In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his groundbreaking, earth-shattering, and generally discombobulating notion that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of the planetary system. Few people found this convincing, and for many good reasons that are well known; above all, to paraphrase Galileo, it violated common sense.
It took many decades before scholars became convinced, and even longer for the general public. But when the idea took hold, it took off, taking shape in at least two important and different ways.
One was the printed illustration, exemplified most beautifully by a series of stunning cosmological systems drawn by Andreas Cellarius and published in his Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660). The Adler proudly owns three bound copies of this volume, along with several disbound works on paper that depict the new Copernican system and variations of the Ptolemaic and Tychonic systems that it overturned. One of these, a “scenograph” showing the celestial sphere (with ornately decorated constellations) resting on the shoulders of Atlas and Hercules, illustrates that our awe and wonder of the night sky does not at all depend on whether the Copernican system is right or not. An opposing view, conveyed by a nineteenth-century chart of the cosmos by Isaac Frost, exemplifies the worry that the Copernican system suggests a universe in which humans lack any special status.
By contrast, the second format celebrates the news of a Sun-centered system. This medium is the three-dimensional planetarium, a mechanical device that shows the Sun surrounded by one or more planets, perhaps with one or more orbiting moons. The first such device, made by George Graham in 1705, is currently on display in Planetary Machines, a temporary exhibit (through August 23) highlighting several generations of these kinds of instruments and culminating in the Atwood Sphere, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer. Planetary Machines displays numerous examples of how people for centuries have embraced the “new” world view, and have wanted to own a piece of it by purchasing pocket-sized, table-sized, or even room-sized versions of Sun-centered planetary systems.
Our new Cosmic Wonder show engages audiences with the wonders of the sky as people of the past and present have experienced them. It includes these illustrations by Cellarius and Frost, as well as an ancient portrayal of the sky as seen by Chinese astronomers. Along with the many planetary models and illustrations on view in Planetary Machines on the Adler’s lower level, you will catch more than a glimpse of the many ways in which people look at the heavens and try to find answers to mysteries that continue to amaze us.
Written by Dr. Marvin Bolt, vice president for collections at the Adler Planetarium.