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Speaker sees astronomy through historical lens


Copernicus and the Astrologes, an event last night at the USF Bill Young Hall, brought forth an important connection between ancient astrologist Nicolaus Copernicus and conflicts between science and religion. 

Robert Westman, a University of California professor and author of the novel “The Copernican Question,” discussed early Copernican ideas to an audience of over 60.

Though Copernicus is regarded by many as one of the most revolutionary thinkers of his time for proposing the heliocentric theory, Westman said the importance of science goes far beyond his theory.

“Science is a major presence in all of our lives, but it’s also contested for a lot of people who don’t trust science,” Westman said. “Being able to appreciate the scientific work that was done then can really open up an understanding of how it’s gotten now.” 

Westman’s lecture started with the history of astrology, specifically in 15th century Italy, and the influence that Copernicus drew from famous thinkers such as Giovanni Bianchi, whose astronomical tables served as the foundation for most of his studies. 

For some his theories were controversial, threatening the religious beliefs of the people toward free will. If the stars were to predict what would happen on Earth, that would leave no room for individual choice, leading many to believe he was against Christian beliefs. 

That war between science and faith still continues today, Westman said, between astrology and astronomy. Astrology is a spiritual understanding of the universe and its mythical power to affect people and events on Earth. Astronomy, by contrast, is the scientific study of celestial objects based on empirical evidence. 

Westman has studied the history of science since 1966, and his novel was regarded as “a radically new approach to the subject” by the Journal for the History of Astronomy. 

“When I was growing up, science was becoming a major factor in American life,” Westman said. “(But) it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that it was first taught; I took the course and I became excited.”

Westman also said the astrologer’s theories were the beginning of a major long-term scientific change.

Director of the USF Humanities Institute Elizabeth Bird said she reached out to Westman for a science-filled night of academic lecture. 

One of the goals of the lecture, Bird said, was to help students and faculty from all different disciplines to realize why Copernicus’ ideas are still relevant today, as he formed the basis of what scientists and astrologers still refer to. 

“(We want) to educate (everyone) about the development of modern science or early modern science,” Bird said. “What happened, how it developed, and why it’s still significant today.”

“We find our audiences like discussions of science, the history of science, and the importance of science in society,” Bird said. “It (was) an enrichment opportunity for students, faculty and the public.” 

The Humanities Institute will host other guest speakers later this semester, including Henry Jenkins, a distinguished professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts. 

Jenkins will visit campus and speak at Bill Young Hall next Thursday.