves, I hesitated for a long time whether to bring my treatise, written to demonstrate its motion, into the light of day, or whether it would not be better to follow the example of the Pythagoreans and certain others, who used to pass on the mysteries of their philosophy merely to their relatives and friends, not in writing but by personal contact, as the letter of Lysis to Hipparchus bears witness. And indeed they seem to me to have done so, not as some think from a certain jealousy of communicating their doctrines, but so that their greatest splendours, discovered by the devoted research of great men, should not be exposed to the contempt of those who either find it irksome to waste effort on anything learned, unless it is profitable, or if they are stirred by the exhortations and examples of others to a high-minded enthusiasm for philosophy, are nevertheless so dull-witted that among philosophers they are like drones among bees.
— Nicolaus Copernicus
'To His Holiness Pope Paul III', in Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), trans. A. M. Duncan (1976), 24.
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Quotes by others about Nicolaus Copernicus (17)

Copernicus, who rightly did condemn
This eldest systeme, form'd a wiser scheme;
In which he leaves the Sun at Rest, and rolls
The Orb Terrestial on its proper Poles;
Which makes the Night and Day by this Career,
And by its slow and crooked Course the Year.
The famous Dane, who oft the Modern guides,
To Earth and Sun their Provinces divides:
The Earth's Rotation makes the Night and Day,
The Sun revolving through th'Eccliptic Way
Effects the various seasons of the Year,
Which in their Turn for happy Ends appear.
This Scheme or that, which pleases best, embrace,
Still we the Fountain of their Motion trace.
Kepler asserts these Wonders may be done
By the Magnetic Vertue of the Sun,
Which he, to gain his End, thinks fit to place
Full in the Center of that mighty Space,
Which does the Spheres, where Planets roll, include,
And leaves him with Attractive Force endu'd.
The Sun, thus seated, by Mechanic Laws,
The Earth, and every distant Planet draws;
By which Attraction all the Planets found
Within his reach, are turn'd in Ether round.
Creation: A Philosopical Poem in Seven Books (1712), book 2, l. 430-53, p.78-9.
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It was not just the Church that resisted the heliocentrism of Copernicus. Many prominent figures, in the decades following the 1543 publication of De Revolutionibus, regarded the Copernican model of the universe as a mathematical artifice which, though it yielded astronomical predictions of superior accuracy, could not be considered a true representation of physical reality: 'If Nicolaus Copernicus, the distinguished and incomparable master, in this work had not been deprived of exquisite and faultless instruments, he would have left us this science far more well-established. For he, if anybody, was outstanding and had the most perfect understanding of the geometrical and arithmetical requisites for building up this discipline. Nor was he in any respect inferior to Ptolemy; on the contrary, he surpassed him greatly in certain fields, particularly as far as the device of fitness and compendious harmony in hypotheses is concerned. And his apparently absurd opinion that the Earth revolves does not obstruct this estimate, because a circular motion designed to go on uniformly about another point than the very center of the circle, as actually found in the Ptolemaic hypotheses of all the planets except that of the Sun, offends against the very basic principles of our discipline in a far more absurd and intolerable way than does the attributing to the Earth one motion or another which, being a natural motion, turns out to be imperceptible. There does not at all arise from this assumption so many unsuitable consequences as most people think.'
from Letter to Christopher Rothman, 20 Jan 1587
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I accepted the Copernican position several years ago and discovered from thence the causes of many natural effects which are doubtless inexplicable by the current theories. I have written up many reasons and refutations on the subject, but I have not dared until now to bring them into the open, being warned by the fortunes of Copernicus himself, our master, who procured for himself immortal fame among a few but stepped down among the great crowd (for this is how foolish people are to be numbered), only to be derided and dishonoured. I would dare publish my thoughts if there were many like you; but since there are not, I shall forbear.
Letter to Johannes Kepler, 4 Aug 1597. Quoted in G. de Santillana, Crime of Galileo (1955), 11.
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It is a vulgar belief that our astronomical knowledge dates only from the recent century when it was rescued from the monks who imprisoned Galileo; but Hipparchus … who among other achievements discovered the precession of the eqinoxes, ranks with the Newtons and the Keplers; and Copernicus, the modern father of our celestial science, avows himself, in his famous work, as only the champion of Pythagoras, whose system he enforces and illustrates. Even the most modish schemes of the day on the origin of things, which captivate as much by their novelty as their truth, may find their precursors in ancient sages, and after a careful analysis of the blended elements of imagination and induction which charaterise the new theories, they will be found mainly to rest on the atom of Epicurus and the monad of Thales. Scientific, like spiritual truth, has ever from the beginning been descending from heaven to man.
Lothair (1879), preface, xvii.
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The Christians who engaged in infamous persecutions and shameful inquisitions were not evil men but misguided men. The churchmen who felt they had an edict from God to withstand the progress of science, whether in the form of a Copernican revolution or a Darwinian theory of natural selection, were not mischievous men but misinformed men. And so Christ's words from the cross are written in sharp-edged terms across some of the most inexpressible tragedies of history: 'They know not what they do'.
'Love in Action', Strength To Love (1963, 1981), 43.
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After the birth of printing books became widespread. Hence everyone throughout Europe devoted himself to the study of literature... Every year, especially since 1563, the number of writings published in every field is greater than all those produced in the past thousand years. Through them there has today been created a new theology and a new jurisprudence; the Paracelsians have created medicine anew and the Copernicans have created astronomy anew. I really believe that at last the world is alive, indeed seething, and that the stimuli of these remarkable conjunctions did not act in vain.
De Stella Nova, On the New Star (1606), Johannes Kepler Gesammelte Werke (1937- ), Vol. 1, 330-2. Quoted in N. Jardine, The Birth of History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler's A Defence of Tycho Against Ursus With Essays on its Provenance and Significance (1984), 277-8.
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Yet in this my stars were not Mercury as morning star in the angle of the seventh house, in quartile with Mars, but they were Copernicus, they were Tycho Brahe, without whose books of observations everything which has now been brought by me into the brightest daylight would lie buried in darkness.
Harmonice Mundi, The Harmony of the World (1619), book IV, Epilogue on Sublunary Nature. Trans. E. J. Aiton, A. M. Duncan and J. V. Field (1997), 377.
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Scientific development depends in part on a process of non-incremental or revolutionary change. Some revolutions are large, like those associated with the names of Copernicus, Newton, or Darwin, but most are much smaller, like the discovery of oxygen or the planet Uranus. The usual prelude to changes of this sort is, I believed, the awareness of anomaly, of an occurrence or set of occurrences that does not fit existing ways of ordering phenomena. The changes that result therefore require 'putting on a different kind of thinking-cap', one that renders the anomalous lawlike but that, in the process, also transforms the order exhibited by some other phenomena, previously unproblematic.
The Essential Tension (1977), xvii.
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It reveals to me the causes of many natural phenomena that are entirely incomprehensible in the light of the generally accepted hypotheses. To refute the latter I collected many proofs, but I do not publish them ... I would dare to publish my speculations if there were people men like you.
[Declaring his belief in the heliocentric theory of Copernicus.]
Letter to Kepler (1596). Quoted in Will Durant, Ariel Duran, The Age of Reason Begins (1961), 603. From Hermann Kesten, Copernicus and His World, translated by E.B. Ashton (pseud.) and Norbert Guterman (1945), 348-349.
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History of science is a relay race, my painter friend. Copernicus took over his flag from Aristarchus, from Cicero, from Plutarch; and Galileo took that flag over from Copernicus.
From the play Galileo Galilei (2001) .
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Since Copernicus, man seems to have got himself on an inclined plane—now he is slipping faster and faster away from the center into—what? into nothingness? into a 'penetrating sense of his nothingness?' ... all science, natural as well as unnatural—which is what I call the self-critique of knowledge—has at present the object of dissuading man from his former respect for himself, as if this had been but a piece of bizarre conceit.
On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (1969), 155-6.
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Modern neurosis began with the discoveries of Copernicus. Science made men feel small by showing him that the earth was not the center of the universe.
'Tyranny of the Orgasm', On The Contrary (1961).
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No one can read the history of astronomy without perceiving that Copernicus, Newton, Laplace, are not new men, or a new kind of men, but that Thales, Anaximenes, Hipparchus, Empodocles, Aristorchus, Pythagorus, Oenipodes, had anticipated them.
In The Conduct of Life (1904), 18.
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Copernicus, the most learned man whom we are able to name other than Atlas and Ptolemy, even though he taught in a most learned manner the demonstrations and causes of motion based on observation, nevertheless fled from the job of constructing tables, so that if anyone computes from his tables, the computation is not even in agreement with his observations on which the foundation of the work rests. Therefore first I have compared the observations of Copernicus with those of Ptolemy and others as to which are the most accurate, but besides the bare observations, I have taken from Copernicus nothing other than traces of demonstrations. As for the tables of mean motion, and of prosthaphaereses and all the rest, I have constructed these anew, following absolutely no other reasoning than that which I have judged to be of maximum harmony.
Dedication to the Duke of Prussia, Prutenicae Tabulae (1551), 1585 edition, as quoted in Owen Gingerich, The Eye of Heaven: Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler (1993), 227.
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It is in the name of Moses that Bellarmin thunderstrikes Galileo; and this great vulgarizer of the great seeker Copernicus, Galileo, the old man of truth, the magian of the heavens, was reduced to repeating on his knees word for word after the inquisitor this formula of shame: “Corde sincera et fide non ficta abjuro maledico et detestor supradictos errores et hereses.” Falsehood put an ass's hood on science.
[With a sincere heart, and of faith unfeigned, I deny by oath, condemn and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies.]
In Victor Hugo and Lorenzo O'Rourke (trans.) Victor Hugo's Intellectual Autobiography: (Postscriptum de ma vie) (1907), 313.
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Modern theories did not arise from revolutionary ideas which have been, so to speak, introduced into the exact sciences from without. On the contrary they have forced their way into research which was attempting consistently to carry out the programme of classical physics—they arise out of its very nature. It is for this reason that the beginnings of modern physics cannot be compared with the great upheavals of previous periods like the achievements of Copernicus. Copernicus’s idea was much more an import from outside into the concepts of the science of his time, and therefore caused far more telling changes in science than the ideas of modern physics are creating to-day.
In Philosophical Problems of Nuclear Science: Eight Lectures (1952), 13.
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The full impact of the Lobatchewskian method of challenging axioms has probably yet to be felt. It is no exaggeration to call Lobatchewsky the Copernicus of Geometry [as did Clifford], for geometry is only a part of the vaster domain which he renovated; it might even be just to designate him as a Copernicus of all thought.
From a page of quotations, without citations, in G.E. Martin The Foundations of Geometry and the Non-Euclidean Plane (1975), 225. If you know the primary source, please contact Webmaster.
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See also:
  • todayinsci icon 19 Feb - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Copernicus's birth.
  • book icon The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus, by Owen Gingerich. - book suggestion.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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- 100 -
Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
John Keynes
Carl Gauss
Paul Feyerabend
- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Euclid
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
John Locke
Bronislaw Malinowski
Bible
Thomas Huxley
Alessandro Volta
Erwin Schrodinger
Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
Jean Lamarck
- 70 -
Samuel Morse
John Wheeler
Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
Avicenna
James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
Gustave Eiffel
Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
Archimedes
David Hume
- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
Rudolf Virchow
Richard Feynman
James Hutton
Alexander Fleming
Emile Durkheim
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Hooke
Charles Kettering
- 20 -
Carl Sagan
James Maxwell
Marie Curie
Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Hippocrates
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
Aristotle
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton