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The science of making things happen

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Nicolaus Copernicus led a scientific revolution in Europe during the 1500s. He might never have done it without a protégé who convinced him to publish proof that the earth revolves around the sun and spins on its axis.

The catalyst was Georg Rheticus, at age 24 already a math professor at a prominent university and an enthusiastic student of Copernicus. During what turned into a three-year leave of absence in Nuremberg, Rheticus made it his job to bring the astronomer’s discoveries to the world’s attention.

Only decades after the invention of the printing press, the early 1500s resembled today’s exciting and unsettled Internet age. Knowledge moved fast. Rheticus exploited every opportunity that cropped up and created opportunities where none existed.

Some highlights:
  • He made a splash. Arriving at Copernicus’ door, Rheticus presented his hero with three books, quite an extravagance at the time.
  • He networked fiercely. Rheticus worked his way into publishing circles in Nuremberg, including befriending a scout for the most prominent printer, who ended up publishing Copernicus.
  • He grabbed advance publicity. To hype Copernicus’ forthcoming book, On the Revolutions, Rheticus got permission to explain some of its main sections through his Narratio Prima, the “First Report.”
  • He leveraged allies, including Copernicus’ best friend Tiedemann Giese, to keep exhorting the great astronomer to act. For many years, Giese had lobbied his friend to publish. In the end, it was Rheticus who persuaded him.
  • He finessed any possible opposition. Rheticus knew very well that the book’s radical findings might be greeted as heresy. His own father had been executed, possibly for sorcery. Rheticus quietly took steps to neutralize criticism.
  • He made it happen. Rheticus himself is thought to have written out a clean copy for the publisher. Copernicus died on the day he received his first printed copy, meaning that Rheticus had compelled one of history’s greatest scientists to come forward just in time.
Lesson: Catalysts lead change.

—Adapted from Copernicus’ Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began, Jack Repcheck, Simon & Schuster.

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