The impact of the Heliocentric Theory
Heliocentric: Relating to the sun as a center; appearing as if seen from the sun’s center.(Webster,447) The heliocentric theory was first introduced to the world by a Polish astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus.
Copernicus published his views on the heliocentric theory in his book Commentariolus, in 1514, which sparked the time period now known as the Copernican Revolution. Heliocentrism was proven true by the discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton; through their efforts to prove the validity of the heliocentric theory people began to find truth in science through experimentation rather than religion with no proof. Many scientists went through great ordeals for their scientific beliefs, thus making the heliocentric theory the most electrifying idea in human history.
Ancient people’s believed in Gods and deities for causes to nature and the unexplained. Once the fourth century BC rolled around, people began to see “astronomical phenomena” as “natural compound products of simple operations repeated in perpetuity” rather than the actions of Gods. (Morphet, p.6) Greeks did not revere celestial bodies very strongly in their religion, despite having deities for the Sun and Moon. (North, p.78) Different peoples beliefs varied greatly in ancient times. Different countries progressed in thought at different speeds. During the Renaissance, many began to “toss aside medieval preoccupations with supernatural forces and turned to secular concerns” like fame. (Yamasaki, p.50) With the “Age of Discovery,” people began to think for themselves and ponder truths through philosophy, science, astronomy, astrology, etc.
Philosophers’ minds began to turn, the human mind was finally awake.
Plato, a famous Greek philosopher, believed stars were Gods that the creator gave life to. This view was very influential and proved to be sort of a religion for intellectual idealists, no longer for the populace. At the time, the thought of heavenly bodies being divine, and stars being eternal objects in unchanging motion were common knowledge. Thinking otherwise was considered Atheistic. (North, p.78)
Fellow famous Renaissance man, and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, was also a very important figure. Born in Stagira in 384, Aristotle is regarded as the most influential ancient philosopher of the sciences. Aristotle refined Callippus’ geometrical and spherical concepts, and developed the geocentric theory, which was believed for two thousand years. (North, p.80)
Aristotle believed that the sphere is the most perfect figure because when rotated to any diameter it occupies the same space; and that circular motions are a sign of perfection, which is why Heaven is considered divine. The spherical nature of the Earth and Universe according to Aristotle, is the natural movement of Earthly matter from all places downwards, to a center, around which a sphere of matter will build up. “Only circular motion is capable of endless repetition without a reversal of direction, and rotary motion is prior to linear because what is external, or at least could have always existed, is prior, or at least potentially prior, to what is not.”
In Aristotle’s book De Caelo (On the Heavens), he speaks of the celestial sphere, the Earth’s center being the same shape, and dismissing the idea of the Earth rotating at the center of the universe. He also dismisses the idea of an orbital motion of the Earth. (North, p.81)
Contradicting Aristotle, Heracleides, an astronomer, believed in the rotation of the Earth on it’s axis and is known to be the earliest astronomer to stand by it. He was thought to have taken the first step in “Copernicanism.” It is believed in the years to follow that Copernicus was said to have mentioned Heracleides’ name in this connection. (North, p.85)
Aristarchus of Samos was the first astronomer to clearly put forth a true sun-centered theory, learned from Archimedes. (North, p.85) “…Aristarchus’ hypotheses are that the fixed stars and the Sun are stationary, that the Earth is carried in a circular orbit around the Sun, which lies in the middle of it’s orbit, and that the spheres of fixed stars, having the same center as the Sun, is so great in extent that the circle on which the Earth is supposedly carried is in the same ratio to the distance of the sphere has to its surface.” (North, p.85-6) If Aristarchus did believe in heliocentrism, he still could not prove the differences in the Earth’s motion and seasons, which explains its failure to be accepted. (North, p.86-7)
Although scientists such as Eudoxus, Callippus, and Aristotle all came up with Earth-centered systems based by providing a center for all motions, Ptolemy was triumphant for he was able to explain sphere sizes and achieved a single system, which was not done by the others. “When Ptolemy achieved a single system, the sizes of the shells accommodating maximum and minimum planetary distances were settled on the principle that there must be no void, no wasted space, between them.” (North, p.285) His misconception was he believed that if the Earth was not fixed entirely, it would shatter, even though Copernicus reveals that planets’ distances from Earth and motions vary, and that the Earth endlessly repeats in motion. (North, p.286) Despite the Catholic Church adopting Ptolemy’s and Aristotle’s beliefs of geocentrism, those theories did not correspond to the astronomical observations of the time. (Yamasaki, p.50)
The Copernican Revolution began during the European Renaissance and was named after Nicolaus Copernicus. (Morphet, p.4) “…this period saw elements of a modern scientific outlook extend its boundaries into areas of enquiry where observation and measurement had hitherto been less important than philosophical speculation and a priori reasoning.” (Morphet, p.4-5)
“…although the Copernican heliocentric theory dealt directly with the structure of the solar system, its indirect consequences embraced the whole fabric of thought, inaugurating a breakthrough in people’s outlook on the world. Copernicus liberated the human mind, which had been fettered up to his day by traditional conventions, and he opposed the basing of science solely on sensory experiences. Taking a stand against the entire world of that time and against the supreme authority that he recognized—the church and the Holy Scripture, against the views consolidated and sanctified by the knowledge of scholars of many previous centuries—he instilled into the minds of men boldness in thinking, but he also taught them humility in the quest for truth. Copernicus’ science of the stars is also a science of man and his place on an Earth which is spinning through the universe.” (Adamczewski, p. 156-7)
Copernicus published the first outline on heliocentrism in his book Commentary on the Hypothesis of the Movement of Celestial Orbs, in 1514. It was the first of its kind, without all of the mathematics. (Adamczewski, p.114) The Copernican theory explained the Earth-Sun line and gave a more plausible reason as to why the Sun’s role is important in the motions of the Moon and planets in the solar system when compared to Ptolemy’s. “By introducing the Sun into the theory of motion of every planet, Copernicus made it possible to represent all in a single system.” (North, p.285) The heliocentric system presented the planets positions more logically, going around or below the Sun. It also explained the relative sizes of the planet’s retrograde arcs and why outer-stellar planets are brightest in opposition. (North, p.287)
Society’s reaction to the heliocentric system was not a favorable one. Many people thought “Who would dare to place Copernicus’ authority higher than the Holy Scripture?” (Adamczewski, p.148) Believing that the Earth rotates on its axis, planets revolve around the Sun, and planetary orbits were elliptical due to the force of gravity was then thought of as inconceivable. (Morphet, p.4) Copernicus was passionately criticized by colleagues and peers for his enthusiasm of the ancient philosophers, who were viewed as incorrect. (Adamczewski, p.141) The only point that Copernicus was trying to makes was that “…there does not exist any common center for all the celestial orbs or spheres; the center of the Earth is not the center of the universe; but only the center of gravity and the center of the Moon’s path; all the planets revolve around the Sun, which is the center.” (Adamczewski, p.115)
As a result of the bad reaction towards Copernicus’ views, he hesitated from publishing his famous book De Revolutionibus. Copernicus claims that “apprehension of the derision which I had to fear because of the hard-to- understand novelty of my theory.” (Adamczewski, p.144) Prior to the March 21, 1543 publication of De Revolutionibus, a falsifier of Copernicus’ work, Andreas Osiander, added his own foreword to the book saying that it was ” a fictitious scheme for calculations,” just an hypothesis.
Osiander also had the audacity to change Copernicus’ title to De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. (Adamczewski, p.153-4)
To free himself from heresy, Copernicus dedicated his book to Pope Paul III: “I am fully aware, Holy Father, that as soon as they hear that in these volumes of mine about the revolutions of the spheres of the universe I attribute some sort of motion to the Earth, some persons will immediately raise a cry of condemnation against me and my theories.” (Adamczewski, p.152) Ironically, Copernicus’ forward in De Revolutionibus states that “…Copernicus’ conveys to his contemporaries and to generations to come his new ideas which were to prove to be so dangerous to the order then extant.” (Adamczewski, p.137) Little did he know how true his words were.
De Revolutionibus consists of six volumes: 1)General survey of Copernicus’ system, and plane and spherical triangles. 2)Spherical astronomy. 3)The precession and motion of the Earth. 4)The Moon. 5)Planets in longitude. 6)Planets in latitude. (North, p.285-6) Despite Copernicus’ book being six volumes it is still similar to Ptolemy’s book, Almagest. (North, p.286)
The Church did not take any definite stand with Copernicus’ book—since it was dedicated to the Pope and thought of only as an “hypothesis” due to the false forward by Osiander—until the Reformation and scientific discoveries like Galileo’s, was it seen as a threat to the power of the Church. (Adamczewski, p.158) In 1620, Cardinal of St. Cecilia and Bishop Albano, the Secretary of the Congregation placed Copernicus’ book on the Index of Prohibited Books, which resulted in Orthodox Catholics not being allowed to read it for two centuries. (Adamczewski, p.159)
The Age of Discovery was not a safe time for any “scientific novelties” which were in opposition to the teachings of the Church. Any contradiction to the Holy Scripture were “subject to judgement by the Inquisition.” The Inquisito Haereticae Pravitatis, Sanctum Officium was established in 1215. It’s mission was to “combat all views and trends which were considered heretical and anti-church. All opposers were to face the dungeon, torture, and burning at the stake. The onset of the Reformation weakened the Inquisition, but only for a short time until the Church began to fight against it. Victims were adherents of heretical views, suspects of blasphemy and sacrilege, mainly scholars whose views and beliefs did not conform with the dogmas of the Church. (Adamczewski, p.157)
Reactions towards Copernicus’ views and theories had “aroused mush opposition and downright hostility” due to the inability of some to comprehend Copernicus. They were too “accustomed to hard-and-fast schemas” which was accepted worldly then, written in the Holy Scripture, deemed as “immutable.” (Adamczewski, p.147) This resulted in Copernicus’ last years being dismal and De Revolutionibus “lain well hidden.” (Adamczewski, p.148-50) Nicolaus Copernicus died in Frombork on May 24th, 1543. He was seventy years old and all that is know of his final years are hidden in the shadows of Frombork Castle. (Adamczewski, p.154)
Nicolaus Copernicus was seen as “…the man who set the Earth in motion.” (North, p.285) “No Genghis Khan, no Napoleon, no emperor nor pope, has had a more radical influence on the history of mankind than Nicolaus Copernicus.” (Adamczewski, p.7) “Of all the discoveries and opinions proclaimed nothing surely had made such a deep impression on the human mind as the science of Copernicus.” (Adamczewski, p. 157)
Giordano Bruno, who also suffered from the Inquisition for his scientific views as did Galileo, had said that “Copernicus had not only moved the Earth but also set in motion the minds of men.” (Adamczewski, p.161)
“The Copernican Revolution consisted in overcoming the view which had enormous prestige sanctified by centuries of acceptance as scientific knowledge, in taking up the old idea of the heliocentric system, in creating for this Inquisition as ful and rigorous a scientific foundation as was possible with the framework of the time…Accepting a threefold motion of the Earth and placing it in the row of planets, of moving heavenly bodies, Copernicus constructed a new heliocentric models of the world and laid the foundation for a new vision of the universe.” (Adamczewski, p.156)
It did not end there. Three men would later come along to consolidate the Copernican heliocentric system: Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton. (Adamczewski, p.158)
The key figure in the battle to have the new astronomy accepted by the Church was Galileo Galilei. He “campaigned to reconcile” the Copernican theory with Christianity, which resulted in a program defined by Galileo to separate science and faith. (Morphet, p.5)
Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, Italy, in 1564. Galileo is most known for having invented the telescope, an instrument he would later use to find evidence to defend the heliocentric theory. A very opinionated and questioning man for his time, Galileo became unpopular for challenging ancient beliefs and believing in the Copernican theory. After he had learned of Hans Lippershey, a Dutch eyeglass-maker, inventing a spyglass, Galileo got himself one and altered it making the first telescope. He was now able to see thirty-three times farther into the sky. Despite the evidence Galileo was able to show to back up his discoveries, people still refused to believe him. Their ignorance and loyalty to the old Aristotelian ways was the problem. Through his telescope Galileo saw features if the Moon and endless amounts of stars, but people just thought that he was being tricked by the Moon.
In 1610, Galileo published his discoveries in a book called Starry Messenger. One of his discoveries being that of Jupiter having four Moons! Wow. It was translated and sold all over the world. By the end of that year, he had discovered that Jupiter also had rings, but most importantly he discovered that the Sun was the center of the solar system because the sunlight on the other planets move across like here on Earth. He now had the proof to defend the Copernican heliocentric theory, but would people believe him?
After the 1613 of another book called Letters on Sunspots, Pope Paul found Galileo’s book a threat to the Catholic Church. In 1616, The Pope denounced the Copernican theory, surprising Galileo. During 1626, a group formed and plotted to ruin Galileo. They felt that faith was more important than the truth of the universe. The asked Galileo to renounce his belief in heliocentrism and his discoveries because the Bible spoke nothing of his discoveries therefore they thought them false. Despite the evidence Galileo now had to prove the validity of the heliocentric theory, the Church ordered Galileo to speak of heliocentrism only as an hypothesis even though it was true.
Galileo’s third book, Dialogue on the Two Great Systems of the World, was about the Church and science. Although it was very popular the Pope banned it feeling it was wrong and insulting. The Church now saw his book as heresy and ordered Galileo to appear before the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Now 68 years old and failing in health, Galileo publicly recanted and admitted his crimes in order to save his life. He was not able to escape the wrath of the Inquisition and was confined to his home for the rest of his life. Seeing that the Inquisition gave harsher punishments than that, Galileo was glad to receive a light conviction. Galileo lived to be 78 years old, and died in 1642 due to sickness causing his to be bedridden his last three years. Through Galileo’s experiments and discoveries he was able to confirm Copernicus theories, further developed observational astronomy, and with Kepler, prepared the groundwork for Isaac Newton’s discovery of the Law of Universal Gravitation. (Adamczewski, p.158)
North, John. The Norton History of Astronomy ans Cosmology. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995.
Information on the history of astronomy, cosmology, and the important figures who helped to further develop science. Quotes and
information were used in my report.
Adamczewski, Jan. Nicolaus Copernicus and His Epoch. Washington DC: Copernicus Society of America, 197-.
A biography on Nicolaus Copernicus. Information on Copernicus and
quotes were used in my report.
Morphet, Clive. Galileo and Copernican Astronomy: A scientific world view defined. Boston: Buttherworths, 1977.
The influence of Copernicus and Galileo in the history of science. Information and quotes on these two figures were used in my report.
Silverburg, Robert. Four Men Who Changed the Universe. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1968.
Information on four figures who changed science: Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Brahe. Quotes and facts on all four of these
men were used in my report.
“Copernican System.” Passages from De Revolutionibus. http://es.rice.edu/ES/humsoc/Galileo/Things/copernican_system.html
Website containing information on Galileo, and other science-related
things involving Galileo. A picture of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory
was used to help with the background information to my report.
Sis, Peter. Starry Messenger. New York: Frances Foster Books, 1996.
A pictorial biography of Galileo Galilei. Information on his life was used for background information to my report.
Yamasaki, Mitch. The Scientific Revolution in Pre-Modern Europe. Honolulu,
Hawaii: National History Day, 1998.
An essay on the Scientific Revolution sparked by the introduction of
heliocentrism. Information on Copernicus and his influences were
used for background information.
“Galileo,” Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 96 Encyclopedia. (c)1993-1995 Microsoft
This CD-ROM contained photos and information on Galileo Galilei.
Facts on Galileo were used for background information in my report.
“Johannes Kepler,” Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 98 Encyclopedia. (c)1993-1997
This CD-ROM article contained general information on Kepler. Facts
on his impact in science were used in my research.
People Who Have Influenced Our Ideas of the Solar System. http://seds.lpl.arizona.edu/nineplanets/psc/theman.html
This website contained information on key figures in the development
of astronomy. Information on scientists was used in my research.