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De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (About this soundlisten ; English translation: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) is the seminal work on the heliocentric theory of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) of the Polish Renaissance. The book, first printed in 1543 in Nuremberg, Holy Roman Empire, offered an alternative model of the universe to Ptolemy's geocentric system, which had been widely accepted since ancient times.

When the book was finally published, demand was low, with an initial print run of 400 failing to sell out.[19] Copernicus had made the book extremely technical, unreadable to all but the most advanced astronomers of the day, allowing it to disseminate into their ranks before stirring great controversy.[20] And, like Osiander, contemporary mathematicians and astronomers encouraged its audience to view it as a useful mathematical fiction with no physical reality, thereby somewhat shielding it from accusations of blasphemy.[21]

Among some

Among some astronomers, the book "at once took its place as a worthy successor to the Almagest of Ptolemy, which had hitherto been the Alpha and Omega of astronomers".[22] Erasmus Reinhold hailed the work in 1542 and by 1551 had developed the Prutenic Tables ("Prussian Tables"; Latin: Tabulae prutenicae; German: Preußische Tafeln) using Copernicus' methods. The Prutenic Tables, published in 1551, were used as a basis for the calendar reform instituted in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. They were also used by sailors and maritime explorers, whose 15th-century predecessors had used Regiomontanus' Table of the Stars. In England, Robert Recorde, John Dee, Thomas Digges and William Gilbert were among those who adopted his position; in Germany, Christian Wurstisen, Christoph Rothmann and Michael Mästlin, the teacher of Johannes Kepler; in Italy, Giambattista Benedetti and Giordano Bruno whilst Franciscus Patricius accepted the rotation of the Earth. In Spain, rules published in 1561 for the curriculum of the University of Salamanca gave students the choice between studying Ptolemy or Copernicus.[23][24] One of those students, Diego de Zúñiga, published an acceptance of Copernican theory in 1584.[25]

Very soon, nevertheless, Copernicus' theory was attacked with Scripture and with the common Aristotelian proofs. In 1549, Melanchthon, Luther's principal lieutenant, wrote against Copernicus, pointing to the theory's apparent conflict with Scripture and advocating that "severe measures" be taken to restrain the impiety of Copernicans.[26] The works of Copernicus and Zúñiga—the latter for asserting that De revolutionibus was compatible with Catholic faith—were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by a decree of the Sacred Congregation of March 5, 1616 (more than 70 years after Copernicus' publication):

This Holy Congregation has also learned about the spreading and acceptance by many of the false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture, that the earth moves and the sun is motionless, which is also taught by Nicholaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and by Diego de Zúñiga's In Job ... Therefore, in order that this opinion may not creep any further to the prejudice of Catholic truth, the Congregation has decided that the books by Nicolaus Copernicus [De revolutionibus] and Diego de Zúñiga [In Job] be suspended until corrected.[27]

De revolutionibus was not formally banned but merely withdrawn from circulation, pending "corrections" that would clarify the theory's status as hypothesis. Nine sentences that represented the heliocentric system as certain were to be omitted or changed. After these corrections were prepared and formally approved in 1620 the reading of the book was permitted.[28] But the book was never reprinted with the changes and was available in Catholic jurisdictions only to suitably qualified scholars, by special request.[citation needed] It remained on the Index until 1758, when Pope Benedict XIV (1740–58) removed the uncorrected book from his revised Index.[29]

Arthur Koestler described De revolutionibus as "The Book That Nobody Read" saying the book "was and is an all-time worst seller", despite the fact that it was reprinted four times.[30] Owen Gingerich, a writer on both Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, disproved this after a 35-year project to examine every surviving copy of the first two editions. Gingerich showed that nearly all the leading mathematicians and astronomers of the time owned and read the book; however, his analysis of the marginalia shows that they almost all ignored the cosmology at the beginning of the book and were only interested in Copernicus' new equant-free models of planetary motion in the later chapters. Also, Nicolaus Reimers in 1587 translated the book into German.

Gingerich's efforts and conclusions are recounted in The Book Nobody Read, published in 2004 by Walker & Co. His census[31] included 276 copies of the first edition (by comparison, there are 228 extant copies of the [31] included 276 copies of the first edition (by comparison, there are 228 extant copies of the First Folio of Shakespeare) and 325 copies of the second.[32] The research behind this book earned its author the Polish government's Order of Merit in 1981. Due largely to Gingerich's scholarship, De revolutionibus has been researched and catalogued better than any other first-edition historic text except for the original Gutenberg Bible.[33] One of the copies now resides at the Archives of the University of Santo Tomas in the Miguel de Benavides Library. In January 2017, a second-edition copy was stolen as part of a heist of rare books from Heathrow Airport and remains unrecovered.[34]

English translations of De revolutionibus have included:

  • On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, translated by C. G. Wallis, Annapolis, St John's College Bookstore, 1939. Republished in volume 16 of the Great Books of the Western World, Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, 1952; in the series of the same name, published by the Franklin Library, Franklin Center, Philadelphia, 1985; in volume 15 of the second edition of the Great Books, Encyclopædia Britannica, 1990; and Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995, Great Minds Series – Science,