Kent Scientists

Thomas Digges  (c1546-c1595) 

Grew up at Wootton, lived at Chevening

Astronomer who championed the idea that the Earth moves round the sun.

At a time when anybody who thought about such matters still believed that the Earth was fixed at the centre of the universe, Thomas Digges was the first person in Britain to promote the novel idea that the Earth actually travels round the sun. Thomas spent his early years at Wootton Court between Canterbury and Dover, where he was brought up to share the mathematical interests of his father Leonard. In later life Thomas played his part in public affairs, as a respected Member of Parliament with a country residence at Chevening near Sevenoaks, involved in such matters as the design of Dover Harbour, and in military logistics, where his mathematical expertise was of value. But it is as an astronomer that Thomas Digges is chiefly remembered.  

At some stage Digges acquired a copy of one of the most significant books in the history of science, 'De Revolutionibus …' by Nicolaus Copernicus. In this book, published in Germany in 1543, the author reasoned that the sun might be at the centre of the cosmos, with the Earth travelling round it, in contradiction to the long-held view that the Earth was central and the sun moved. The book was only available in Latin and is no easy read – it has been dubbed ‘The book nobody read’ – but Digges persevered.

Digges' version of Copernicus' diagram of the solar system, showing the sun at the centre and the distant stars as 'glorious lights innumerable'.

In 1576 he published an English translation of part of it, inserted into a new edition of one of his late father’s books which was still selling well. This was the first time any part of 'De Revolutionibus' became available anywhere in a language other than Latin, and Digges made it clear in his commentary that he supported the arguments in it. (Digges’ actual copy of 'De Revolutionibus' survives, now in the library of Geneva University.)  

Rather than simply reproducing Copernicus’ theory, Digges elaborated on it, in particular in a famous diagram, reproduced here. Where Copernicus had shown the stars fixed within a thin outermost shell of the cosmos, Digges had them scattered outwards in all directions, quaintly described as ‘glorious lightes innumerable’ spreading ‘infinitely up’– something much closer to reality as known today. So we owe to Thomas Digges the idea of an infinite universe.

He also realised that with an infinite number of stars, the night sky should appear much brighter than it actually does, a riddle which later became known as Olbers’ Paradox and was not resolved until the 20th century when it became apparent that the universe has not existed for ever and is evolving.  

supernova

The remnant of the stellar explosion which Digges witnessed in 1572 now appears as a glowing ball of gas in this recent magnified infrared image. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA)

Thomas Digges also had the good fortune to be living at the moment when a rare astronomical event occurred: the sudden blazing out of a previously insignificant star in our galaxy to enormous brightness for a few weeks, becoming what is now known as a naked-eye supernova. This has only happened a handful of times in recorded history, and one of these was in November 1572. Digges studied the phenomenon in detail, and wrote a book about it.  

Digges died in 1595 and was buried in St Aldermanbury Church in London, which does not survive. The memorial there commended his 'rare knowledge in Geometry, Astrologie and Mathematicall Sciences'.

One of his sons was Sir Dudley Digges, a diplomat and politician who was also the builder of the mansion at Chilham Castle.

 

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