Teaching the Revolution.

Anthony Millevolte is professor for chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Colleges where he also teaches the history of science courses. When he was teaching an introductory course on the so-called Copernican or Astronomical Revolution he realised that there was no suitable modern textbook available for such a course so he decided to write one: The Copernican Revolution: Putting the Earth into Motion.[1] His resolve to do so was strengthened when he realised that some people wee still teaching such courses using Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution from 1957. He writes, “As well written as it is, the obviously unavoidable weakness of Kuhn’s text is that it doesn’t reflect over a half century of active scholarship in this field”[2]. Being somewhat less diplomatic than Millevolte I would add that Kuhn’s book was flawed in some aspects in 1957 and those flaws haven’t improved in the almost sixty years since.


Millevolte’s book is exactly what he set out to write an introductory textbook for college students on the developments in European astronomy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries centred on the period between Copernicus and Galileo. Having above referred to the so-called Copernican Revolution I should point out that Millevolte doesn’t believe in a revolution either, as he explains in the final chapter of the book, An Epilogue, but uses the term in his title because it “reflects a long-standing historical convention – not because it accurately summarizes a series of events that unfolded over many centuries”[3].

The first three chapters could be summarized as setting the scene, giving a quick survey of European astronomy prior to the Renaissance. Consisting of only eight-two pages they don’t offer much depth but however cover all of the salient points clearly and accurately. All the chapters of the book have excellent endnotes and these contain references to the extensive bibliography helping any reader who wishes to pursue any given topic further.

The fourth chapter is devoted to Renaissance astronomy and Copernicus and contains one of the few minor criticisms that I have of the book. In his biographical sketch of Copernicus Millevolte makes some errors only significant to a pedant like me, which however could profitably corrected in a second edition. Otherwise this like all the other chapters in the book is clearly presented and the history of science is as far as it goes correct.

In his introduction Millevolte says that in the process of writing he realised why nobody had written such an up to date textbook. He writes, “It turns out that the experts disagree on a good many of the central elements of the story – so much so that it is sometimes challenging to identify an acceptable narrative”[4]. On this point I agree with him so one should bear this in mind when considering any criticism that I might make here. Despite this problem throughout the book Millevolte had managed to produce a clear, coherent narrative suitable for beginners. On those points that are contentious he includes clearly written, extensive endnotes, which list alternative viewpoints, thus managing very successfully to have his cake and eat it, too.

Having set the astronomical revolution in motion Millevolte produces one chapter each on Tycho Brahe and Kepler and three on Galileo. Here I would complain that the balance is false as Kepler contributed far more to the astronomical revolution than Galileo. However the traditional narrative always favours Galileo over Kepler and as this is a college textbook Millevolte stays within the tradition. He does however redress the balance somewhat in the final chapter where he attributes equal weight to Kepler and Galileo in establishing heliocentricity. I still think this gives too much credit to Galileo but it is it is better than the standard mythology that gives almost all the credit to Galileo and almost none to Kepler.

In his chapters on Galileo Millevolte also tend to emphasise positive aspects of Galileo’s activities oft by simply omitting the negative. For example whilst discussing the dispute between Galileo and Orazio Grassi concerning comets, that led to Galileo writing Il Saggiatore, whilst conceding that Galileo’s attacks on Grassi were, to say the least, immoderate Millevolte neglects to mention that on the question of whether the comets were sub- or supralunar Grassi was in the right and Galileo very much in the wrong.

The same subject turns up in the discussion of the third day in the Dialogo, which is devoted amongst other things to the novas and that they were supralunar. Millevolte claims that Galileo devoted space to this theme because “there remained many Aristotelians who refused to believe the novas were located beyond the sphere of the moon”[5]. This may well have been but the Jesuit, who were without doubt the leading geocentric astronomers, had already accepted the supralunar status of the novas in the sixteenth century. Galileo is here flogging the proverbial dead horse. Again not mentioned by Millevolte, who in general fails to make the important distinction between Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic and/or Tychonic astronomy; a distinction that played a central and significant role in the gradual acceptance of heliocentricity. Geocentric astronomers were prepared to abandon Aristotelian cosmology when the evidence showed it to be wrong but not to give up geocentric astronomy without clear evidence against it and for heliocentricity.

Concerning day four of the Dialogo, Millevolte fails to mention that Galileo’s much favoured theory of the tides was in fact refuted by the empirical facts.

All of the above points whilst, in my opinion important, are for an introductory text not absolutely essential and should not be thought to lead to a negative assessment of Millevolte’s book.

The closing chapter of the book delivers a brief but very clear assessment of the further progress towards heliocentricity up to and including Isaac Newton. As already mentioned the book has an extensive bibliography and the endnotes to each chapter deal skilfully with many of the historically contentious points in the story. I personally would have welcomed an index. The book is attractively illustrated with black and white pictures and diagrams.

Taken as a whole Millevolte has fulfilled his original resolve extremely well and what we have here is a first class up to date textbook on one of the most important episodes in the history of astronomy. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wishes to read an introductory text on the subject to inform and educate themselves and especially to anyone wishing to teach an introductory course on the subject to college students or even to the upper classes/grades of grammar schools, high schools etc. Currently priced at circa $17 US on Amazon.com most students should be able to afford a copy.


[1] Anthony Millevolte, The Copernican Revolution: Putting the Earth into Motion, Tuscobia Press, 2014.

[2] Millevolte, p. iv

[3] Millevolte, p. 294

[4] Millevolte, p. v

[5] Millevolte, p. 270


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Teaching the Revolution.

  1. Why do you suppose he self-published? Could he not find an academic or university press?

  2. Great review Thony. I will be teaching an intro course in the fall and will check this out.

  3. Thanks Thony, I just ordered the book on the basis of your review. For a beginner in the subject like myself, it is difficult to know where to spend your hard earned cash.

  4. B'Rat

    Thanks for the review!

    However, I wonder, having read your review (so I might have misunderstood something): isn’t failing to stress the fact that Galileo’s arguments for heliocentrism ranged from inconclusive to dead wrong in fact kind of a major problem for text that is supposed to give an understanding of what happened? In my experience the popular narrative of a lone genius persecuted by the bigoted is fueled by the reasoning “See? He demonstrated heliocentrism yet those ‘fundies refused to look at his proofs and cared only about the Bible!”: realising that Galileo was wrong in his claims is what makes this idea untenable.

    • B'Rat

      *for a text
      (man, I should write a little better, my periods are way too long, I can rephrase ’em if you wish)

      • Millevolte does make very clear that Galileo cannot deliver any conclusive arguments this however didn’t stop his book having an impact on the heliocentricity vs. geocentricity debate. Millevolte emphasises the type of polemical arguments that Galileo uses both to make his opponents arguments look bad and also to make heliocentricity look good. My brief criticisms are where I don’t think that Millevolte makes clear enough that Galileo’s arguments are deliberately misleading his readers.

      • Galileo’s arguments are deliberately misleading his readers.

        Are you referring to his theory of tides? Do you believe this was deliberate trickery on Galileo’s part, rather than self-deception fueled by wishful thinking?

      • laura

        I like Heilbron’s interpretation in his Galileo bio: Galileo didn’t always care much about whether his arguments were true at least in the modern sense of how we consider scientific facts to be true or false or probable. He judged the value of his claims on a movable mix of factual likelihood, audacity and aesthetics. If anything that put him a little behind the zeitgeist in terms of what “science” was becoming but he was in general brilliant enough to compensate.

        I haven’t read Millevolte’s book but when I read intros to the scientific and/or copernican revolution my main problem with them as an introduction to students — and the treatment of Galileo in particular — is how they don’t really emphasize enough the fact that these guys were not modern scientists doing modern science; and that difference went way beyond their religious commitments or lack of them.

  5. Fritz Staudacher, Widnau (Switzerland)

    The still missing link in all these the Galiei-Kepler-Brahe project discussions is Jost Buergi’s (1552-1632) important contribution. He not only created the most precise instruments to measure time (one-second-observatory clock) and space (transportable metallic sixtant), but he also developped the mathematical basics by inventing logarithms and by listing the most precise Sinus tables at this time. Even Tycho Brahe had to use Bürgi’s precision clocks and Triangulation instruments. But this is only a part of the whole Story: This Bürgi Genius also made together with Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel and Christoph Rothmann the most precise and first new catalogue of stars and he worked together with Johannes Kepler in Prague from 1603 until 1612, where Kepler described him as his teacher in mathematics. It is time to open up this hidden historical Bürgi page. In additon of Bürgis latest biography of 2013 (Jost Bürgi, Kepler und der Kaiser) two new publications are being in preparation to deliver additonal testimonial; fortunately one of them on logarithms by Kathleen Clark will be published in English language.
    Fritz Staudacher, author of “Jost Bürgi, Kepler und der Kaiser”, Widnau (Switzerland), eMail: staud1@bluewin.ch

  6. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #49 | Whewell's Ghost

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