Several months ago I posted a blog on Geocentrism and planned to follow it with a “part 2” on Heliocentrism. It has taken almost a full revolution around the sun for me to get to this, almost forgotten second post, but alas! Here it is.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of hype about Galileo; a great man and scientist by all means, but often very misunderstood or held out of context in consideration of bias and agenda. Indeed several times I even heard people claim that he was beheaded by the Church or put to death by those who wouldn’t listen to his claim about the solar system. These of course are the extremes and probably formed from the dregs of some conspiracy theory which has found a foothold among those who hold no regard for the catholic church. In a broader sense, where it is at least known that Galileo was not a ‘martyr for science’, he is still treated as one. The truth is the Galileo did get into trouble with the church and was in conflict with other scientists of his day. His theory about heliocentrism was at the center of this conflict and is often held as proof of a conflict between science and religion. The Story of Galileo will have to wait for another day, but for now I bring him up because the truth is that Galileo was really a latecomer in the belief about heliocentrism. The concept can be traced as far back as the Greeks, it was considered in Islam, and theorized by a catholic priest by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) years before Galileo.
Copernicus’ book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) was first published in 1543, the year of his death; but his interest in the subject can be traced several decades earlier to a manuscript in which he first outlined his theory. This early paper was called “Commentariolus”. The Theory was taken seriously and found interest as high as the seat of pastor of the church; Pope Clement VII, but because of a lack of firm evidence, which was also Galileo’s problem, the theory could only remain a theory.
Some of the points which Copernicus set were:
- Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point
- The centre of Earth is the centre of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the moon around the Earth
- All the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the centre of the Universe
- The distance between the Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from the Earth and Sun to the stars, so parallax is not observed in the stars
- The stars are immovable; their apparent daily motion is caused by the daily rotation of the Earth
- Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun; the Earth has more than one motion
- Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun causes the seeming reverse in direction of the motions of the planets.
You can see that some of the points which Copernicus made are also inaccurate, because like the Geocentric model, it still relied on observable evidence. The Sun is not the center of the universe any more than the Earth was in the Geocentric model; Stars are also not immovable but are also in motion.
In many ways it was probably a hard sell of a theory mainly because observation was not as advanced as it is today. This only makes it even more interesting that the theory was even proposed! Just think about this. Without a telescope, a space shuttle, aircraft, satellites, and the many other tools we have the benefit of using to work out such problems; what would we conclude about the world today? Looking at the sky can we tell what circles what? Could we explain a distance between the Sun, Earth and Stars? Could we point out how to prove planets like Venus or Mercury were closer to the sun than the earth. But it then becomes even more amazing that the alternate theory should arise in the first place. This among many other advances in science during the middle ages certainly demonstrates that religion didn’t have a negative effect on science or inquiry as some claim. In fact it may have been because of religion, specifically the religions that taught of a Creator, that men began to study and learn about the natural system of universe they were born into.
The Heliocentric model was slow to gain a footing but that doesn’t mean it was without consideration. In fact the opposing models both made their way on to a world map nearly a century later. And several other Illuminations from the period demonstrate the contrasts between the geocentric and heliocentric universe. This Orbis Terrarum from 1660 was made by Nicolaus Visscher. The two circles on the top and bottom of the map show the Geo and Helio centered models.
All in all I would have to argue that while the heliocentric model ended up being more accurate it still wasn’t as fun and interesting as the geocentric universe. There are still times when looking at the sky at night, I can envision the beauty of the geocentric universe, with its order and ascending architecture, but then I come back to my senses and get a little sad that its just dead cold space. Either way its hard not to see the heavens as something full of wonder and beauty.