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


From about 1630 onwards there were only two serious contenders under European astronomers, as the correct scientific description of the cosmos, on the one hand a Tychonic geo-heliocentric model, mostly with diurnal rotation and on the other Johannes Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric system; both systems had their positive points at that stage in the debate.


A 17th century illustration of the Hypothesis Tychonica from Hevelius’ Selenographia, 1647 page 163, whereby the Sun, Moon, and sphere of stars orbit the Earth, while the five known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) orbit the Sun. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A lot of the empirical evidence, or better said the lack of that empirical evidence spoke for a Tychonic geo-heliocentric model. The first factor, strangely enough spoke against diurnal rotation. If the Earth was truly rotating on its axis, then it was turning at about 1600 kilometres an hour at the equator, so why couldn’t one feel/detect it? If one sat on a galloping horse one had to hang on very tightly not to get blown off by the headwind and that at only 40 kilometres an hour or so. Copernicus had already seen this objection and had actually suggested the correct solution. He argued that the Earth carried its atmosphere with it in an all-enclosing envelope. Although this is, as already mentioned, the correct solution, proving or explaining it is a lot more difficult than hypothesising it. Parts of the physics that was first developed in the seventeenth century were necessary. We have already seen the first part, Pascal’s proof that air is a material that has weight or better said mass. Weight is the effect of gravity on mass and gravity is the other part of the solution and the discovery of gravity, in the modern sense of the word, still lay in the future. Copernicus’ atmospheric envelope is held in place by gravity, we literally rotate in a bubble.

In his Almagestum Novum (1651), Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671) brought a list of 126 arguments pro and contra a heliocentric system (49 pro, 77 contra) in which religious argument play a minor role and carefully argued scientific grounds a major one.


Frontispiece of Riccioli’s 1651 New Almagest. Mythological figures observe the heavens with a telescope and weigh the heliocentric theory of Copernicus in a balance against his modified version of Tycho Brahe’s geo-heliocentric system Source: Wikimedia Commons

Apart from the big star argument (see below) of particular interest is the argument against diurnal rotation based on what is now know as the Coriolis Effect, named after the French mathematician and engineer, Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis (1792–1843), who described it in detail in his Sur les équations du mouvement relatif des systèmes de corps (On the equations of relative motion of a system of bodies) (1835). Put very simply the Coriolis Effect states that in a frame of reference that rotates with respect to an inertial frame projectile objects will be deflected. An Earth with diurnal rotation is such a rotating frame of reference.

Riccioli argued that if the Earth rotated on its axis then a canon ball fired from a canon, either northwards or southwards would be deflected by that rotation. Because such a deflection had never been observed Riccioli argued that diurnal rotation doesn’t exist. Once again with have a problem with dimensions because the Coriolis Effect is so small it is almost impossible to detect or observe in the case of a small projectile; it can however be clearly observed in the large scale movement of the atmosphere or the oceans, systems that Riccioli couldn’t observe. The most obvious example of the effect is the rotation of cyclones.


Illustration from Riccioli’s 1651 New Almagest showing the effect a rotating Earth should have on projectiles.[36] When the cannon is fired at eastern target B, cannon and target both travel east at the same speed while the ball is in flight. The ball strikes the target just as it would if the Earth were immobile. When the cannon is fired at northern target E, the target moves more slowly to the east than the cannon and the airborne ball, because the ground moves more slowly at more northern latitudes (the ground hardly moves at all near the pole). Thus the ball follows a curved path over the ground, not a diagonal, and strikes to the east, or right, of the target at G. Source: WIkimedia Commons

Riccioli was not alone in using the apparent absence of the Coriolis Effect to argue against diurnal rotation. The French Jesuit mathematician Claude François Milliet Deschales (1621–1678) in his Cursus seu Mundus Mathematicus (1674) brought a very similar argument against diurnal rotation.


Source: WIkimedia Commons


Image from Cursus seu Mundus Mathematicus (1674) of C.F.M. Dechales, showing how a cannonball should deflect to the right of its target on a rotating Earth, because the rightward motion of the ball is faster than that of the tower. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was first 1749 that Euler derived the mathematical formula for Coriolis acceleration showing it to be two small to be detected in small projectiles.


A nearby star’s apparent movement against the background of more distant stars as the Earth revolves around the Sun is referred to as stellar parallax. Source:

The second empirical factor was the failure to detect stellar parallax. If the Earth is really orbiting the Sun then the position of prominent stars against the stellar background should appear to shift when viewed from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit, six months apart so to speak. In the seventeenth century they didn’t. Once again supporters of heliocentricity had an ad hoc answer to the failure to detect stellar parallax, the stars are too far away so the apparent shift is too small to measure. This is, of course the correct answer and it would be another two hundred years before the available astronomical telescopes had evolved far enough to detect that apparent shift. In the seventeenth century, however, this ad hoc explanation meant that the stars were quite literally an unimaginable and thus unacceptable distance away. The average seventeenth century imagination was not capable of conceiving of a cosmos with such dimensions.

The distances that the fixed stars required in a heliocentric system produced a third serious empirical problem that has been largely forgotten today, star size.  This problem was first described by Tycho Brahe before the invention of the telescope. Tycho ascribed a size to the stars that he observed and calculating on the minimum distance that the fixed stars must have in order not to display parallax in a heliocentric system came to the result that stars must have a minimum size equal to Saturn’s orbit around the Sun in such a system. In a geo-heliocentric system, as proposed by Tycho, the stars would be much nearly to the Earth and respectively smaller.  This appeared to Tycho to be simply ridiculous and an argument against a heliocentric system. The problem was not improved by the invention of the telescope. Using the primitive telescopes of the time the stars appeared as a well-defined disc, as recorded by both Galileo and Simon Marius, thus confirming Tycho’s star size argument. Marius used this as an argument in favour of a geo-heliocentric theory; Galileo dodged the issue. In fact, we now know, that the star discs that the early telescope users observed were not real but an optical artefact, now known as an Airy disc. This solution was first hypothesised by Edmond Halley, at the end of the century and until then the star size problem occupied a central place in the astronomical system discussion.


With the eccentricity of the orbits exaggerated: Source

The arguments in favour of Kepler’s elliptical, heliocentric system were of a very different nature. The principle argument was the existence of the Rudolphine Tables. These planetary tables were calculated by Kepler using Tycho’s vast collection of observational data. The Rudolphine Tables possessed an, up till that time, unknown level of accuracy; this was an important aspect in the acceptance of Kepler’s system. Since antiquity, the principle function of astronomy had been to provide planetary tables and ephemerides for use by astrologers, cartographers, navigators etc. This function is illustrated, for example, by the fact that the tables from Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis were issued separately as his so-called Handy Tables. Also the first astronomical texts translated from Arabic into Latin in the High Middle Ages were the zījes, astronomical tables.

The accuracy of the Rudolphine Tables were perceived by the users to be the result of Kepler using his elliptical, heliocentric model to calculate them, something that was not quite true, but Kepler didn’t disillusion them. This perception increased the acceptance of Kepler’s system. In the Middle Ages before Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, the astronomers’ mathematical models of the cosmos were judge on their utility for producing accurate data but their status was largely an instrumentalist one; they were not viewed as saying anything about the real nature of the cosmos. Determining the real nature of the cosmos was left to the philosophers. However, Copernicus regarded his system as being a description of the real cosmos, as indeed had Ptolemaeus his system before him, and by the middle of the seventeenth century astronomers had very much taken over this role from the philosophers, so the recognition of the utility of Kepler’s system for producing data was a major plus point in its acceptance as the real description of the cosmos.


The other major point in favour of Kepler’s system, as opposed to a Tychonic one was Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion. Their reception was, however, a complex and mixed one. Accepting the first law, that the planetary orbits were ellipses with the Sun at one focus of the ellipse, was for most people fairly easy to accept. An ellipse wasn’t the circle of the so-called Platonic axioms but it was a very similar regular geometrical figure. After Cassini, using a meridian line in the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna, had demonstrated that either the Earth’s orbit around the Sun or the Sun’s around the Earth, the experiment couldn’t differentiate, Kepler’s first law was pretty much universally accepted. Kepler’s third law being strictly empirical should have been immediately accepted and should have settled the discussion once and for all because it only works in a heliocentric system. However, although there was no real debate with people trying to refute it, it was Isaac Newton who first really recognised its true significance as the major game changer.

Strangely, the problem law turned out to be Kepler’s second law: A line segment joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time. This seemingly obtuse relationship was not much liked by the early readers of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova. They preferred, what they saw, as the purity of the Platonic axiom, planetary motion is uniform circular motion and this despite all the ad hoc mechanism and tricks that had been used to make the anything but uniform circulation motion of the planets conform to the axiom. There was also the problem of Kepler’s proof of his second law. He divided the ellipse of a given orbit into triangles with the Sun at the apex and then determined the area covered in the time between two observations by using a form of proto-integration. The problem was, that because he had no concept of a limit, he was effectively adding areas of triangles that no longer existed having been reduced to straight lines. Even Kepler realised that his proof was mathematically more than dubious.


Ismaël Boulliau portrait by Pieter van Schuppen Source: Wikimedia Commons

The French astronomer and mathematician Ismaël Boulliau (1605–1694) was a convinced Keplerian in that he accepted and propagated Kepler’s elliptical orbits but he rejected Kepler’s mathematical model replacing it with his own Conical Hypothesis in his Astronomica philolaica published in 1645.


He criticised in particular Kepler’s area rule and replaced it in his work with a much simpler model.


Boulliau’s Conical Hypothesis [RA Hatch] Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Savilian Professor of astronomy at Oxford University, Seth Ward (1617–1689)

Greenhill, John, c.1649-1676; Seth Ward (1617-1689), Savilian Professor of Astronomy, Oxford (1649-1660), Bishop of Exeter and Salisbury

Bishop Seth Ward, portrait by John Greenhill Source: Wikimedia Commons

attacked Boulliau’s presentation in his In Ismaelis Bullialdi astro-nomiae philolaicae fundamenta inquisitio brevis (1653), pointing out mathematical errors in the work and proposing a different alternative to the area law.

L0040222 Title Page of 'Astronomiae Philolacae Fundamenta'

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Boulliau responded to Ward’s criticisms in 1657, acknowledging the errors and correcting but in turn criticising Ward’s model.


Source: Wikimeda Commons

Ward in turn had already presented a fully version of his Keplerian system in his Astronomia geometrica (1656).


The whole episode is known as the Boulliau-Ward debate and although it reached no satisfactory conclusion, the fact that two high profile European astronomers were disputing publically over the Keplerian system very much raised the profile of that system. It is probable the Newton was first made aware of Kepler’s work through the Boulliau-Ward debate and he is known to have praised the Astronomica philolaica, which as Newton was later to acknowledge contained the first presentation of the inverse square law of gravity, which Boulliau personally rejected, although he was the one who proposed it.

The Boulliau-Ward debate was effectively brought to a conclusion and superseded by the work of the German mathematician Nikolaus Mercator (c. 1620–1687), whose birth name was Kauffman. His birthplace is not certain but he studied at the universities of Rostock and Leiden and was a lecturer for mathematics in Rostock (1642–1648) and then Copenhagen (1648–1654). From there he moved to Paris for two years before emigrating to England in 1657. In England unable to find a permanent position as lecturer he became a private tutor for mathematics. From 1659 to 1660 he corresponded with Boulliau on a range of astronomical topics. In 1664 he published his Hypothesis astronomica, a new presentation of the Keplerian elliptical system that finally put the area law on a sound mathematical footing. In 1676 he published a much-expanded version of his Keplerian astronomy in his two-volume Institutionum astronomicarum.


Mercator’s new mathematical formulation of Kepler’s second law ended the debate on the subject and was a major step in the eventual victory of Kepler’s system over its Tychonic rival.

Addendum: Section on Coriolis Effect added 21 May 2020













Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

7 responses to “The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXXVI

  1. There was also the problem of Kepler’s proof of his second law. He divided the ellipse of a given orbit into triangles with the Sun at the apex and then determined the area covered in the time between two observations by using a form of proto-integration. The problem was, that because he had no concept of a limit, he was effectively adding areas of triangles that no longer existed having been reduced to straight lines. Even Kepler realised that his proof was mathematically more than dubious.

    This more or less agrees with Russell [3], although he doesn’t mention an issue with limits, just the nonspecific statement that

    The chief complaint levelled against his planetary theory was that the area law was ‘ungeometrical’ and that in order to use it one had to resort to devices which were unworthy of a mathematician.

    Davis [2], Thoren [4], and Wilson [5], all have a different take. Davis writes

    His treatment of the area depended solely on the geometry of Euclid’s Elements, involving only straight-line and circle propositions … the mathematical treatment of Book V (1621) may have been overlooked because it seemed irrelevant to observational astronomers.

    Wilson says only

    This rule [the area law], … was a consequence of Kepler’s causal account of planetary motion; as such, and because it did not admit of a direct calculation eading from time to heliocentric longitude, it was mostly ignored, and various geometrical devices were introduced to replace it.

    Thoren writes:

    It is probably safe to say that the physical speculations by means of which Kepler attempted to justify his mathematical results neither contributed to the acceptance of those results, nor gained any extra credence through their acceptance. … there was no reason to go through the computational effort entailed by his law of areas. Even Jeremiah Horrox, who undoubtedly subscribed to Kepler’s physical ideas more completely than anyone else, saw no problem at all in taking a short cut to Kepler’s results.

    In short, the calculations are way harder with the area law. Kepler’s celestial physics found almost no takers, so why not use the much easier equant-based methods?

    Thoren goes further, and points out that Mercator himself

    in his Institutionuma stronomicarum of 1676 … unblushingly presented a lengthy exposition of Kepler and then used his own equant theory for all computations

    and likewise Flamsteed. There were ample practical grounds for to resort to “good enough” approximations. A mid-17th century astronomer’s use of  equant-based methods does not constitute, by itself, prima facie evidence that he regarded the area law as mathematically illegitimate. Of course, rejecting Kepler’s physics meant that one had no strong reason to believe in the correctness of the 2nd law either.

    [1] Davis, A. E. L., “The Mathematics of the Area Law: Kepler’s Successful Proof in Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae (1621)”, Archive for History of Exact Sciences, Vol. 57, No. 5 (July 2003), pp. 355-393, Springer.

    [2] Russell, J. L.,”Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion: 1609-1666″, British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jun., 1964), pp. 1-24, CUP.

    [3] Thoren, Victor E., “Kepler’s Second Law in England”,  British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Nov., 1974), pp. 243-258, CUP.

    [4] Wilson, Curtis,”Predictive astronomy in the century after Kepler”, in The General History of Astronomy, vol. 2, part A, ed. Rene Taton and Curtis Wilson, 1989, CUP.

  2. As a side note, Newton claimed in Lemma 28 (Principia, Book I) that the area law calculations cannot be done exactly in finite terms:

    There is no oval figure whose area, cut off by right lines at pleasure, can be universally found by means of equations of any number of finite terms and dimensions.

    Not just for an ellipse, for any oval whatsoever! Lemma 28 came in for a deal of criticism, both by Newton’s contemporaries and later, but the eminent 20th century mathematician V. Arnol’d called Newton’s argument an “astonishingly modern topological proof”.

  3. Very interesting post – as always. Nikolaus Mercator’s formulation of Kepler’s second law seems to be worthy of further investigation, but neither of the Wikipedia pages in English, German, French or Scandinavian on Mercator say much about his books. I wonder if there is a modern explanation of his works?

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