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Copernicus, Waldseemüller, and concentric spheres

The Boston Globe has an enlightening column about A world redrawn. The proposition by Copernicus that moved the frame of reference from earth to sun is well known. The article describes two other aspects of this that are not so well known. One is the impact of a changing view of the world and the other is how that model included efforts to place ocean and land within the concentric spheres model of the universe.

Known today as the Waldseemüller map of 1507, it was the first to depict the lands discovered by Columbus and other early explorers as part of a vast and previously unknown continent. Earlier maps had shown the new discoveries only vaguely, as a still-to-be-determined part of Asia, but this new map boldly located them far out in the western ocean, on the other side of the globe from the known world, extending deep into the southern hemisphere. And it gave this place a memorable new name: America.

The concentric spheres model with the earth at the center of the universe and everything we see up as being a part of perfect spheres above it also implied that everything we see below had to be of similar structure to keep the model consistent. This meant that there was a sphere of water and another of land. That caused problems in that, since one was inside the other, you couldn’t have both at the same level. A solution for this was similar to the solution for planetary eccentricities. The sphere of water and that of land were offset just a bit so one showed up on one side of the earth and the other showed up on the other side of the earth.

The point made is that when Copernicus saw America on the Waldseemüller map he realized that land was visible on both sides of the earth so the concentric sphere idea didn’t work. Once that dissonance was settled, the Copernican view of the universe became thinkable.

This article by Toby Lester provides many ideas that are unfamiliar (to me, at least) and that means opportunity for looking for more about them. His book on the Fourth Part of the World might be a target for initial investigation.

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