The gif above, from Malin Christersson’s Website, has been making the rounds of the Internet to much acclamation but it is in my opinion severely misleading in what it claims to represent. Some people have pointed out that the heliocentric model is false because the orbits should be elliptical. This is my opinion an irrelevance because the eccentricity of the planetary orbits, that is the degree by which the ellipses differ from a circle, is so small that in a diagram of this size it wouldn’t be really detectable. In fact illustrations of the heliocentric system tend to exaggerate the eccentricity to make it clear that the orbits are in fact ellipses. My problem is another. The two models are presented side by side as if they were directly comparable but in fact they are two radically different representations.
The heliocentric system is displayed from a bird’s eye, or perhaps a god’s eye, view from a position directly above the sun perpendicular to the plane of the planetary orbits somewhere a couple of billion kilometres out in space. One should point out the sizes of the orbits are not to scale. Opposed to this the presentation of the geocentric system is not something one could actually view in reality. It is a fictitious birds eye view of the system as reconstructed by the astronomers in antiquity based on the activities they saw in the heavens and herein lies the crux of the problem.
Viewed from the earth the moments of the celestial bodies is not the lovely regular circles depicted in the heliocentric model above but a bizarre dance of confusing movements. The sun appears to go around the earth once a year and the moon once every approximately twenty-nine days. The so-called inner planets mercury and venus both also appeared to take a year to orbit the earth never wandering far from the sun, at times to one side and at other times on the other. Often both disappeared for periods of time. This behaviour led some people in antiquity to speculate that they orbit the sun and not the earth, the so-called Egyptian or Heracleidian model. It is however the so-called outer planets mars, jupiter and saturn that display the most puzzling behaviour. They role along in one direction for a lengthy period of time and then appear to stand still for a short period before turning tail and heading back in the opposite direction after a short time remaining stationary again before resuming in the original direction. These apparent loops in the planets progress are known technically as retrograde motion. We now know that this is an illusion created within the heliocentric system as the earth moving faster overtakes one or other of the outer planets. Given the seemingly stationary condition of the earth this was a difficult conception leap for astronomical observers to make. In fact in two thousand or more years of astronomy only two people appear to have made that leap, Aristarchus of Samos in the third century BCE and Copernicus in the fifteenth century CE. Both of these visionaries still had to cope with the very obvious empirical evidence that the earth doesn’t move.
The gif above creates a false impression because it seems to imply that the simplicity of the heliocentric system makes its an obvious choice over the geocentric model but as should be obvious from my description of what you actually see as an observer on the earth, and all observers in the past were on the earth, making that choice is anything but simple or obvious. The creator of the gif includes a short history of the journey from geocentricity to heliocentricity, which unfortunately contains various errors and misconceptions, which I will now highlight.
≈ 350 BC, Aristotle
Aristotle a pupil of Plato, becomes the tutor of Alexander the Great. Aristotle’s views of the world shape science for centuries. His influence lasts until the enlightenment. In his book On the Heavens (part 14), Aristotle asserts that:
From these considerations then it is clear that the earth does not move and does not lie elsewhere than at the centre.
Aristotle is just one of many scholars from antiquity whose views influenced the future views of the world. He in fact inherited and modified the homocentric geocentric views and models of Eudoxus and Callippus. These models could explain retrograde motion fairly well but not the observable variation in brightness of the planets. This was not the system that medieval Europe inherited from antiquity. See below Ptolemy.
≈ 250 BC, Aristarchus
Aristarchus estimates the size of the sun to be much larger than the size of the earth. Based on this observation he then presents the heliocentric model.
The geometrical text, which is attributed to Aristarchus, is for determining both the distance of the sun from the earth and its size relative to the moon. It is a purely geocentric text and has nothing to do with his speculation about a heliocentric cosmos. There are no direct accounts of Aristarchus’ heliocentric model so we don’t actually know what caused him to adopt it.
≈ 250 BC, Archimedes
In The Sand-Reckoner, Archimedes estimates the number of sand corns in the universe using the heliocentric model of Aristarchus.
In the Sand Reckoner Archimedes wishes to demonstrate his system for recorded extremely large numbers. He uses Aristarchus’ heliocentric model, which he sketches, because Aristarchus argued that the stars were much further away than hypothesised in the normal geocentric model in order to explain why there was no observable stellar parallax. Archimedes used this model because it would require many more grains of sand to fill thus giving him a much greater number to express with his system. It is only one of two accounts of Aristarchus’ heliocentric system both of which are uninformative.
≈ 150 AD, Ptolemy
In his book Almagest, Ptolemy introduces so called epicycles to explain planetary motions, based on the assumption that the earth is at the centre and does not move. Almagest is considered to be one of the most influential scientific works in history.
The epicycle system of planetary motion, used extensively by Ptolemy in the Almagest in the second century CE, was first introduced by Apollonius of Perga in the third century BCE and used extensively by Hipparchus of Rhodes in the second century BCE.
1543, Nicholaus Copernicus
Just before his death, Copernicus publishes the book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in which he places the sun rather than the earth at the centre of the universe. This book is the beginning of the Copernican Revolution.
In English it’s Nicolaus (no ‘h’) Copernicus and in De revolutionibus the sun is not at the centre of the universe but somewhat off centre. Viewed strictly Copernicus’s system is heliostatic but not heliocentric.
1572, Tycho Brahe
Tyco Brahe observes a star being born and publishes his observation in De nova stella. Brahe’s observation refutes the commonly held view at the time, a view which dates back to Aristotle, that the stars are fix and never changing at the outskirts of the universe. Since Brahe couldn’t observe a stellar parallax, he concluded that the earth did not move. He proposed a model where the planets move around the sun, and the sun moves around the earth. (It was later shown that it wasn’t a star being born Brahe had observed, but the supernova SN 1572, i.e. a star exploding.)
In the first half of this paragraph we have an oft-repeated semi-myth. Although Tycho did indeed observe the nova of 1572 and it did contradict Aristotle’s cosmological theory of an immutable heaven this story is a myth for three different reasons. Firstly Aristotle’s concept of a an immutable heaven had already been seriously challenged in the sixteenth century by several leading astronomers based on their observations of several comets in the 1530s, so the nova of 1572 was not the first problem for Aristotle’s cosmology. Secondly Tycho was by no means the only astronomer to observe and comment on the 1572 nova and Michael Maestlin’s and Christoph Clavius’ acceptance that the nova was supralunar had more impact than Tycho’s. The attribution of this impact to Tycho alone is a version of the lone genius myth and historically false. Thirdly the refutation of Aristotle’s theory of the immutability of heaven actually has no real relevance for the geocentricity/heliocentricity discussion.
1609, Johannes Kepler
Using the observational data collected by Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler introduces his first two laws of planetary motion in Astronomia nova. The first law: the planets move in elliptical orbits with the sun at one focus.
Given that it was actually Kepler’s work that led to the acceptance of heliocentricity our author gives him rather short shrift in his chronology. What about the other two laws of planetary motion or the Rudolphine Tables?
1616, Roman Inquisition
On 24 February 1616 a team of eleven consultants for the Roman Inquisition condemns the Copernican System, stating that the heliocentric system is “foolish and absurd in philosophy and “formally heretical”.
It should be pointed out that the Pope never confirmed the heretical status of heliocentricity thus it never was heretical.
1633, Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei stands trial on suspicion of heresy “ for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the centre of the world”. At the trial he is found guilty and sentenced to formal imprisonment. Galileo spends the rest of his life under house arrest.
1687, Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton publishes Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Principia). In Principia, Newton explains Kepler’s laws of planetary motion in terms of universal gravitation. Newton doesn’t consider the sun to be at rest, instead he uses the center of gravity of the solar system.
A small point, but one that irritates me. The man who published the Principia in 1687 was not ‘Sir’ Isaac Newton but just plain Isaac Newton who didn’t get knighted until 1705.
1838, Friedrich Bessel
Friedrich Bessel is the first to accurately measure a stellar parallax. In 1838 he announces that the star 61 Cygni has a parallax of 0.314 arcseconds.
Friedrich Bessel was not the first to accurately measure stellar parallax that honour goes to the Scottish astronomer Thomas Henderson, who measured the parallax of Alpha Centauri. Friedrich Bessel, however, was the first to publish.
1992, Roman Catholic Church
Pope John Paul II closes a 13-year investigation into the church’s condemnation of Galileo in 1633 by declaring that Galileo was right:
Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture.
This final paragraph is just a horrible mess. Galileo did not practically invent the experiment method. Also the claim that he “understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world” is simply bizarre. As I have pointed out in a number of different posts, in Galileo’s time the scientific evidence actually favoured a geocentric system. This also applies to the comment about the theologians, whose belief in a geocentric system was strongly supported by the available scientific evidence and was not just based on Sacred Scripture. It is also interesting to note how a chronology of the geocentric/heliocentric astronomical systems suddenly veers off into an account of Galileo’s troubles with the Catholic Church, which in real terms in the history of astronomy and cosmology is just a small side show.