From Divine Power to Physical Law: The History of Astronomy

Since time immemorial, we humans have looked to the heavens and guided our lives according to the course of the celestial bodies. We observed and drew conclusions - which is how astronomy was born. This science is much more than a mere sequence of discoveries, as it is often presented in textbooks. In this exhibition, we will explore the social background behind the science. Follow us as we use exciting volumes from our collection to show how and why astronomy changed the world.

To the Stops
From Divine Power to Physical Law: The History of Astronomy
From Divine Power to Physical Law: The History of Astronomy


Ursula Kampmann and Daniel Baumbach

Station 1 – The View from Earth

Celestial bodies have always been around. And humans have always looked up, observed and discovered changes that affected their surroundings. No matter the concept that different cultures and religions had of the cosmos, no matter how they explained the fact that the sun rose in the morning and set in the evening: the mere observation of sun, moon and stars revealed patterns that helped the human being navigate through space and time. Those who recorded the movement of celestial bodies were able to deduce rules, predicting their future path across the sky, without having a precise idea of what the universe was to begin with.

The books of the first station show how humans used sun and stars to measure time and find out about their geographical position. Moreover, they illustrate how these methods were refined throughout history by means of mathematics and measuring instruments. 

1.1 Telling the Time with the Sun

Sundial from the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, ca. 1500 BC.

The course of the sun has always determined the daily life of humankind. The solstices were recognised early on as important reference points throughout the year. From Stonehenge to Egypt, there are numerous examples of early architecture that prove how accurately people could predict the position of the sun on those days. For example, a passage tombs in Ireland dating from around 3100 BC was oriented in a specific way, allowing sunlight to reach the tomb chamber only on the days around the winter solstice – its builders created a masterwork that tells us about the religious importance of solstices.

It was a matter of course to determine the time of day with the help of the position of the sun. As early as in the 4th millennium BC, Egyptians used the moving shadow of a staff to divide the day into something like hours. Sundials were omnipresent in Greek and Roman cultures.

One might think that sundials became obsolete with the advent of mechanical watches, but this was not the case. In early modern times, sundials experienced a renaissance and remained the most important form of timekeeping until the 18th century. Our book, written in 1755, bears testimony to this. It is a compendium that explains how sundials work and how to build them. The mere size of the work indicates that sundials had evolved into something more sophisticated than a staff and a few notches on a stone. Advanced knowledge of astronomy and mathematics had turned sundials into extremely accurate measuring instruments. Although sundials could not tell the time to the minute, they always kept time accurately. Due to their failure-prone clockwork, watches had to be readjusted every day, preferably at noon using a sundial.

Early sundials only told the time by the hour, not by the minute. In the 18th century, this changed to a certain extent. It became possible to make sundials much more accurate by adjusting them according to the degree of longitude and the season. The pages shown here illustrate the different possibilities of adjusting a sundial.

Manufacturing precise sundials was therefore a complex undertaking, based on astronomical knowledge – and on mathematics. So the study of sundials was a discipline in its own right, called gnomonics, derived from gnomon, the Greek term for the staff of the sundial that casts the shadow. Hence the title of this textbook: Gnomonica Fundamentalis & Mechanica.

The author of our work on sundials considered himself a mathematician. Johann Friedrich Penther (1693–1749) earned his living as an engineer, by solving various tasks with the help of applied mathematics. He surveyed plots of land, calculated the trajectory of cannonballs. By the way, in his portrait, we can clearly recognise the sundial that we already know from the penultimate image.

Photo: Okernick / CC BY-SA 4.0

Penther became somewhat famous for building an innovative sandstone figure, which is today in front of the Wolfenbüttel library. As many as 12 sundials are attached to it. In his fundamental book, Penther specified what it took to create such a sundial – namely mathematics.

1.2 Following the Stars 

Even in ancient times, people were able to predict recurring natural phenomena at certain times of the year based on the movements of the stars. A good example is the exceptionally bright binary star Sirius in the Great Dog constellation, which is also referred to as Dog Star. To the Egyptians, its appearance signalled the imminent beginning of the important flooding period of the Nile. When the Romans saw the star, they concluded that the warmest time of the year was about to begin – the dog days named after it.

Stars were practical for navigation. Sailors in particular used star constellations like the Southern Cross or the North Star to keep their course even when they were far offshore in the middle of the night. 

This book published in 1602 gives us insight into the astronomical information available to captains and sailors to find their way across the Mediterranean in early modern times. Its title reads Nautica Mediterranea. A commander of the Papal fleet, the author – Bartolomeo Crescenzio Romano – was a renowned expert when it came to navigating the Mediterranean Sea. In the book, he summarised everything there was to know about seafaring on the Mediterranean around 1600: shipbuilding and weather conditions, the most important ports and the dangers posed by the Ottoman Empire. To us, his remarks on navigation are of particular interest. He presented methods and instruments that enabled sailors to tell the time and determine their position based on the stars and the sun. Romano’s work illustrates the progress that had been made in astronomy during his time. He based his book on current findings and explained how they could be used for navigation.

Sundials do not work at night. However, sailors roughly needed to know what time it was at night, too – for example to determine for how many hours they had maintained their course. Therefore, Romano described methods for counting how many night hours had passed.

For seafarers in the age of sailing ships, it was essential to take advantage of the most favourable winds. This page illustrates how to find the Tramontane north wind in the Mediterranean using star constellations.

Image: Landesmuseum Württemberg / CC BY-SA

An indispensable tool of sailors was the Jacob’s staff, Balestriglia in Italian. The depicted example is from the 17th century. By means of this simple tool, it was possible to determine the angle between two points with the help of moveable crossbars, as this sketch shows. Sailors used it to measure the angle between the horizon and the stars to find out about the degree of latitude of their position.

A servant of the Pope, Romano dedicated his book to Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, the nephew of Pope Clement VIII. The latter was probably very pleased about the dedication and the astronomical content of this book. After all, the work also underlined the Church’s competence in astronomical matters. But what did the Holy See have to do with astronomy?


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Sphaera Ioannis De Sacrobosco Emendata Eliae Vineti Santonis scholia in eande[m] Sphaera[m], ab ipso authore restituta. Quibus nunc accessere scholia Heronis
Johannes von Sacrobosco
Published in 1591 in Cologne by Goswin Cholinus, written around 1230.
In Sphaeram Ioannis de Sacro Bosco commentarius
Christopher Clavius
Published in Venice by Bernardo Basa, 1596. First edition of 1570.

Station 2 – Astronomy and the Church

Today, the whole world sets dates according to the Gregorian calendar. It is named after Pope Gregory XIII, who had it introduced as an improved version of the calendar by Julius Caesar. But why did the Pope care about the calendar in the first place? Why was a reform necessary? And who did the mathematical work for this ground-breaking reform that is still used by us today without any modification?

With these questions, we dive right into the relationship between astronomy and the Church. First, we will introduce you to an astronomer whose 13th-century work was to become the standard textbook on astronomy in Europe for 300 years to come. The second book takes us to the man who put the introduction of our calendar into practice. Both of them demonstrate that Church and science were not the fierce opponents they are often portrayed as – but that science was advanced within the Church.

2.1 Rediscovered Knowledge

Johannes de Sacrobosco, probably born in 1195 in Scotland, died around 1256 in Paris.

In the Middle Ages and beyond, astronomy was a highly respected field. It was one of the seven liberal arts that anyone had to study – whether they wanted to become a theologian, lawyer or physician. Those who studied at the University of Paris in the early 13th century had the opportunity to listen to the most influential astronomer of the European Middle Ages read from his epoch-making work Tractatus de Sphaera. His name was Johannes de Sacrobosco and he was a monk. His work was written around 1230.

His own findings were not what made Sacrobosco’s treatise a revolutionary work. His real achievement was to spread the recently rediscovered astronomical knowledge of ancient authors. And what’s more: he added what scholars in Byzantium and the Orient had discovered in about 1000 years of intensely studying ancient writings. Briefly said: he got Europe up to date with the latest research.

Through the transcripts of his students, the treatise spread across the entire continent and was translated into various languages even before the advent of letterpress printing. With this invention, the book ultimately established itself as the standard work on the subject and held this title until the 16th century. By 1650, 240 editions of Tractatus de Sphaera had been published.

There was a good reason why the treatise was so successful. Not only was it of exceptional educational value, it was also up to date with the latest research. Sacrobosco used Arabic numerals, which made it a lot easier to calculate. He was one of the first Western scholars to do so.

The starting point of Sacrobosco’s work was Mathematike Syntaxis by Claudius Ptolemy, which was known by its Arabic name Almagest at the time. Sacrobosco took the commentaries of Arabic astronomers on this text into account, provided they were available as a Latin translation. One of them was Al-Farghani, an astronomer who lived in Baghdad around 800. His Latinized name was Alfraganus.

Based on Aristotle and Ptolemy, Sacrobosco’s statements were inspired by a geocentric view of the world. Sacrobosco put the globe at the centre of the cosmos, which was orbited by planets and the sun. Further outside rotated the firmament, a sphere on which fixed stars were located. Beyond the firmament was the divine sphere, which surrounded the cosmos.

Observing planets from Earth, Sacrobosco and other authors came to a strange conclusion: their orbits did not appear to be straight lines but displayed weird loops. A flaw in the divine system, which made it extremely complicated to predict the trajectory of the planets.

Our edition of the Tractatus de Sphaera was printed in 1591 in Cologne and comprises commentaries of several important astronomers on Sacrobosco’s texts. Such annotated editions were common in astronomy. According to its title, the work that was to succeed Sacrobosco’s treatise as the most important astronomical work was merely another commentary on Sacrobosco. It was written by Christopher Clavius.

2.2. What the Pope Has to Do with the Calendar

Pope Gregory XIII.

Christopher Clavius, born in 1538 in Bamberg, was one of the most talented mathematicians of his time. He had enjoyed an excellent education with the Jesuits and later followed the Vatican’s call to Rome. After all, the Church was one of the most important promoters of astronomy and employed the smartest minds of the time. Clavius and his colleagues worked as so-called computists. It was their task to align the Jewish lunar calendar with the Roman liturgical calendar, which was based on the sun. This was necessary to calculate the date of Easter. Tasks like these were a matter of the Pope. He laid claim to the Roman title of pontifex maximus – and in Roman times, the pontifex maximus, as the highest priest, had also been responsible for drawing up the calendar.

The last pontifex maximus to carry out a reform of the calendar had been Julius Caesar. However, his astronomers had made a minor miscalculation. After about 1500 years, their computational error added up to about 10 days. Therefore, a new reform was necessary, which was prepared by papal astronomers. You see: it would be wrong to assume that the Vatican was not interested in the latest astronomical research – on the contrary, it was the Vatican who promoted it.

Christopher Clavius.

Pope Gregory XIII entrusted Christopher Clavius, computist and director of the papal observatory, with the implementation of the calendar reform of 1582. Throughout Europe, Clavius was known as an excellent mathematician and astronomer. This was mainly due to his landmark work on astronomy, a copy of which can be found in our library. Clavius modestly described his 1570 book as another commentary on Sacrobosco. However, it was more than that, as can be seen from the fact that it established itself as the basic textbook on astronomy at universities. Until the end of his life in 1612, Clavius regularly published updated versions to include the latest research findings, for example those of Galileo Galilei. 

As you can see, the sections written by Clavius exceed the length of Sacrobosco’s text (here in italics) many times over. In some cases, individual sentences by Sacrobosco are commented by entire chapters.

The Church’s computists used whatever facilitated their calculations. Therefore, Copernicus’ findings also found their way into their work and this book. If you based calculations on Copernicus’ heliocentric model, all the annoying loops of celestial bodies, which were so difficult to predict, were eliminated at once. This practical consideration did not change Clavius’ basic statement that only the Earth could be the centre of the cosmos, not the sun.

If you leaf through In sphaeram Ionnis de Sacro Bosco commentarius, you will quickly notice: astronomy is mathematics. About a fifth of our copy is made up of tables that present measured data on planetary movements and predictions of future planetary positions.

Clavius published seven updated editions of his textbook to keep it up-to-date with latest research. Our edition was published in 1596 in Venice. In the six years following his death, nine additional updated versions were published. Why did astronomical knowledge explode around 1600 in a way that this basic work had to be updated constantly? And why could so many editions be sold on the book market?


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Bedencken Von Künfftiger verenderung Weltlicher Policey vnd Ende der Welt auß heyliger Göttlicher Schrift vnnd Patribus, auch auß dem Lauff der Natur des 83. Biß auff das 88 vnd 89. Jars
Nicolaus Winckler
Printed in Augsburg by Michael Manger, 1582.
Johann Kunkels vollständige Glasmacherkunst, worinnen sowol dessen Erläuterungen über Anton Neri sieben Bücher von dem Glassmachen und Dr. Merrets hierüber gemachte Anmerkungen
Johannes Kunckel
Published in Nuremberg by Christoph Riegel, 1785.

Station 3 – A Change in Conditions

Around 1600, astronomers saw a fundamental shift in their working conditions. General interest in the subject increased by leaps and bounds. This was mainly triggered by the introduction of the new Gregorian calendar. The discussions about it led to astronomy being suddenly on everybody’s lips and becoming the most fashionable science of the time. The number of employed astronomers increased significantly. To find a post with a particularly generous patron, publishing one’s findings was a must. Therefore, more astronomical books were released than ever before, causing knowledge about the stars to explode. 

The first book of this station illustrates how the calendar reform affected people’s everyday life and how astronomy became part of daily life. Our second book shows us how important technical progress was for astronomical knowledge.

3.1 The World Out of Joint, Astronomy on Everyone’s Lips

With the papal bull Inter gravissimas, the Pope announced the calendar reform.

The introduction of the Gregorian calendar had the effect of skipping 10 days in October 1582. By papal decree, 4 October was followed by 15 October – at least in the parts of Europe that obeyed the Pope. Protestant countries and princes in northern Europe rejected the calendar reform. If they had adopted the calendar, they would have recognised the Pope as pontifex maximus, a title that implied supremacy not only regarding the calendar but all matters of faith – this was downright impossible for Protestants. Therefore, two different calendars prevailed in Europe at the same time. Especially where the different religions were geographically close to each other, like Switzerland, this led to tangible problems – suddenly, for example, the calendars of some cities differed by 10 days from the calendars of their surrounding farmlands!

The issue affected everyone. Heated discussions ensued that questioned the sense of the reform, far outside the circles that usually debated on astronomical issues. Astronomy entered markets and taverns.

This booklet informs us at what level the citizens of the Holy Roman Empire discussed astronomy at the time. It was published in the year of the calendar reform. Its author, Nicolaus Winckler, embellishes his prophecies about the end of the world with detailed information on upcoming planetary constellations. 

Winckler’s booklet is so interesting to us because it reveals what prior knowledge a popular author could expect from his target group, the German-speaking educated middle class. His readers were familiar with technical terms such as conjunction, i.e. the event when two celestial bodies seem to touch each other. They knew the names of the planets and the most important zodiac signs as well as their abbreviations. Thus, astronomy had become much more present in bourgeois circles than before. 

As the title page states, Winckler was actually a doctor of medicine and town physician of Schwäbisch Hall. Like we learned earlier, as a requirement to study medicine, he also had to learn about astronomy. He used his knowledge of this popular topic to make his treatises more attractive. We can assume that he also sold horoscopes. At the time, astrology was considered a science just like astronomy.

A little peek into the astrological horror stories that Winckler dished out: This page talks about the highly bloodthirsty star Aldebaran and about the great and very dangerous conjunction of Saturn and Mars. The consequence: tyranny, the persecution of Christians and advancing Turks; “then people will be in fear and terror of living on earth”.

Winckler dedicated this book to Count Georg Friedrich von Hohenlohe-Neuenstein-Weikersheim. Princes, too, liked to show off their astronomical knowledge at the time. Dedications of such works were rewarded with valuable gifts.

The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Anyone who could afford it employed a court astronomer. One of them, the protégé of the Danish king Tycho Brahe, worked for years to create a detailed numerical work, which could become the basis of the ground-breaking research of one Johannes Kepler.

3.2 What You Need to Look at the Stars

Around 1600, astronomy was not the only field to flourish – glass manufacturing experienced a boom, too. At the time, the most important city of this industry was Venice. At the Murano workshop, new methods were developed all the time to produce purer or particularly coloured glass. In 1612 the priest and glass expert Antonio Neri authored the first systematic compendium on glass and its production: L’Arte Vetraria – The Art of Glass.

Our edition of Neri’s book proves that his standard work on glass production was available throughout Europe for centuries. It was published in 1785. It is a reprint of the German first edition, published by glass manufacturer Johannes Kunckel in 1679. And his version was based on an English translation of Neri’s work, published in London in 1662.

It is clear why this book was so popular for such a long time: it does not ramble on end about theoretical aspects but describes in a very practical way how which kinds, colours and shapes of glass were to be produced. 

Galileo Galilei

Neri’s work describes the comparative advantage that Murano glass manufacturers had compared to other glass workshops. This progress significantly contributed to Galileo Galilei’s inventions. The latter had been working as a lecturer at the Venetian University in Padua since 1592, and supplemented his small income by manufacturing scientific instruments and glasses. In this position, he was closely connected to the Murano class manufacturers.

And when he learned about the Dutch invention of a telescope in 1608 and recreated it with its own lenses, his instruments were better than those of his competitors. Therefore, his view of what happened in the skies was much clearer than that of everyone else. This is why, among other things, he discovered four moons of Jupiter.

To maintain his advantage, Galilei was constantly working on improving his lenses. He even produced glass himself, and consulted Neri’s treatise to do so. It has come down to us that Galilei owned a copy of the book and sent another copy to a colleague in Rome. The improved glass was one of the reasons why Galilei’s later telescopes were much better than his early attempts.

This page describes the basics of cristallo glass production. It was considered the purest, clearest glass of its time and was perfectly suited for producing lenses. Galilei worked a long time on establishing a direct contact to its manufacturers.

In 1610, Galilei published what he had observed with the telescope in the paper Sidereus Nuncius, which can be translated as Starry Messenger. In the work, he described how a telescope worked, the four large moons of Jupiter he discovered and he provided illustrations of the moon that were more precise than everything his contemporaries had ever seen.

Our German edition of Neri’s books was published by the alchemist Johannes Kunckel (1630-1703). Alchemists were the chemists of their time. They were looking for new elements, mainly for gold. Kunckel did so as well at the Saxon court before he – funded by the Brandenburg Elector – became one of the best-known glass manufacturers of his time. Due to his merits, the Swedish King elevated him to the rank of a nobleman. 

With Vollkommene Glasmacherkunst, Kunckel first published Neri’s textbook in German. In between, the experienced glass manufacturer added chapters with his own comments on Neri’s methods. This is exactly what the English translator had done decades before him. Thus, despite its age, Neri’s work was perfectly up to date.


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Discorso al Serenissimo Don Cosimo II … intorno alle cose, che stanno sù l’Acqua, ò che in quella si muovono …
Gallileo Galilei
Printed in Bologna in 1655 at Dozza. Second edition. Bound together with two responses by other authors.
Opere di Galileo Galilei nobile fiorentino primario filosofo, e matematico del Serenissimo Gran Duca di Toscana
Galileo Galilei
3 volumes, printed in 1718 in Florence by Gaetano Tartini and Santi Franchi.

Station 4 – Galileo Galilei – A Martyr of Science?

Galileo Galilei was indisputably one of the most important astronomers in history. However, posterity tends to elevate important people, making them even more important. In line with this, it is readily forgotten that Galilei’s work was based on the achievements of other astronomers such as Kepler, Brahe, Copernicus and Clavius – and that he also had quite a bit of luck with his telescope.

Today we like to think of Galilei as a kind of Luther of science who rebelled against the yoke of the Church. A closer look quickly reveals that he was no such thing – not at all. This station separates the historical figure of Galileo Galilei from his glorified image.

4.1 Historical Galilei

Cosimo II de Medici, painting by Cristofano Allori.

Even someone like Galileo Galilei had to make a living and was eager to make a career for himself. His Starry Messenger was designed to be a letter of recommendation to Duke Cosimo II de Medici. Galilei dedicated this work to him and named the moons of Jupiter discovered with the telescope the Medician Stars. When Cosimo realised that the Starry Messenger did indeed become acclaimed throughout Europe, he employed Galilei. However, the duke had no interest in his protégé starting a conflict with the church by expressing radical theories. This might be the reason why Galilei’s first work in Cosimo’s service had nothing to do with astronomy out of consideration for his new patron. 

Nevertheless, the work still bore potential for conflict – although the title may not sound like it at first glance. The 1612 treatise On Floating Bodies dealt with the question of why solid bodies like ice do float on water. The publication was followed by heated debates. With his – completely correct – theory, according to which it was not the shape of an object but its density that determined whether it did float on water or not, Galilei contradicted Aristotle. Some still considered Aristotle some kind of absolute authority who simply could not be contradicted. Therefore, Aristotle’s followers vigorously opposed Galilei. A dispute arose about how the world should be explained in the future: by means of hypotheses and proof or by means of quotations from the works of glorified authors.

It is often claimed that most scholars of the time contradicted Galilei. This is not true. It was only a small group of them. Even contemporaries made fun of the vehement stubbornness of Aristotle’s followers. Ludovico delle Colombe was Galilei’s most important opponent in this matter. Here we can see the cover of his reaction to Galilei’s treatise.

Our copy of Galilei’s Discorsi was published in 1655 by the Bolognese printer Evangelista Dozza. He decided to bind Galilei’s treatise together with two responding papers by leading Aristotelians: Colombe and Vincento Di Gratia. At the time of publication, their opinions had long been refuted. Publishing their works could hardly serve any other purpose than that of making Galilei’s genius shine even brighter – and so his glorification began.

Galilei started his treatise on floating bodies by assuring his readers that he had not turned his back on astronomy. And, in fact, he had not. He would have liked to work with scientific proof in astronomy, too, but that was not allowed in his age.

4.2 Glorified Galilei

Pushed in a defensive position by the Reformation, at 1600 the Church opposed everything that seemed to limit its authority in matters of scriptural interpretation, especially in Italy. Since Galilei’s career was important to him, he was very careful in his astronomical works. Everything that questioned the truth of the Bible was off-limits. It was only allowed to address the Copernican system, according to which the Earth orbited the sun, as a hypothesis. Therefore, Galilei was careful not to express any conclusion that he could have drawn from his discoveries. It was not until 1632 that he abandoned his wariness in the popular Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. He left the Church’s positions to ridicule, completely misjudging what his patron, the Pope, would let him get away with.

In 1633, Galilei immediately backpedalled in the famous trial before the inquisition. He did not defend the Copernican system, affirmed that he had actually meant the opposite, renounced what he had written and asked for mercy. 

Today, we have a completely different idea of the scene, approximately that of a 1847 history painting: courageous Galilei stands defiantly before the inquisitors, defending the truth. How come that we think of Galilei as a great campaigner against the ecclesiastical suppression of science?

During the Enlightenment, a myth was established: in the past, the Church and science had fought each other, the Vatican had been a place of superstition and stagnation. Our previous stations illustrate how inaccurate this view is. Nevertheless, the narrative prevailed. After all, this view provided absolutist princes and later nation states with a wonderful pretext to prevent the Pope from interfering in their matters. Well-known Galilei, accused by the Church, was perfectly suited to be stylized as a martyr. What is amazing is that this narrative is hardly questioned even today. The famous words And yet it moves, which Galilei is said to have muttered rebelliously at the trial, were not written down until 1757 – more than a century after his death.

Two late-19th-century books in particular are to blame for the long-lasting effects of Galilei’s glorification: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science from 1874 and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom of 1896. Both were highly successful, published several times and translated. They are majorly responsible for the fact that their anti-Catholic interpretation of history was established as a common narrative that even spread into classrooms.

A performance of Brecht’s Life of Galilei in Berlin, 1971. Federal Archive, Image 183-K1005-0020 / Katscherowski (married Stark), / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Galilei’s struggle with the inquisitors also became a popular topic due to Berthold Brecht. Of course, Brecht’s Life of Galilei was about something quite different than the relationship between the Church and science: terrorised by the Third Reich and Hiroshima, he addressed the abuse of power by ideologies and the responsibility of scientists.

Monument for Giordano Bruno at the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome. Photo: daryl_mitchell / CC BY-SA 2.0

The inquisition sentenced repentant Galilei to a quite comfortable house arrest. Others were less obedient and had to suffer the consequences. Especially when, like Giordano Bruno, they combined their astronomical theories with attacks on the papal interpretation of the Bible, they were predestined for a terrible end. Giordano Bruno was burned as a heretic in 1600.


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A view of Sir Isaac Newton's philosophy
Henry Pemberton
Published in Dublin, 1728
 Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton's Principles, and made easy to those who have not studied mathematics
James Ferguson
First edition, self-published in London in 1756.

Station 5 – Newton Reveals the Universe to Mortals

The truth of the heliocentric world view could not be silenced. The age of the Enlightenment dawned, and scholars adopted the freedom of rational thought as their maxim. Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), the man with the apple, became the symbol of the phenomenal progress of science in this era. Newton laid the foundations of modern physics. His main work Principia Mathematica is considered one of the most important scientific books of all times. However, there was one thing the master was completely incapable of: sharing his laurels. Our first book of this station takes us right into the turf battles of the time, when people fought for fame and recognition. Newton emerged from these debates as a winner and completely transfigured genius.

While Newton still had his peers and patrons in mind when writing his works, he was followed by a completely new breed of scientists. They wanted to express the complex rules of nature in a way that was also understandable for ordinary people. One of them was James Ferguson, whose explanations of Newton’s theories are the subject of the second part of this station.

5.1 Superstar Newton

Newton, elevated to heavenly spheres. Cover page of Elements de la philosophie de Newton, 1738.

In 1660, the Royal Society was founded in London. In this scientific club, some of the country’s brightest minds discussed their current ideas. A highly productive exchange evolved; England became a centre of science. One result of this collaboration, however, was that there was a lot of discussion about who the actual originator of an invention was – a question of fame and financial gain.

Isaac Newton had been a member of the Royal Society since 1672. At the time, he and many of his colleagues were discussing the question of how Kepler’s laws of planetary motion could be proven by mathematical calculations. Newton made the breakthrough – and did whatever he could to make sure that none of his scientific discussion partners got any credit for it. No, Newton was not known for being a pleasant character. But he still had a lot of followers, and they soon glorified him as an unprecedented genius – an image that quickly entered the collective consciousness.

One example for the glorification of Newton is the 1728 work A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy by Henry Pemberton. One year after Newton’s death, this work explained the master’s most important discoveries: the law of gravitation, the theory of light and infinitesimal calculus. However, Pemberton did not only want to convey Newton’s discoveries – he also wanted to glorify his supposedly unique genius. A member of the Royal Society himself, he was a loyal follower of Newton. His work is full of effusive praise for Newton and he defends his character, which was already controversial at the time. It includes, for example, a highly impassioned poem by Richard Glover that idolizes Newton – on a full 14 pages.

Pemberton defended Newton with regard to a particularly disputed issue: the time at which he made his discoveries. Newton himself had insisted that all his ideas came to him in the wonderful year of 1666/67. He had just refined them later – a claim that is proven to be wrong. He had chosen this date wisely. At the time, Newton lived in the country, far away from any foreign influence. His statement was especially meant to oppose Robert Hooke, who loudly asserted that he had given Newton a decisive hint.

Predating his discoveries also ended the calculus controversy with Leibniz, who had almost simultaneously developed the method of infinitesimal calculus. The mathematical derivation of Kepler’s laws only became possible thanks to this innovation. Leibniz clearly published his book on the matter before Newton. But the latter accused Leibniz of having stolen his ideas from the archive of the Royal Society. Newton ruthlessly used his position as President of the Royal Society to spread his view and to discredit his rival, which permanently damaged Leibniz’s career.

Even his contemporaries were shocked by his behaviour – a reason why Newton was not glorified as enthusiastically on the continent as in Great Britain. There, the situation was different. Newton was stylized as a figurehead of the nation. In the dedication to Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the preface, Pemberton praised Newton as the pride of the entire country, whose fame improved Great Britain’s reputation across the globe. This, too, is a reason for Newton’s glorification: he became the poster boy for Great Britain’s scientific progress.

Photos: 14GTR / CC BY-SA 4.0

Even during his lifetime, Newton was able to enjoy the material and immaterial benefits of this esteem. The man from a poor background became President of the Royal Society, was made a nobleman and was entrusted with the lucrative office of Warden of the Royal Mint. Sir Isaac Newton was the first scientist to be buried at Westminster Abbey. There he rests at one of the most prominent places of the important church.

5.2 Astronomy for Everyone

Newton’s questionable character and his glorification did not change the fact that the discoveries laid out in Principia were indeed ground-breaking. They profoundly changed how people perceived the relationship between Earth and universe. For the first time, Newton’s Law of Gravitation connected the Earth and the cosmos in a way that eliminated any kind of difference between the two spheres.

Newton’s work also became so famous because people were told exactly how revolutionary it was. After all, what was written down in the highly complex Principia was by no means self-explanatory. Therefore, instead of the Principia, interested educated citizens of the time possessed explanations by other authors who presented the latest research in a way that was easy to understand. One of the most popular works of this kind was Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles by James Ferguson.

Ferguson (1710–1776) himself is an excellent example for the new educational possibilities of his time. The Scotsman had spent his childhood tending sheep and only attended school for three months. Later, a patron recognised his talent for mechanics and made his library available to him. In this way, Ferguson was to make it to become a member of the Royal Society.

It was his passion to introduce people to the wonders of astronomy. As what we would call a popular scientist, he gave well-attended lectures throughout the country. With Astronomy Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles, he wanted to made Newton’s findings understandable to those who had not studied mathematics, as the title states. 

In the introduction, Ferguson explained the basics of astronomy in such a condensed and simple way that even children could understand it. Stars seem so small because they are far away – if the sun were just as far away from Earth, it would seem just as small to us. Since stars cannot possibly be illuminated by our sun, they themselves must radiate light like our sun. Moreover, stars are incredibly far apart from one another. If you look through a telescope, you can see many more stars than with the naked eye – this is all very important basic information that someone like Newton would never have lowered himself to write down. 

In the chapters, Ferguson goes into detail but always tries to remain understandable. For clarification purposes, he provides illustrations like this, which gives an idea of the size, appearance and position of the planets in our solar system.

Ferguson wanted to help people accurately imagine the course of the planets. For this purpose, the talented mechanic designed devices such as the one depicted on this page. During his lectures, he demonstrated the moving mechanical models in a highly successful way. 

Joseph Wright of Derby: A philosopher gives a lecture on the planetary system, painting of 1766.

A contemporary painting gives us an idea of the effect these devices had on people. The new dimensions they saw stretched out before them fired their imagination. What did the other planets look like? Were they inhabited? Could they even be visited one day?


This is some text inside of a div block.
Verteidiger Copernicus, oder curioser und gründlicher Beweiß der Copernicanischen Grundsätze, in zweyen Theilen
John Wilkins
Published in Leipzig by Peter Conrad Monath in 1713, first published in 1638.
The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
Published by Limited Editions Club in Avon, 1974. First edition of 1950.

Station 6 – Dreaming of Distant Worlds

When people looked at cosmological models and wondered whether it would one day be possible to reach those planets, these thoughts were not new. Astronomers had asked that question for a long time – first just themselves, later in public. We show you one of the first books that seriously addressed the topic of travelling to the moon and its potential inhabitants.

The fact that a journey into space depended on much more than technological progress became clear when the moon came within reach after the Second World War. Even if the moon itself was not inhabited, somewhere in space there might be intelligent life. What would the contact between humans and extra-terrestrials be like? Would humanity suffer a terrible fate through the invasion of superior alien civilizations, just like native peoples suffered from colonial powers in Earth’s history? Or could outer space offer the possibility of a fresh start, and humankind could peacefully and united set out to seek cooperation with extra-terrestrial life? Questions like these confront us with our own nature, our fears and our history. Science fiction novels such as The Martian Chronicles document the struggle of finding an answer.

6.1 – The Journey to the Moon

Lucian wrote of giant spiders that drew webs between the planets. Illustration from 1894.

Clearly visible in the night sky, the moon has always sparked human imagination. The first person whose description of a journey to the moon has come down to us is Lucian of Samosata, who wrote his True History in the 2nd century AD. That does not mean that Lucian thought that such a journey was possible. He considered it to be the epitome of the impossible. His book was a satirical work. 

In the 17th century, however, astronomers seriously explored the idea of travelling to the moon. To them, the moon was not part of a remote divine sphere but simply another heavenly body. And as such it could theoretically be visited – although there were numerous practical obstacles.

Even Johannes Kepler though about a journey to the moon and whether there was life on it. He never published these considerations. It would have been way too risky to do so at a time when the Church was not even prepared to accept that the Earth was not at the centre of the cosmos. 

In 1638, an anonymous English author published a sensational work about the moon. Of course, it ended up on the Papal index, but that hardly bothered anyone in his home country. When the text was first published in German in 1713 – we show the German first edition at this station – there was no reason not to mention the name of the author John Wilkins. He was no quixotic fantasist: the Anglican bishop was one of the founding members of the Royal Society and, to this day, was the only person to head a college at both Oxford and Cambridge.

Inspired by the fantasy novels of his time, he took Kepler’s idea one step further: Wilkins’ defended heliocentrism and argued that there was life on the moon.

Wilkins thought that the Earth and the moon were very similar. He assumed that the marks on the moon were oceans and that the moon had an atmosphere just like Earth, including wind and rain. Due to the similarity of both planets, he found it very likely that there was life on the moon, too. Of course, one could only speculate as to what these inhabitants looked like.

Finally, Wilkins discussed “that is possible for some of our posteritie, to find out a conveyance to this other world; and if there be inhabitants there, to have commerce with them.”

Of course, he could not specify how exactly humankind would be able to reach the moon. Nevertheless, Wilkins displayed a wonderful optimism: “And, if we doe but consider by what steps and leasure, all arts doe usually rise to their growth, we shall have no cause to doubt why this [= the knowledge of how to get to the moon] also may not hereafter be found out amongst other secrets. It hath constantly yet been the method of providence, not presently to shew us all, but to leade us on by degrees, from the knowledge of one thing to another.” Therefore, encountering the inhabitants of the moon was only a question of time.

In 1835, it momentarily looked as if Wilkins would be proven right about the moon’s inhabitants. Newspapers around the world reported that an astronomer had discovered inhabitants of the moon with a new telescope, which looked like a hybrid of humans and bats. Here we can see an illustration from the New York Sun, which first reported on the discovery – and was the originator of the canard. Nevertheless, for a few weeks, many newspaper readers believed that there was life on the moon.

Jules Verne: From the Earth to the Moon, first edition 1865.)

Considering the incredible progress that humankind made in the 19th century, many liked to think about what else could be achieved. This gave rise to a literary genre that we refer to as science fiction today. Although earlier authors also wrote about the possibilities of the future, Jules Verne created something new: he used an exciting plot to present the latest scientific findings in an educative way. 19th-century infotainment, if you will. And therefore, even today his fans can enjoy the fact that Jules Verne anticipated many things, including in his novel From the Earth to the Moon.

6.2 We Come in Peace – Do We?

“Earthrise”, photo of 1968.

Before the Second World War, travelling to the moon had been a utopian idea. Then, however, it became clear that such a journey was, indeed, possible from the technical point of view. While the Soviet and American governments sent the first people into space, their citizens were concerned with another issue: If you really were to meet aliens “out there”, what would the relationship with them be like? Would they subjugate us – or would we subjugate them? Or would peaceful coexistence be possible? This topic inspired authors of the booming science fiction genre since the 1950s, and – while looking at the future – took its readers deep into history.

1946 and 1953 issues of the Planet Stories by Ray Bradbury

A wonderful example for this are The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1920–2012). They are a collection of stories Bradbury published between 1946 and 1950 in several popular magazine series of the time. Although scantily clad ladies have to be saved from alien monsters on most cover pages, Bradbury’s stories are actually very deep. Clearly noticeable are the parallels to the events of the colonization of America, which come up time and again. In his loosely connected episodes, people set out for Mars in the distant year 2000 and meet natives there. An eventful story unfolds, where hope blossoms before it is dashed: diseases and wars break out, the Martians are exterminated, a colony is established, abandoned again and yet serves as the last refuge of humankind after the destruction of Earth. 

Bradbury received numerous awards for The Martian Chronicles and has a loyal fan base to this day. Our edition was printed in 1972 as a collector’s edition with 2000 copies. It is spectacularly illustrated by Joseph Mugnaini and signed by Bradbury and the artist.

King Prempeh I of the Ashanti submits to the British, coloured engraving of 1896.

There is nothing better to illustrate current events than novels that reflect on the future. Bradbury dealt with the disputes that arose after the Second World War over the decolonisation of Asia and Africa. In his Martian Chronicles, he portrays the exact same types of behaviour that he observed in his own time when it came to the treatment of inferior cultures. The result is a dystopia with a silver lining: the Martians are wiped out, Earth destroyed by nuclear war, and the last inhabitants of Earth become the new Martians.

Cast members of the Star Trek series in front of the NASA Space Shuttle Enterprise named after “their” spacecraft. Photo of 1976.

The Martian Chronicles are just one example for countless novels, films and TV series that deal with the question of what our future in space might look like. Another exciting example is the cult series Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry. In the world of Star Trek, racism, nationalism, war, hunger and poverty have been overcome. Humanity lives united in peace: at the bridge of the Enterprise, humans of all colours and nations work together. Mankind strives for peaceful cooperation with other species. In his stories, Roddenberry purposefully incorporates alien cultures that hold up a mirror to our egoism. Many people are not aware of how ideological and utopian Star Trek is at the same time. 

A dehumanised “Borg drone” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Photo: Marcin Wichary – CC BY 2.0

Given the environmental problems, science fiction lost its optimism in the 1980s. Technology was increasingly perceived as a danger. Therefore, the glossy corridors of the Enterprise gave way to run-down settings like those in Alien, Blade Runner and Terminator. Even Star Trek introduced a new threat, a high-tech cyborg collective that robs its victims of any human characteristic, any individuality.

Photo: ESO/P. Horálek / CC BY 4.0

And this brings us to the present. Where are we today? The topic of space travel does not seem to play a role for hardly anyone. At most, you hear about the attempts of Elon Musk’s private SpaceX initiative to reach Mars – so far with moderate success. It seems to be the case that we are currently rather focused on our Earth and its problems instead of dreaming of the stars – rightly so? Have we lost hope for a better future in space? Will we ever get in touch with extra-terrestrial forms of life, and how will we deal with it? Will we succeed in setting off into space as a united human race, just like all those science fiction authors dreamed of?

The team of the MoneyMuseum is looking forward to discussing these questions with you.