When Mars moved the world

All the night sky talk this summer will be about the remarkable visibility of the planet Mars. Mars will come to its opposition with the Sun at the end of July 2018, a movement that happens only once every two years, so this is the best time in its cycle to see it.

But even though Mars will be really bright this summer, it would be hard for the red planet to top the dramatic moment nearly 500 years ago when its opposition to the Sun moved the world and inspired one of the most fantastic changes in human history.

Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus observing the opposition of Mars at Frombork Cathedral as painted by Jan Matejko, 1873

That fantastic change happened in the 1500s when the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus observed Mars from his turret at the Frombork Cathedral. From there he made his observations of the night sky, but something deeply stirred Copernicus in June of 1512 as he observed the opposition of Mars, and it gave him the courage to write his “Little Commentary” about the movement of the Earth.

His idea that the Earth was moving around the Sun was a bold theory, but it wasn’t entirely unknown.

It’s like this: Copernicus was familiar with the ancient teachings of the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras who taught about the movement of the Earth several thousand years earlier. He also knew that the followers of Pythagoras were initiates, which meant that they honored the sacredness of their knowledge by keeping certain truths secret, only passing them on to their followers by word-of-mouth. By publishing his ideas about the Earth’s motion, Copernicus was taking a great risk, and it was one that he was acutely aware of. Still, he eventually published his entire theory, but the first copy of his book reached him only at his last breath on the day he died. That was nearly 500 years ago, on May 24th in 1543.

As you look for Mars in the east after midnight in June, and closer to sunset as e draw toward opposition at the end of the month, consider the courage and risk taking that the red planet is known for, and give a nod to the man who was inspired by the very sight to publish the sacred mystery wisdom that literally moved the world.

For my audio segment on When Mars Moved the World” visit my archive housed at Interlochen Public Radio.

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