Find Your Innovation Rheticus

by Scott Bowden

The great astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus revolutionized our thinking about the cosmos.  Prior to Copernicus, the prevailing theory of astronomy, first articulated by Artistotle in 5th century B.C., postulated that the sun, stars, and planets all revolved around the Earth.  The Greek scholar Ptolemy expanded upon this concept in the 2nd century A.D. and documented the concentric spheres that made up the orbits of the various celestial bodies around the Earth.  The heliocentric view of our solar system that emerged from calculations and observations by Copernicus, upended the geocentric view and serves as the foundation of modern astronomy.

Yet at the time Copernicus formulated his theory in 1510, the geocentric view of the universe was strongly supported by the Ecclesiastical authorities and anyone daring to diverge from that theory faced persecution or worse.  As such, Copernicus hid his findings from the public at large for nearly thirty years, afraid of the response he might receive from publicizing such information.  Without some sort of intervention, it is possible that Copernicus would have passed away without ever sharing his revelations with the world and the Copernican revolution in astronomy might have never occurred.  The modern innovation practitioner can benefit from studying this episode and deriving lessons from the episode.

This intervention occurred in 1539 when the Professor of Mathematics at Wittenberg University, Georg Joachim Rheticus, made a dangerous, unsolicited 700 mile journey into northern Poland to study with Copernicus.  In addition to facing the threat of bandits and illness in his long journey, Rheticus also had to be wary of the fact that his presence in northern Poland as a Lutheran Protestant in a Catholic Diocese was particularly risky.  Despite these challenges, Rheticus found his way to Frauenburg, Poland and spent two years convincing Copernicus to publish his manuscript.  Rheticus helped Copernicus prepare the document and later carried it to Nuremburg to the leading printer of scientific works in Europe.  The result was the publication and dissemination of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, perhaps the most important book on astronomy in history.  Without Rheticus, the book might have never been discovered and the name of Copernicus would have faded into obscurity.

It is not entirely clear why Rheticus chose to make this journey to Frauenburg.  The author Dava Sobel, an expert on the history of astronomy, speculates that Rheticus was dedicated as a professor to transforming the ancient study of astrology, which focused on mundane elements of daily life (such as horoscopes), into a serious field focused on a person’s place in the world and overall fate.  Moreover, Rheticus believed that understanding the cosmos could “predict the emergence of religious prophets and the rise and fall of secular empires.”  To drive this transformation, Rheticus left Wittenburg and traveled around Germany for several months, seeking out the leading scholars of astronomy to absorb their views in order to inform his own thinking on the topic.  A breakthrough occurred in Nuremberg where Rheticus found out that a scholar in Poland named Copernicus had proposed a theory in which celestial bodies rotated around the Sun rather than the Earth, and Rheticus immediately saw the transformative nature of this idea and set out on his journey to find the person who had articulated this concept.

For the innovation practitioner, several lessons can be gleaned from this story.  First, one should remember the importance of teamwork in delivering new thinking.  In some cases, it may not be enough for an individual to develop insights about how to solve a problem without someone else helping to drive those ideas forward.  No matter how brilliant an idea might be, if that idea stagnates and is not publicized properly, that information might never reach the outside world.  In the case of Copernicus, it seems possible that his manuscript would have not gone anywhere without intervention from Rheticus.

A second lesson, which builds on the concept of teamwork in driving innovation, lies in the notion that having team members focused on solving similar problems can sometimes lead to serendipitous outcomes.  Although a diversity of thought is important in an innovation effort, sometimes it is crucial to have team members focused on similar goals in order for those individuals to synthesize their efforts to achieve an even greater, hybrid goal.  In the case of Copernicus, his work focused on transforming how people viewed the cosmos to better predict the location and occurrence of astronomical phenomena, while Rheticus focused on using the cosmos to make predictions about significant human actions on the ground.  The serendipitous confluence of these two concepts helped lead to the publication of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Another lesson is the importance of passion in any innovation endeavor.  Rheticus clearly was driven by some overwhelming instinct to seek out a greater understanding of the cosmos and this force motivated him to travel great distances during his quest, resulting almost certainly in great physical discomfort as well as potential peril in the insecure areas between towns.  Yet it took this kind of dedication to an objective for Rheticus to seek out Copernicus.  In our day-to-day interactions in the corporate world, we rarely see passion like that which motivated Rheticus, but we should always remember the power of motivation in driving towards an objective and when we find an individual who is extremely passionate about an idea, we should value that passion, even if it ends up driving our innovation in a slightly different direction.  After all, where Rheticus ended up from an intellectual standpoint (helping Copernicus publish the seminal work on astronomy) is very different from where he began his search (trying to find better ideas about astrology).

A final lesson from the story of Rheticus and Copernicus is the importance of freedom and time.  When Rheticus set out to pursue larger truths about the cosmos, he had the luxury of both the freedom to pursue these truths as well as the time to do so.  Rheticus had time to leave his hometown and travel to Nuremburg where he found the information that ultimately led him to Copernicus.  He then had the ability to travel even further to find Copernicus and to spend two years convincing him to publish his manuscript as well as helping him prepare the document.  In the hyper-connected world of 2015, the notion of even blocking off an hour a day to disconnect to think about new ideas seems unsustainable.

A decade ago we heralded Bill Gates and his twice a year “think weeks” in which he would disconnect from everyone and immerse himself in reading materials.  Before that we thought of a sabbatical as something that lasts months or even a year.  Nowadays such a sabbatical seems impossible to even consider, given how quickly the marketplace moves and the importance that some people place on staying constantly connected with the prevalence of social media.  Whether this is right or wrong in terms of driving innovation remains to be seen, but the story of Rheticus should remind us that sometimes taking time away from one’s day-to-day responsibilities can lead to great discoveries.


Dava Sobel, A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (New York: Walker & Company, 2011).

Robert Guth, “In Secret Hideaway, Bill Gates Ponders Microsoft’s Future,” Wall Street Journal (March 28, 2005).

Mark Archer, “The Miracle of the Heavens,” Wall Street Journal (April 4, 2015).

image credit: Wikipedia

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden is a Project Executive, Innovation Program Leader at IBM Global Services.

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