I'm interested in really understanding what Copernicus was getting at with the quote 'mathematics is written for mathematicians'.

He clearly isn't referring to the rigorous nature of mathematical papers since he lived in the year 1500.

What was he trying to describe in saying this?


  • 3
    $\begingroup$ He is identifying his audience and, at the same time, attempting to immunise his work (De revolutionibus) to criticism by the church. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Jan 17, 2020 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ "Mathematicus" meant astrologer, there was no "mathematicians"; if mathematics proper was meant the word to use was "geometry". This is the classical Latin word use (as seen in e.g. in Codex Justinianeus: 9.18.0. De maleficiis et mathematicis et ceteris similibus.;9.18.2 Artem geometriae discere atque exerceri publice intersit.) $\endgroup$
    – sand1
    Jan 18, 2020 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ He meant that the general public cannot read and understand mathematical texts. This was the case before Copernicus, during his time and ever after. $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2020 at 13:39

1 Answer 1


“Mathemata mathematicis scribuntur.”

is the original Latin of Copernic which is easily translated as

“Mathematics is written for mathematicians.”

but Edward Rosen chose to translate this famous passage as

“Astronomy is written for astronomers.”

Obviously "astronomy" is not the author's word and also it is generally agreed that there was no mathematicians around if the word denotes what we mean today. The quote is commented by Westmann (The Copernican Question, 2011, p.37):

Edward Rosen chose to translate this famous passage as "Astronomy is written for astronomers,” straining to get the text’s language into agreement with his own assumptions about how Copernicus conceived his role. But neither my rendering nor Rosen’s is quite satisfactory without further qualification. For the historian to call Copernicus a mathematician evokes confusing associations with the current domain of meaning, in which mathematicians may or may not test hypotheses against the physical world; and to call him an astronomer overrides the meaning that mathematicus had in the sixteenth century, that is, someone skilled in any subject that involved mathematics—for example, optics, music, statics, or astrology.

This is rather early in his book and it is mostly a rhetorical move: obviously De revolutionibus is not for someone skilled in optics, music or statics.

History of Science tends to get badly distorted when people refuse to acknowledge that from Hellenistic times down to Galileo astrology was a major branch of interest. Attempts to erase it have been made first by devout Christians and later by the Enlightenment. Westman has made a significant contribution to put things back where they belong (but that is an other topic).

Rosen's rendering needs qualification as the Latin words astronomia/astronomer appear in Osiander's preface. Latin translation of Aristotle use the word 'astrologia' for which modern editions put 'astronomy'. Mathematics is referred to as 'geometry' and this is also the meaning of the (fake) motto "Let no one untrained in geometry/ageometretos/ enter here". The distinction "mathematics" vs. "geometry" is clearly present in Classical Latin as seen it the Codex Justinianeus (9.18.0, quoted above).

So, the textual problem is how much astrology was the 16th.c. Church willing to allow? There is no good answer, at least not before Galileo's trial. Liberal minded authorities tended to present it as 'mathematics' while zealots saw it as noxious false prophecies. Copernic composed his dedication well informed for whom it was written.


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