Perhaps the most famous of all scientific revolutions is the one associated with Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). The popular version of the story goes as follows:

Variations on this breezy version of the Copernicus story are common in science textbooks. 1 How much of the story is true? Apart from the final sentence, not much. But it’s a good illustration of how scientific folklore can replace actual history.

Let us start with the myth that the Copernican model was opposed because it was a blow to human pride, dethroning Earth from its privileged position as the center of the universe. Dennis Danielson, in his fine article on the subject, 2 shows how widespread that view is by quoting the eminent geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky With Copernicus, Dobzhansky contends, “Earth was dethroned from its presumed centrality and preeminence.” Carl Sagan described Copernicanism as the first of a series of “Great Demotions… delivered to...

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