Many of the greatest scientific advances of the Renaissance were achieved by astronomers. From new theories about the solar system to the discoveries of sunspots, new stars, and other objects, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed major revolutions in the way people thought about and studied the known universe.
Astronomy languished for centuries after the fall of Rome. Much of the astronomical knowledge of the ancient Greeks was lost, apart from Aristotle’s concepts about a spherical Earth and its location at the center of the universe. Medieval astronomy was bolstered by the borrowing of instruments and Greek texts from the Arab world which allowed astronomers to measure and mathematically predict the position of stars and planets. Yet at the end of the medieval period, many scholars recognized that the complex geometrical models used to describe the movement of celestial bodies conflicted with Plato’s theories of cosmic harmony and symmetry. In the early sixteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus arrived at a new model of the cosmos, with the Sun at the center rather than the Earth.
Copernicus’ theory would be challenged and championed by subsequent generations. Astronomers like Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler would adjust the Copernican model – Tycho by devising a compromise with the earth-centered system, Kepler by introducing elliptical orbits to the sun-centered system. The invention of the telescope led Galileo to new discoveries and a defense of Copernicus, while later astronomers used the instrument to map the heavens. The Copernican system would finally be proven through the work of Isaac Newton in the early 1700’s.
L. Tom Perry Special Collections has a rich collection of Renaissance astronomical works, from first editions of Galileo, Kepler, and Hevelius to pamphlets by amateur observers. Students and faculty with demonstrated research interests may access these collections. Patrons can request reading privileges online or in person at the Special Collections reference desk. University faculty may also arrange for class presentations of these and any other materials in Special Collections on our website.