The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXIII

The first period of telescopic, astronomical discoveries came to an end in 1613, which was seventy years after the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. This makes it a good point to stop and take stock of the developments that had taken place since the appearance of that epoch defining magnum opus. First we need to remind ourselves of the situation that had existed before Copernicus heliocentric hypothesis entered the world and triggered a whole new cosmology and astronomy debate. The mainstream standpoint was an uneasy combination of Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy. Uneasy because, as some saw it, the Ptolemaic deferent and epicycle model of planetary motion contradicted Aristotle’s homocentric principle, which led to a revival of homocentric astronomy. Others saw the principle of uniform circular motion contradicted by Ptolemaeus’ use of the equant point. In fact, we know that the removal of the equant point, for exactly this reason, was the starting point of Copernicus’ own reform efforts. Another minority view that was extensively discussed was a geocentric system with diurnal rotation, as originated in antiquity by Heraclides of Pontus, regarded by some as more rational or acceptable than that the sphere of the fixed stars rotated once in twenty-four hours. Also still up for debate was the Capellan system with Mercury and Venus orbiting the Sun in a geocentric system. Then came Copernicus and added a new radical alternative to the debate.

By 1613 most of the Aristotelian cosmology had been disposed of bit for bit. Aristotle’s sublunar meteorological comets had definitely become supralunar astronomical objects, although what exactly they were was still largely a mystery. As we shall see Galileo later embarrassed himself by maintaining a position on comets very close to that of Aristotle. The comets becoming supralunar had also disposed of Aristotle’s crystalline spheres, although Copernicus seems to have still believed in them. The telescopic discovery of the geographical features on the Moon and the spots on the Sun had put an end to Aristotle’s perfection of the celestial spheres. They together with the comets and the supernovas of 1573 and 1604, both of which had clearly been shown to be supralunar, also contradicted his immutability of the heavens. The discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter ended the homocentric concept and the discovery of the phases of Venus, originating in a solar orbit, ruled a pure geocentric system but not a geo-heliocentric one. As a result of all these changes cosmology was up for grabs.

In astronomy the biggest single change was that nearly all astronomers, following Copernicus, now believed in the reality of their models and no longer viewed them as purely mathematical constructions designed to save the phenomena. This was a major shift as previously the discussion of the reality of the heavens was regarded as a discussion for philosophers and definitely not astronomers. So which models were up for discussion? Had in the intervening seventy years the debate simplified, reduced to a choice between two competing models, Ptolemaic geocentrism and Copernican heliocentrism, as Galileo would have us believe twenty years later? Actually no, if anything the situation had got considerably more confused with a whole raft full of astronomical models jostling for a place at the table. What were these competing models?

Given the telescopic observations of the phases of Venus and the assumption of similar phases for Mercury, a pure Ptolemaic geocentric model should have been abandoned but there was still a hard core that refused to simply give up this ancient model. Christoph Clavius (1538–1612) in the last edition of his Sphaera, the standard Jesuit textbook on astronomy, acknowledged problems with the geocentric model but urged his readers to find solutions to the problems within the model. As late as 1651 Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671), in the famous frontispiece to his Almagestum novum, shows Ptolemaeus lying defeated on the ground, whilst the heliocentric and geo-heliocentric systems are weighed against each other, but he is saying, I will rise again.


Frontispiece of Riccioli’s 1651 New Almagest. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Due to William Gilbert’s revival of the Heraclidian diurnal rotation, we now have two geocentric models, with and without diurnal rotation. The Copernican heliocentric system is, of course, still very much in the running but with much less support than one might expect after all the developments of the intervening seventy years.

Despite the phases of Venus all the various geo-heliocentric models are still in contention and because of the lack of empirical evidence for movement of the Earth these are actually more popular at this point in time than heliocentric ones. However, despite the lack of empirical evidence diurnal rotation enjoys a surprising level of popularity. We have a Capellan system, Venus and Mercury orbit the Sun, which orbits the Earth, both with and without diurnal rotation. Very much in consideration is the full Tychonic system; the five planets orbit the Sun, which together with the Moon orbits the Earth. Once again both with and without diurnal rotation. Riccioli favoured another variation with Venus, Mercury and Mars orbiting the Sun but with Jupiter and Saturn orbiting the Earth along with the Sun and Moon.

Perhaps the most interesting development was Kepler’s heliocentric system. Whilst Kepler regarded his system as Copernican, others regarded his elliptical system as a rival to not only to the geocentric and geo-heliocentric system but also to the Copernican heliocentric system with its deferent and epicycle orbital models. The most prominent example of this being Galileo, who promoted the Copernican system, whilst deliberately ignoring Kepler’s more advanced developments.

We can find solid evidence for this multiplicity of systems in various sources. The earliest in a card game devised by Johann Praetorius (1573–1616), professor for astronomy at the University of Altdorf near Nürnberg, which only exists in manuscript.


Source: Wikimedia Commons











Source: All playing card images Wikimedia Commons

Another much read source is the extraordinary Anatomy of Melancholy by the Oxford scholar Robert Burton (1577–1640). First published in 1621, it was republished five times over the next seventeen years, each edition being massively modified and expanded.


The Anatomy of Melancholy frontispiece 1638 ed. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a section entitled Melancholy of the Air Burton discusses the various astronomical models, favouring the system of David Origanus (1558–1629), professor for Geek Greek and mathematics at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, a Tychonic system with diurnal rotation.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Burton, as well as being one of the most erudite scholars of the seventeenth century, was also a practicing astrologer, who is said to have hung himself in his Oxford chambers to fulfil his own prediction of his death.

Already mentioned above is Giovanni Battista Riccioli, whose Almagestum novum (1551) contains descriptions of a wide range of different systems.


Riccioli as portrayed in the 1742 Atlas Coelestis (plate 3) of Johann Gabriel Doppelmayer. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The book also contains a list of 126 arguments pro and contra heliocentricity, 49 for and 77 against, in which religios arguments play only a very minor role.

Another Jesuit was Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), who sat at the centre of a world spanning astronomy correspondence network, receiving astronomical data from Jesuits all of the world, collating it and re-distributing it to astronomers throughout Europe.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

He described six different systems as late as 1656 in his Itinerarium extaticum, with a revised edition from 1671.


Diagrams of the different world systems, Ptolemaic, Platonic, Egyptian, Copernican, Tychonic and semi-Tychonic from Iter Exstaticum (1671 ed.) p. 37 Source:

Contrary to a widespread view the question of the correct astronomical system was still very much an open question throughout most of the seventeenth century, largely because there existed no conclusive empirical evidence available to settle the question.





Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science

13 responses to “The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXIII

  1. Burton was the model for that “Geek” Newton, one surmises. (I actually have read Burton’s vast effluence due to an interest in Keats…)

  2. Todd Timberlake

    First of all, I really want to buy a deck of Praetorius’ cards!

    Second, I am surprised at the systems labelled Anaximandrium and Martianum. Placing the Moon beyond the planets is contradicted by pretty easily obtainable observational evidence (lunar occultations of the planets). Lunar occulations don’t happen frequently as seen from any one location, but they happen often enough that I would have thought someone with a serious interest in astronomy (serious enough to propose a cosmological system) would be aware that they occur. At least they put the Moon below the Sun, so they were aware of solar eclipses.

    Now I’m thinking this would be a great classroom activity: give students a deck of these cards, and then give them bits of observational evidence and have them decide which systems are consistent with the evidence and which are not, removing the inconsistent cards from the deck at each step. I suspect (without seeing the full deck – or were these the only cards?) that you could quickly eliminate some models and narrow it down to a smaller number of serious contenders. You would need pretty subtle arguments to choose among those serious contenders.

    Ultimately you need a Newtonian conception of motion and gravity to settle on the Copernican system – though not as Copernicus presented it. Kepler’s elliptical astronomy should have killed off the Ptolemaic system a few years before the phases of Venus were observed, since it was silly to have lots of copies of identical ellipses (same eccentricity, inclination, longitude of apogee, etc) serving as deferents or epicycles when you could achieve the same effect with a single elliptical orbit for Earth, but a Tychonic system with elliptical orbits for the Sun around Earth and the planets around the Sun was still plausible (with or without diurnal rotation).

    • One odd thing that I noticed about the playing cards was that the Copernican card alone also included the names of the five perfect solids, which came from Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum.

    • The playing cards are rather fine, aren’t they? You can find them on Wikimedia Commons here, you will note there are many more astronomical and astrological images and not just the astrological systems. It’s a skat deck, a German card game, that normally has only 32 cards. Here there’re 37 images, one is the cover. I don’t know why there are four extra cards. I have a poster from Praetorius that a friend gave me years ago that has even more astronomical system models, for example Gilbert. I wanted to use that for my post but it’s too big for my scanner. Looking for it in the Internet, I stumbled across the playing cards.

      As to your comment on Kepler, the real game changer is his Third Law, which gives a strong mathematical relationship between orbital distances and orbital times that only works for his heliocentric system; a fact that seems to have gone largely unnoticed until Newton. I haven’t reached it yet in my series.

      Cassini, whom I also haven’t reached yet, proved that the earth’s orbit around the sun or the sun’s orbit around the earth was definitively an ellipse but was not able to determine which system was correct.

      @Laurence yes Praetorius is here definitely a Keplerian


    “In a section entitled Melancholy of the Air Burton discusses the various astronomical models, favouring the system of David Origanus (1558–1629), professor for Geek and mathematics at the University of Frankfurt”

    At least the typo was a humorous one Thony.

  4. Ian Wragg

    A very good article Thony. And it fills out information from “Galileo’s great bluff and part of the reason why Kuhn is wrong” , for me that I was looking for.

  5. Liam Wasserman

    This is a bit out of left field, but what in general was the influence of Galileo’s “Two New Sciences” on Newton’s Principia? I’ve heard some conflicting information and i’m a little confused.

  6. Liam Wasserman

    I read earlier that a big part of the reason heliocentricity wasn’t accepted was because a new physics was required to explain the theory’s posited diurnal rotation, and that Galileo started to supply this new physics, which then influenced Newton, but the connection between Galileo and Newton seems to be contested.

    • If you keep reading this series we will get there in due course. However, it is basically true that with the demolition of Aristotelian cosmology heliocentrism needed a new physics and Galileo’s “Two New Sciences” contributed to that substantially. It is by far and away his most important work. Its direct influence on Newton was, however, far less than is often claimed in popular accounts

  7. Duncan Agnew

    Just to be pedantic, Burton’s astronomical discussion is in “A Digession of Air” in his subsection “Air Rectified”–that is, as a cure for melancholy. It’s a multipage list of questions in natural philosophy: a great window into the time. His list of Copernicans is “Calcagninius, Telesius, Kepler, Rotman, Gilbert, Digges, Galileo, Campanella, and especially by Landsbergius [as agreeing with nature, reason and truth], by Origanus, and some other of his followers”.

    But really, I’m writing to share my favorite sentence (well, part of a sentence) in Burton, in the next subsection (Part 2, Section 2, Member 4) on Exercise:
    “Or let him that is melancholy calculate spherical triangles”.

    • Thank you. I don’t own a copy of Burton and it’s many years since I read him. If I do turn this series into a book, I will of course go into the university’s English library and borrow their copy of the Melancholy and give a much more detailed and, of course, accurate account of his astronomical discussion 👀

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