The geocentric model was developed thousands of years ago by Greek philosophers and was the accepted model of the Solar System for centuries. Geocentric actually means earth centered. This model is also called the Ptolemaic system in honor of the Greek scientist and philosopher Claudius Ptolemy, although the thory was around years before him. The geocentric model places the Earth at the center of the universe with the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets circling it.
The heliocentric model, which means sun centered, gradually replaced the geocentric model. This new system places the Sun at the center of the Solar System with the Earth and all the other planets orbiting it. This theory revolutionized everything because it reversed centuries of established opinion. Although the idea of a heliocentric model had been around as early as 200 B.C., it did not gain popularity until the 16th century.
One reason why the geocentric model remained in popularity for so many years is because it did explain many observations made by the early Greeks. For example, the geocentric model explained why things fall toward Earth – gravity – as well why Venus seems to stay the same distance from Earth based on its unchanging brightness. As astronomers saw problems with the geocentric theory, they altered it in order to account for these discrepancies. Another reason why this model remained in popularity so long was because it went along with the Roman Catholic Church’s policy.
As technology advanced, more problems surfaced facing the geocentric model. In the 16th century, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus built on the work of earlier scientists and published his heliocentric theory in his book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies. In this book, he made some radical changes, such as asserting that the stars do not orbit the Earth and declaring that the Earth’s rotation is what makes it appear as if the stars orbit our planet.
The irony is that after all the disputes over these different theories, neither one is necessarily correct. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity upset both models. New evidence has also shown that the Solar System’s center of gravity is not the exact center of the Sun. This means that either model is acceptable regardless of the fundamental differences between the theories. Astronomers use both the heliocentric and geocentric models for research depending on which theory makes their calculations easier. It definitely seems as if some things are relative after all.
Astronomy Cast has an episode on the center of the universe.
NASA Earth Observatory: Planetary Motion