The Ophiucus Supernova
Post-Aristotelian stargazing in the European context (1604-1654)

Project

In October 1604 a giant supernova unexpectedly exploded in the constellation of Ophiucus and its bright light remained visible to the naked eye for many months. At first it was regarded as the insurgence of a “new star” or stella nova, although it was actually a “dying” star or a “supernova”, as today we know. At that time, however, the sudden appearance was an anomalous and stunning event for those observers that conceived the stars as “fixed” and the heavens as unalterable – the accepted position in physics and astronomy at that time. Astronomers as well as astrologers and other stargazers tried to explain the nature and significance of the novelty. The interpretation of the new star was one of the main speculative battlefields where opposing conceptions of the universe collided and its presumed origin was debated at length, from Galileo’s first astronomical studies (1604), passing through Kepler’s magnum opus on the subject (1606), to Giovanni Battista Riccioli’s exemplary synthesis fifty years later. As in the case of Tycho’s supernova in 1572 and of the great comet observed in 1577, the appearance of the supernova was deployed as a direct challenge to the physics and cosmology of Aristotle, at a time when all contemporaries either accepted Aristotle’s views or had originally been trained in them. For a growing number of scholars, the supernova of 1604 disputed Aristotle’s doctrine that the heavens and the earth were absolutely distinct, and that all sorts of change could occur only in the region below the moon. The 1604 supernova appeared from nowhere, outshining the planets before declining in brightness and finally disappearing. This should have been impossible for a star, and some interpreters preferred to view it as a meteorological event in the upper reaches of the air. But measurements established that the new object was beyond the moon’s sphere, hence part of the heavens, and hence impossible according to Aristotle’s cosmology. In addition to occasional observers and extemporaneous writers, the interpretation of the supernova involved the most renowned astronomers of the time, some of whom saw it as salient evidence against Aristotle’s theories and in favor of the new astronomical alternatives supported by Kepler and Galileo.

Kepler's Supernova Remnant (SNR). Composite image. Credits: NASA/ESA/JHU/R.Sankrit & W.Blaire

The Ophiucus Supernova: Post-Aristotelian Stargazing in the European Context (1604-1654) is a research project funded under the REA’s Marie Curie fellowships scheme to Dr. Matteo Cosci (P.I.), researcher at the University Ca’ Foscari Venice, Italy. This research will examine how the unexpected explosion of the “Kepler’s supernova” in European skies in 1604 fundamentally affected the development of Renaissance scientific thought from a historical, philosophical and cultural point of view. The study will be grounded in an extensive set of primary sources and documents assembled and analysed in their entirety for the first time.

The first phase of research will be conducted at the Department of History of Science at University of Oklahoma, while the return phase will take place at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage at Ca’ Foscari University, Venice. The study will also provide data to, and will be assisted by, the Terra-Astronomy research group, based at the University of Jena, Germany.

Media

Gallery

Videos

Overview of the SN1604 research project and its supporting Marie-Curie Individual Global fellowship

Overview of Kepler Supernova Remnant from NASA / Chandra X-ray Observatory

Podcast

Presentation of preliminary research results of the project at the international seminar meeting of the online series "Rencontres d'histoire et philosophie des sciences"

A flow of publications came out after the appearance of the "new star" of 1604. A vivid correspondence network was also reactivated by the astronomers of that time to discuss the conformation, the position and the astrological meaning of the newly observed astronomical phenomenon. While he was teaching a curricular course on the teoriche of planets, Galileo Galilei was appointed for three plenary lectures on the event by the Studio of Padua. Apparently, the text of those lectures never appeared in print, even though they provoked the resentful reactions of many Aristotelian philosophers. Only some fragmentary teaching notes and a later report on those lectures are extant. The name of Galileo, however, was then and now related to some pseudonymous works that appeared on that topic soon after the conferences. In this talk Matteo Cosci argues not only that Galileo was the actual author of a couple of those pseudonymous works, but that even a third one can be newly attributed to the witty genius of the Pisan astronomer. The collation of these and other textual evidence sheds new light on Galileo's understanding of the "stella nova" and his work in observational astronomy before the introduction of the telescope in his late Paduan years.

References

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  • Cosci, Matteo, 2020. “Galileo’s account of Kepler’s supernova (SN1604): a Copernican assessment”, in: M.T. Lago (ed.), Proceedings of the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union. Understanding historical observations to study transient phenomena 14, Symposium A30 (Astronomy in Focus 30), Vienna, 20-22 August 2018, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 179-180.
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  • [...]
Kepler's De Stella Nova in Pede Serpentarii (Prague, 1606)

News

  • postponed: Matteo Cosci, "Galileo alias Alimberto Mauri within the Florentine Dispute on the New Star", International Conference: Galileo before the Sidereus Nuncius, Dipartimento di Filosofia, Università degli Studi di Milano.
  • 01-04-2021: Matteo Cosci, " Galileo’s sources for his lectures and studies on the ‘new star’", seminar series ‘Rencontres d’histoire et philosophie des sciences’, online meeting, Dipartimento di Filosofia e Beni Culturali di Ca’ Foscari, AIHS, Centre Jean Pepin
  • 10-12-2020: publication of Patrick J. Boner (ed.), Kepler's New Star (1604): Context and Controversy. Leiden - Boston: Brill, 2020.
  • 27-11-2019: Matteo Cosci, "Galileo under cover: Pseudonymous Writings on the New Star", ERC Workshop on Early Modern Cosmology (Discussant: David Juste), Dipartimento di Filosofia e Beni Culturali, Università Ca’ Foscari V enezia.
  • 15-10-2019: Matteo Cosci, "Historical Documents on Kepler’s Supernova: a Typological Inventory", Historical Supernovae, Novae and Other Transient Events interdisciplinary workshop, Lorentz Centre, Leiden (Netherlands).
  • 09-03-2019: Matteo Cosci, "Esalazioni terrestri e vapori atmosferici tra neostoicismo e aristotelismo vernacolare", convegno conclusivo del progetto ERC "I confini dell’aristotelismo vernacolare", Warwick University in Venice, Palazzo Pesaro Papafava.
  • 26-02-2019: Matteo Cosci, "On Kepler’s Supernova: a Work in progress and a Research Proposal", seminario interdisciplinare, INAF, Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova presso La Specola, Padova.
  • 19-01-2019: Matteo Cosci, "Galileo Galilei, ‘Cecco di Ronchitti’ e la disputa sulla stella nuova", XVII Giornata Galileiana presso l’Accademia Galileiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti in Padova.
  • 11-01-2019: Matteo Cosci, "Galilei, Keplero e la supernova: una controversia epistemologica", Idee in Bozza: Seminari Filosofici, Università degli Studi di Parma.
  • 22-08-2018: Matteo Cosci, "Galileo's account on Kepler's Supernova (SN1604): a Copernican assessement", General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (Terra-Astronomy Focus Meeting 5: Understanding historical observations to study transient phenomena), Vienna, Austria.
  • 11-05-2018: Matteo Cosci, "Il Dialogo di Cecco da Ronchitti between, comedy, satire and astronomical disputatio", International conference "I generi letterari nell'aristotelismo volgare rinascimentale", Università Ca' Foscari, Venezia.
A star set to explode. Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA

Partnerships

Matteo Cosci’s project (2021) is being conducted at Ca’ Foscari Dipartimento di Filosofia e Beni Culturali in partnership with the the Department of History of Science at University of Oklahoma.

It benefits from ongoing collaborations with:

For more information on researching Renaissance philosophy at Ca’ Foscari, follow the activities of the Center for Renaissance and Early Modern Thought (CREMT).