What Is The Geocentric Model Of The Universe?

The Geocentric View of the Solar System

During the many thousand years that human beings have been looking up at the stars, our concept of what the Universe looks like has changed dramatically. At one time, the magi and sages of the world believed that the Universe consisted of a flat Earth (or a square one, a zigarrut, etc.) surrounded by the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. Over time, ancient astronomers became aware that some stars did not move like the rest, and began to understand that these too were planets.

In time, we also began to understand that the Earth was indeed round, and came up with rationalized explanations for the behavior of other celestial bodies. And by classical antiquity, scientists had formulated ideas on how the motion of the planets occurred, and how all the heavenly orbs fit together. This gave rise to the Geocentric model of the universe, a now-defunct model that explained how the Sun, Moon, and firmament circled around our planet.

Continue reading “What Is The Geocentric Model Of The Universe?”

What Is The Heliocentric Model Of The Universe?

Heliocentric Model

The Scientific Revolution, which took place in the 16th and 17th centuries, was a time of unprecedented learning and discovery. During this period, the foundations of modern science were laid, thanks to breakthroughs in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy. And when it comes to astronomy, the most influential scholar was definitely Nicolaus Copernicus, the man credited with the creation of the Heliocentric model of the Universe.

Based on ongoing observations of the motions of the planets, as well as previous theories from classical antiquity and the Islamic World, Copernicus’ proposed a model of the Universe where the Earth, the planets and the stars all revolved around the Sun. In so doing, he resolved the mathematical problems and inconsistencies arising out of the classic geocentric model and laid the foundations for modern astronomy.

While Copernicus was not the first to propose a model of the Solar System in which the Earth and planets revolved around the Sun, his model of a heliocentric universe was both novel and timely. For one, it came at a time when European astronomers were struggling to resolve the mathematical and observational problems that arose out of the then-accepted Ptolemaic model of the Universe, a geocentric model proposed in the 2nd century CE.

In addition, Copernicus’ model was the first astronomical system that offered a complete and detailed account of how the Universe worked. Not only did his model resolves issues arising out of the Ptolemaic system, it offered a simplified view of the universe that did away with complicated mathematical devices that were needed for the geocentric model to work. And with time, the model gained influential proponents who contributed to it becoming the accepted convention of astronomy.

The Geocentric View of the Solar System
An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568. Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

The Ptolemaic (Geocentric) Model:

The geocentric model, in which planet Earth is the center of the Universe and is circled by the Sun and all the planets, had been the accepted cosmological model since ancient times. By late antiquity, this model had come to be formalized by ancient Greek and Roman astronomers, such as Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) – who’s theories on physics became the basis for the motion of the planets – and Ptolemy (ca. 100 – ca.?170 CE), who proposed the mathematical solutions.

The geocentric model essentially came down to two common observations. First of all, to ancient astronomers, the stars, the Sun, and the planets appeared to revolve around the Earth on daily basis. Second, from the perspective of the Earth-bound observer, the Earth did not appear to move, making it a fixed point in space.

The belief that the Earth was spherical, which became an accepted fact by the 3rd century BCE, was incorporated into this system. As such, by the time of Aristotle, the geocentric model of the universe became one where the Earth, Sun and all the planets were spheres, and where the Sun, planets and stars all moved in perfect circular motions.

However, it was not until Egyptian-Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) released his treatise Almagest in the 2nd century BCE that the details became standardized. Drawing on centuries of astronomical traditions, ranging from Babylonian to modern times, Ptolemy argued that the Earth was in the center of the universe and the stars were all at a modest distance from the center of the universe.

About every two years, however, the Earth passes Mars as they orbit around the Sun. Credit: NASA
The planet Mars, undergoing “retrograde motion” – a phenomena where it appears to be moving backwards in the sky – in late 2009 and early 2010. Credit: NASA

Each planet in this system is also moved by a system of two spheres – a deferent and an epicycle. The deferent is a circle whose center point is removed from the Earth, which was used to account for the differences in the lengths of the seasons. The epicycle is embedded in the deferent sphere, acting as a sort of “wheel within a wheel”. The purpose of he epicycle was to account for retrograde motion, where planets in the sky appear to be slowing down, moving backwards, and then moving forward again.

Unfortunately, these explanations did not account for all the observed behaviors of the planets. Most noticeably, the size of a planet’s retrograde loop (especially Mars) were sometimes smaller, and larger, than expected. To alleviate the problem, Ptolemy developed the equant – a geometrical tool located near the center of a planet’s orbit that causes it to move at a uniform angular speed.

To an observer standing at this point, a planet’s epicycle would always appear to move at uniform speed, whereas it would appear to be moving at non-uniform speed from all other locations.While this system remained the accepted cosmological model within the Roman, Medieval European and Islamic worlds for over a thousand years, it was unwieldy by modern standards.

However, it did manage to predict planetary motions with a fair degree of accuracy, and was used to prepare astrological and astronomical charts for the next 1500 years. By the 16th century, this model was gradually superseded by the heliocentric model of the universe, as espoused by Copernicus, and then Galileo and Kepler.

Picture of George Trebizond's Latin translation of Almagest. Credit: Public Domain.
Picture of George Trebizond’s Latin translation of Almagest. Credit: Public Domain

The Copernican (Heliocentric) Model:

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus began devising his version of the heliocentric model. Like others before him, Copernicus built on the work of Greek astronomer Atistarchus, as well as paying homage to the Maragha school and several notable philosophers from the Islamic world (see below). By the early 16th century, Copernicus summarized his ideas in a short treatise titled Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”).

By 1514, Copernicus began circulating copies amongst his friends, many of whom were fellow astronomers and scholars. This forty-page manuscript described his ideas about the heliocentric hypothesis, which was based on seven general principles. These principles stated that:

  • Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point
  • The center of Earth is the center of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the moon around Earth
  • All the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the center of the Universe
  • The distance between Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from 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 Earth
  • Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun. 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

Thereafter he continued gathering data for a more detailed work, and by 1532, he had come close to completing the manuscript of his magnum opus – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). In it, he advanced his seven major arguments, but in more detailed form and with detailed computations to back them up.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu
A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu

By placing the orbits of Mercury and Venus between the  Earth and the Sun, Copernicus was able to account for changes in their appearances. In short, when they are on the far side of the Sun, relative to Earth, they appear smaller but full. When they are on the same side of the Sun as the Earth, they appear larger and “horned” (crescent-shaped).

It also explained the retrograde motion of planets like Mars and Jupiter by showing that Earth astronomers do not have a fixed frame of reference but a moving one. This further explained how Mars and Jupiter could appear significantly larger at certain times than at others. In essence, they are significantly closer to Earth when at opposition than when they are at conjunction.

However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to condemnation from the church (as well as, perhaps, worries that his theory presented some scientific flaws) he withheld his research until a year before he died. It was only in 1542, when he was near death, that he sent his treatise to Nuremberg to be published.

Historical Antecedents:

As already noted, Copernicus was not the first to advocate a heliocentric view of the Universe, and his model was based on the work of several previous astronomers. The first recorded examples of this are traced to classical antiquity, when Aristarchus of Samos (ca. 310 – 230 BCE) published writings that contained references which were cited by his contemporaries (such as Archimedes).

Aristarchus's 3rd century BC calculations on the relative sizes of, from left, the Sun, Earth and Moon. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Aristarchus’s 3rd century BC calculations on the relative sizes of, from left, the Sun, Earth and Moon. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In his treatise The Sand Reckoner, Archimedes described another work by Aristarchus in which he advanced an alternative hypothesis of the heliocentric model. As he explained:

Now you are aware that ‘universe’ is the name given by most astronomers to the sphere whose center is the center of the earth and whose radius is equal to the straight line between the center of the sun and the center of the earth. This is the common account… as you have heard from astronomers. But Aristarchus of Samos brought out a book consisting of some hypotheses, in which the premises lead to the result that the universe is many times greater than that now so called. His hypotheses are that the fixed stars and the sun remain unmoved, that the earth revolves about the sun in the circumference of a circle, the sun lying in the middle of the orbit, and that the sphere of the fixed stars, situated about the same center as the sun, is so great that the circle in which he supposes the earth to revolve bears such a proportion to the distance of the fixed stars as the center of the sphere bears to its surface.

This gave rise to the notion that there should be an observable parallax with the “fixed stars” (i.e an observed movement of the stars relative to each other as the Earth moved around the Sun). According to Archimedes, Aristarchus claimed that the stars were much farther away than commonly believed, and this was the reason for no discernible parallax.

The only other philosopher from antiquity who’s writings on heliocentrism have survived is Seleucis of Seleucia (ca. 190 – 150 BCE). A Hellenistic astronomer who lived in the Near-Eastern Seleucid empire, Seleucus was a proponent of the heliocentric system of Aristarchus, and is said to have proved the heliocentric theory.

According to contemporary sources, Seleucus may have done this by determining the constants of the geocentric model and applying them to a heliocentric theory, as well as computing planetary positions (possibly using trigonometric methods). Alternatively, his explanation may have involved the phenomenon of tides, which he supposedly theorized to be related to the influence of the Moon and the revolution of the Earth around the Earth-Moon ‘center of mass’.

In the 5th century CE, Roman philosopher Martianus Capella of Carthage expressed an opinion that the planets Venus and Mercury revolved around the Sun, as a way of explaining the discrepancies in their appearances. Capella’s model was discussed in the Early Middle Ages by various anonymous 9th-century commentators, and Copernicus mentions him as an influence on his own work.

During the Late Middle Ages, Bishop Nicole Oresme (ca. 1320-1325 to 1382 CE) discussed the possibility that the Earth rotated on its axis. In his 1440 treatise De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance) Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401 – 1464 CE) asked whether there was any reason to assert that the Sun (or any other point) was the center of the universe.

Indian astronomers and cosmologists also hinted at the possibility of a heliocentric universe during late antiquity and the Middle Ages. In 499 CE, Indian astronomer Aaryabhata published his magnum opus Aryabhatiya, in which he proposed a model where the Earth was spinning on its axis and the periods of the planets were given with respect to the Sun. He also accurately calculated the periods of the planets, times of the solar and lunar eclipses, and the motion of the Moon.

Ibn al-Shatir's model for the appearances of Mercury, showing the multiplication of epicycles using the Tusi couple, thus eliminating the Ptolemaic eccentrics and equant. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Ibn al-Shatir’s model for the appearances of Mercury, showing the multiplication of epicycles using the Tusi couple, thus eliminating the Ptolemaic eccentrics and equant. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In the 15th century, Nilakantha Somayaji published the Aryabhatiyabhasya, which was a commentary on Aryabhata’s Aryabhatiya. In it, he developed a computational system for a partially heliocentric planetary model, in which the planets orbit the Sun, which in turn orbits the Earth. In the Tantrasangraha (1500), he revised the mathematics of his planetary system further and incorporated the Earth’s rotation on its axis.

Also, the heliocentric model of the universe had proponents in the medieval Islamic world, many of whom would go on to inspire Copernicus. Prior to the 10th century, the Ptolemaic model of the universe was the accepted standard to astronomers in the West and Central Asia. However, in time, manuscripts began to appear that questioned several of its precepts.

For instance, the 10th-century Iranian astronomer Abu Sa’id al-Sijzi contradicted the Ptolemaic model by asserting that the Earth revolved on its axis, thus explaining the apparent diurnal cycle and the rotation of the stars relative to Earth. In the early 11th century, Egyptian-Arab astronomer Alhazen wrote a critique entitled Doubts on Ptolemy (ca. 1028) in which he criticized many aspects of his model.

Entrance to the observatory of Ulug'Beg (now Museum) in Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Credit: WIkipedia Commons/Sigismund von Dobschütz
Entrance to the observatory of Ulug’Beg in Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Sigismund von Dobschütz

Around the same time, Iranian philosopher Abu Rayhan Biruni  973 – 1048) discussed the possibility of Earth rotating about its own axis and around the Sun – though he considered this a philosophical issue and not a mathematical one. At the Maragha and the Ulugh Beg (aka. Samarkand) Observatory, the Earth’s rotation was discussed by several generations of astronomers between the 13th and 15th centuries, and many of the arguments and evidence put forward resembled those used by Copernicus.

Impact of the Heliocentric Model:

Despite his fears about his arguments producing scorn and controversy, the publication of Copernicu’s theories resulted in only mild condemnation from religious authorities. Over time, many religious scholars tried to argue against his model. But within a few generation’s time, Copernicus’ theory became more widespread and accepted, and gained many influential defenders in the meantime.

These included Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who’s investigations of the heavens using the telescope allowed him to resolve what were seen as flaws in the heliocentric model, as well as discovering aspects about the heavens that supported heliocentrism. For example, Galileo discovered moons orbiting Jupiter, Sunspots, and the imperfections on the Moon’s surface – all of which helped to undermine the notion that the planets were perfect orbs, rather than planets similar to Earth. While Galileo’s advocacy of Copernicus’ theories resulted in his house arrest, others soon followed.

German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) also helped to refine the heliocentric model with his introduction of elliptical orbits. Prior to this, the heliocentric model still made use of circular orbits, which did not explain why planets orbited the Sun at different speeds at different times. By showing how the planet’s sped up while at certain points in their orbits, and slowed down in others, Kepler resolved this.

In addition, Copernicus’ theory about the Earth being capable of motion would go on to inspire a rethinking of the entire field of physics. Whereas previous ideas of motion depended on an outside force to instigate and maintain it (i.e. wind pushing a sail) Copernicus’ theories helped to inspire the concepts of gravity and inertia. These ideas would be articulated by Sir Isaac Newton, who’s Principia formed the basis of modern physics and astronomy.

Although its progress was slow, the heliocentric model eventually replaced the geocentric model. In the end, the impact of its introduction was nothing short of a revolutionary. Henceforth, humanity’s understanding of the universe and our place in it would be forever changed.

We have written many interesting articles on the heliocentric model here at Universe Today. For starters, here’s Galileo Returns to the Vatican and The Earth Goes Around the Sun, Who Was Nicolaus Copernicus? and What is the Difference Between the Geocentric and Heliocentric Models?

For more information on heliocentrism, take a look at these articles from NASA on Copernicus or the center of the galaxy.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode on the subject, titled Episode 77: Where is the Center of the Universe and Episode 302: Planetary Motion in the Sky.

Who Was Democritus?

As the philosopher Nietzsche famously said “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” This is certainly true when it comes to humanity’s understanding of the universe, something which has evolved over many thousands of years and been the subject of ongoing discovery.

And along the way, many names stand out as examples of people who achieved breakthroughs and helped lay the foundations of our modern understanding. One such person is Democritus, an ancient Greek philosopher who is viewed by many as being the “father of modern science”. This is due to his theory of universe that is made up of tiny “atoms”, which bears a striking resemblance to modern atomic theory.

Though he is typically viewed as one of Greece’s many pre-Socratic natural philosopher, many historians have argued that he is more rightly classified as a scientist, at least when compared to his contemporaries. There has also been significant controversy – particularly in Germany during the 19th century – over whether or not Democritus deserves credit for atomic theory.

This argument is based on the relationship Democritus had with contemporary philosopher Leucippus, who is renowned for sharing his theory about atoms with him. However, their theories came down to a different basis, a distinction that allows Democritus to be given credit for a theory that would go on to become a staple of the modern scientific tradition.

Hendrik ter Brugghen - Heraclitus, 1628. Credit: rijksmuseum.nl
Democritus, by Hendrik ter Brugghen – Heraclitus, 1628. Credit: rijksmuseum.nl

Birth and Early Life:

The precise date and location of Democritus birth is the subject the debate. While most sources claim he was born in Abdera, located in the northern Greek province of Thrace, around 460 BCE. However, other sources claim he was born in Miletus, a coastal city of ancient Anatolia and modern-day Turkey, and that he was born in 490 BCE.

It has been said that Democritus’ father was from a noble family and so wealthy that he received the Persian king Xerxes on the latter’s march through Abdera during the Second Persian War (480–479 BC). It is further argued that as a reward for his service, the Persian monarch gave his father and other Abderites gifts, and left several Magi among them. Democritus was apparently instructed by these Magi in astronomy and theology.

After his father had died, Democritus used his inheritance to finance a series of travels to distant countries. Desiring to feed his thirst for knowledge, Democritus traveled extensively across the known world, traveling to Asia, Egypt and (according to some sources) venturing as far as India and Ethiopia. His writings include descriptions of the the cities of Babylon and Meroe (in modern-day Sudan).

Upon returning to his native land, he occupied himself with the study of natural philosophy. He also traveled throughout Greece to acquire a better knowledge of its cultures and learned from many of Greece’s famous philosophers. His wealth allowed him to purchase their writings, and he wrote of them in his own works. In time, he would become one of the most famous of the pre-Socratic philosophers.

The ruins of the ancient Greeof Abdera, with the west gate shown. Credit:
The ruins of the ancient Greek city of Abdera, with the west gate shown. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Marysas

Leucippus of Miletus had the greatest influence on him, becoming his mentor and sharing his theory of atomism with him. Democritus is also said to have known Anaxagoras, Hippocrates and even Socrates himself (though this remains unproven). During his time in Egypt, he learned from Egyptian mathematicians, and is said to have become acquainted with the Chaldean magi in Assyria.

In the tradition of the atomists, Democritus was a thoroughgoing materialists who viewed the world in terms of natural laws and causes. This differentiated him from other Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, for whom philosophy was more teleological in nature – i.e. more concerned with the purpose of events rather than the causes, as well things like essence, the soul, and final causes.

According to the many descriptions and anecdotes about Democritus, he was known for his modesty, simplicity, and commitment to his studies. One story claims he blinded himself on purpose in order to be less distracted by worldly affairs (which is believed to be apocryphal). He was also known for his sense of humor and is commonly referred to as the “Laughing Philosopher” – for his capacity to laugh at human folly. To his fellow citizens, he was also known as “The Mocker”.

Scientific Contributions:

Democritus is renowned for being a pioneer of mathematics and geometry. He was among the first Greek philosophers to observe that a cone or pyramid has one-third the volume of a cylinder or prism with the same base and height. While none of his works on the subject survived the Middle Ages, his mathematical proofs are derived from other works with contain extensive citations to titles like On Numbers, On Geometrics, On Tangencies, On Mapping, and On Irrationals.

Right circular and oblique circular cones. Credit: Dominique Toussaint
Right circular and oblique circular cones. Credit: Dominique Toussaint

Democritus is also known for having spent much of his life experimenting with and examining plants and minerals. Similar to his work in mathematics and geometry, citations from existing works are used to infer the existence of works on the subject. These include On the Nature of Man, the two-volume collection On Flesh, On Mind, On the Senses, On Flavors, On Colors, Causes concerned with Seeds and Plants and Fruits, and to the three-volume collection Causes concerned with Animals.

From his examination of nature, Democritus developed what could be considered some of the first anthropological theories. According to him, human beings lived short lives in archaic times, forced to forage like animals until fear of wild animals then drove them into communities. He theorized that such humans had no language, and only developed it through the need to articulate thoughts and ideas.

Through a process of trial and error, human beings developed not only verbal language, but also symbols with which to communicate (i.e. written language), clothing, fire, the domestication of animals, and agriculture. Each step in this process led to more discoveries, more complex behaviors, and the many things that came to characterize civilized society.

In terms of astronomy and cosmology, Democritus was a proponent of the spherical Earth hypothesis. He believed that in the original chaos from which the universe sprang, the universe was composed of nothing but tiny atoms that came together to form larger units (a theory which bears a striking resemblance to The Big Bang Theory and Nebular Theory). He also believed in the existence of many worlds, which were either in state of growth or decay.

In a similar vein, Democritus advanced a theory of void which challenged the paradoxes raised by his fellow Greek philosophers, Parmenides and Zeno – the founders of metaphysical logic. According to these men, movement cannot exist because such a thing requires there to be a void – which is nothing, and therefore cannot exist. And a void cannot be termed as such if it is in fact a definable, existing thing.

To this, Democritus and other atomists argued that since movement is an observable phenomena, there must be a void. This idea previewed Newton’s theory of absolute space, in which space exists independently of any observer or anything external to it. Einstein’s theory of relativity also provided a resolution to the paradoxes raised by Parmenides and Zeno, where he asserted that space itself is relative and cannot be separated from time.

Democritus’ thoughts on the nature of truth also previewed the development of the modern scientific method. According to Democritus, truth is difficult, because it can only be perceived through senses-impressions which are subjective. Because of this, Aristotle claimed in his Metaphysics that Democritus was of the opinion that “either there is no truth or to us at least it is not evident.”

However, as Diogenes Laertius quoted in his 3rd century CE tract, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers: “By convention hot, by convention cold, but in reality atoms and void, and also in reality we know nothing, since the truth is at bottom.”

Diogenes Laërtius: Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. A biography of the Greek philosophers. Title page from year 1594. Credit: Public Domain
Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, makes mention of Democritus and his theories. Credit: Public Domain

Ultimately, Democritus’ opinion on truth came down to a distinction between two kinds of knowledge – “legitimate” (or “genuine”) and bastard (or “secret”). The latter is concerned with perception through the senses, which is subjective by nature. This is due to the fact that our sense-perception are influence by the shape and nature of atoms as they flow out from the object in question and make an impression on our senses.

“Legitimate” knowledge, by contrast, is achieved through the intellect, where sense-data is elaborated through reasoning. In this way, one can get from “bastard” impressions to the point where things like connections, patterns and causality can be determined. This is consistent with the inductive reasoning method later elaborated by Renee Descartes, and is a prime example of why Democritus is considered to be an early scientific thinker.

Atomic Theory:

However, Democritus greatest contribution to modern science was arguably the atomic theory he elucidated. According to Democritus’ atomic theory, the universe and all matter obey the following principles:

  • Everything is composed of “atoms”, which are physically, but not geometrically, indivisible
  • Between atoms, there lies empty space
  • Atoms are indestructible
  • Atoms have always been, and always will be, in motion
  • There are an infinite number of atoms, and kinds of atoms, which differ in shape, and size.

He was not alone in proposing atomic theory, as both his mentor Leucippus and Epicurus are believed to have proposed the earliest views on the shapes and connectivity of atoms. Like Democritus, they believed that the solidity of a material corresponded to the shape of the atoms involved – i.e. iron atoms are hard, water atoms are smooth and slippery, fire atoms are light and sharp, and air atoms are light and whirling.

Democritus' model of an atom was one of an intert solid that ineracted mechanically with other atoms. Credit: .science.edu.sg
Democritus’ model of an atom was one of an inert solid that interacted mechanically with other atoms. Credit: .science.edu.sg

However, Democritus is credited with illustrating and popularizing the concept, and for his descriptions of atoms which survived classical antiquity to influence later philosophers. Using analogies from our sense experiences, Democritus gave a picture or an image of an atom that distinguished them from each other by their shape, size, and the arrangement of their parts.

In essence, this model was one of an inert solid that excluded other bodies from its volume, and which interacted with other atoms mechanically. As such, his model included physical links (i.e. hooks and eyes, balls and sockets) that explained how connections occurred between them. While this bears little resemblance to modern atomic theory (where atoms are not inert and interact electromagnetically), it is more closely aligned with that of modern science than any other theory of antiquity.

While there is no clear explanation as to how scholars of classical antiquity came to theorize the existence of atoms, the concept proved to be influential, being picked up by Roman philosopher Lucretius in the 1st century CE and again during the Scientific Revolution. In addition to being indispensable to modern molecular and atomic theory, it also provided an explanation as to why the concept of a void was necessary in nature.

If all matter was composed of tiny, indivisible atoms, then there must also be a great deal of open space between them. This reasoning has also gone on to inform out notions of cosmology and astronomy, where Einstein’s theory of special relativity was able to do away with the concept of a “luminiferous aether” in explaining the behavior of light.

Early atomic theory stated that different materials had differently shaped atoms. Credit: github.com
Early atomic theory stated that different materials had differently shaped atoms. Credit: github.com

Diogenes Laertius summarized Democritus atomic theory as follows in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers:

“That atoms and the vacuum were the beginning of the universe; and that everything else existed only in opinion. That the worlds were infinite, created, and perishable. But that nothing was created out of nothing, and that nothing was destroyed so as to become nothing. That the atoms were infinite both in magnitude and number, and were borne about through the universe in endless revolutions. And that thus they produced all the combinations that exist; fire, water, air, and earth; for that all these things are only combinations of certain atoms; which combinations are incapable of being affected by external circumstances, and are unchangeable by reason of their solidity.”

Death and Legacy:

Democritus died at the age of ninety, which would place his death at around 370 BCE; though some writers disagree, with some claiming he lived to 104 or even 109. According to Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations, Democritus was eaten by lice or vermin, although in the same passage he writes that “other lice killed Socrates”, implying that this was meant metaphorically. Since Socrates died at the hands of the Athenian government who condemned him, it is possible that Aurelius attributed Democritus death to human folly or politics.

While Democritus was highly esteemed amongst his contemporaries, there were also those who resented him. This included Plato who, according to some accounts, disliked him so much that he wished that all his books would be burned. However, Plato’s pupil Aristotle was familiar with the works of Democritus and mentioned him in both Metaphysics and Physics, where he described him as a “physicist” who did not concern himself with the ideals of form or essence.

Democritus meditating on the seat of the soul by Léon-Alexandre Delhomme (1868). Credit: Pubic Domain
Democritus meditating on the seat of the soul, by Léon-Alexandre Delhomme (1868). Credit: Pubic Domain

Ultimately, Democritus is credited as being one of the founders of the modern science because his methods and theories closely resemble those of modern astronomers and physicists. And while his version of the atomic model differs greatly from our modern conceptions, his work was of undoubted value, and was a step in an ongoing process that included such scientists as John Dalton, Neils Bohr and even Albert Einstein.

As always, science is an process of continuing discovery, where new breakthroughs are built upon the foundations of the old and every generations attempts to see a little farther by standing on the shoulders of those who came before.

We have many interesting articles about atomic theory here at Universe Today. Here’s one about John Dalton’s atomic model, Neils Bohr’s atomic model, the “Plum Pudding” atomic model.

For more information, check out The History of the Atom – Democritus.

Astronomy Cast has a wonderful episode on the subject, titled Episode 392: The Standard Model – Intro

Who Was Nicolaus Copernicus?

When it comes to understanding our place in the universe, few scientists have had more of an impact than Nicolaus Copernicus. The creator of the Copernican Model of the universe (aka. heliocentrism), his discovery that the Earth and other planets revolved the Sun triggered an intellectual revolution that would have far-reaching consequences.

In addition to playing a major part in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, his ideas changed the way people looked at the heavens, the planets, and would have a profound influence over men like Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton and many others. In short, the “Copernican Revolution” helped to usher in the era of modern science.

Copernicus’ Early Life:

Copernicus was born on February 19th, 1473 in the city of Torun (Thorn) in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. The youngest of four children to a well-to-do merchant family, Copernicus and his siblings were raised in the Catholic faith and had many strong ties to the Church.

His older brother Andreas would go on to become an Augustinian canon, while his sister, Barbara, became a Benedictine nun and (in her final years) the prioress of a convent. Only his sister Katharina ever married and had children, which Copernicus looked after until the day he died. Copernicus himself never married or had any children of his own.

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Torun (Thorn), 1580. Credit: frombork.art.pl
Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Torun (Thorn), 1580. Credit: frombork.art.pl

Born in a predominately Germanic city and province, Copernicus acquired fluency in both German and Polish at a young age, and would go on to learn Greek and Italian during the course of his education. Given that it was the language of academia in his time, as well as the Catholic Church and the Polish royal court, Copernicus also became fluent in Latin, which the majority of his surviving works are written in.

Copernicus’ Education:

In 1483, Copernicus’ father (whom he was named after) died, whereupon his maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, began to oversee his education and career. Given the connections he maintained with Poland’s leading intellectual figures, Watzenrode would ensure that Copernicus had  great deal of exposure to some of the intellectual figures of his time.

Although little information on his early childhood is available, Copernicus’ biographers believe that his uncle sent him to St. John’ School in Torun, where he himself had been a master. Later, it is believed that he attended the Cathedral School at Wloclawek (located 60 km south-east Torun on the Vistula River), which prepared pupils for entrance to the University of Krakow – Watzenrode’s own Alma mater.

In 1491, Copernicus began his studies in the Department of Arts at the University of Krakow. However, he quickly became fascinated by astronomy, thanks to his exposure to many contemporary philosophers who taught or were associated with the Krakow School of Mathematics and Astrology, which was in its heyday at the time.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu
A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu

Copernicus’ studies provided him with a thorough grounding in mathematical-astronomical knowledge, as well as the philosophy and natural-science writings of Aristotle, Euclid, and various humanist writers. It was while at Krakow that Copernicus began collecting a large library on astronomy, and where he began his analysis of the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy.

These models – Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles – were both geocentric in nature. Consistent with classical astronomy and physics, they espoused that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and that the Sun, the Moon, the other planets, and the stars all revolved around it.

Before earning a degree, Copernicus left Krakow (ca. 1495) to travel to the court of his uncle Watzenrode in Warmia, a province in northern Poland. Having been elevated to the position of Prince-Bishop of Warmia in 1489, his uncle sought to place Copernicus in the Warmia canonry. However, Copernicus’ installation was delayed, which prompted his uncle to send him and his brother to study in Italy to further their ecclesiastic careers.

In 1497, Copernicus arrived in Bologna and began studying at the Bologna University of Jurists’. While there, he studied canon law, but devoted himself primarily to the study of the humanities and astronomy. It was also while at Bologna that he met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant.

The Geocentric View of the Solar System
An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568. Credit: bnf.fr

Over time, Copernicus’ began to feel a growing sense of doubt towards the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models of the universe. These included the problematic explanations arising from the inconsistent motion of the planets (i.e. retrograde motion, equants, deferents and epicycles), and the fact that Mars and Jupiter appeared to be larger in the night sky at certain times than at others.

Hoping to resolve this, Copernicus used his time at the university to study Greek and Latin authors (i.e. Pythagoras, Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Heraclides and Plato) as well as the fragments of historic information the university had on ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems – which included other (predominantly Greek and Arab) heliocentric theories.

In 1501, Copernicus moved to Padua, ostensibly to study medicine as part of his ecclesiastical career. Just as he had done at Bologna, Copernicus carried out his appointed studies, but remained committed to his own astronomical research. Between 1501 and 1503, he continued to study ancient Greek texts; and it is believed that it was at this time that his ideas for a new system of astronomy – whereby the Earth itself moved – finally crystallized.

The Copernican Model (aka. Heliocentrism):

In 1503, having finally earned his doctorate in canon law, Copernicus returned to Warmia where he would spend the remaining 40 years of his life. By 1514, he began making his Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”) available for his friends to read. This forty-page manuscript described his ideas about the heliocentric hypothesis, which was based on seven general principles.

These seven principles stated that: Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point; the center of Earth is the center of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the moon around Earth; all the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the center of the Universe; the distance between Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from 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 Earth; Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun; Earth has more than one motion; and Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun causes the seeming reverse in direction of the motions of the planets.

Heliocentric Model
Andreas Cellarius’s illustration of the Copernican system, from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1708). Credit: Public Domain

Thereafter he continued gathering data for a more detailed work, and by 1532, he had come close to completing the manuscript of his magnum opus – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). In it, he advanced his seven major arguments, but in more detailed form and with detailed computations to back them up.

However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to condemnation from the church (as well as, perhaps, worries that his theory presented some scientific flaws) he withheld his research until a year before he died. It was only in 1542, when he was near death, that he sent his treatise to Nuremberg to be published.

Copernicus’ Death:

Towards the end of 1542, Copernicus suffered from a brain hemorrhage or stroke which left him paralyzed. On May 24th, 1543, he died at the age of 70 and was reportedly buried in the Frombork Cathedral in Frombork, Poland. It is said that on the day of his death, May 24th 1543 at the age of 70, he was presented with an advance copy of his book, which he smiled upon before passing away.

In 2005, an archaeological team conducted a scan of the floor of Frombork Cathedral, declaring that they had found Copernicus’ remains. Afterwards, a forensic expert from the Polish Police Central Forensic Laboratory used the unearthed skull to reconstruct a face that closely resembled Copernicus’ features. The expert also determined that the skull belonged to a man who had died around age 70 – Copernicus’ age at the time of his death.

These findings were backed up in 2008 when a comparative DNA analysis was made from both the remains and two hairs found in a book Copernicus was known to have owned (Calendarium Romanum Magnum, by Johannes Stoeffler). The DNA results were a match, proving that Copernicus’ body had indeed been found.

Copernicus' 2010 grave in Frombork Cathedral, acknowledging him as the father of heiocentirsm.Credit:
Copernicus’ 2010 grave in Frombork Cathedral, acknowledging him as a church canon and the father of heliocentricism. Credit: Wikipedia/Holger Weinandt

On May 22nd, 2010, Copernicus was given a second funeral in a Mass led by Józef Kowalczyk, the former papal nuncio to Poland and newly named Primate of Poland. Copernicus’ remains were reburied in the same spot in Frombork Cathedral, and a black granite tombstone (shown above) now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory and also a church canon. The tombstone bears a representation of Copernicus’ model of the solar system – a golden sun encircled by six of the planets.

Copernicus’ Legacy:

Despite his fears about his arguments producing scorn and controversy, the publication of his theories resulted in only mild condemnation from religious authorities. Over time, many religious scholars tried to argue against his model, using a combination of Biblical canon, Aristotelian philosophy, Ptolemaic astronomy, and then-accepted notions of physics to discredit the idea that the Earth itself would be capable of motion.

However, within a few generation’s time, Copernicus’ theory became more widespread and accepted, and gained many influential defenders in the meantime. These included Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who’s investigations of the heavens using the telescope allowed him to resolve what were seen at the time as flaws in the heliocentric model.

These included the relative changes in the appearances of Mars and Jupiter when they are in opposition vs. conjunction to the Earth. Whereas they appear larger to the naked eye than Copernicus’ model suggested they should, Galileo proved that this is an illusion caused by the behavior of light at a distance, and can be resolved with a telescope.

1973 Federal Republic of Germany 5-mark silver coin commemorating 500th anniversary of Copernicus' birth. Credit: Wikipedia/Berlin-George
1973 Federal Republic of Germany 5-mark silver coin commemorating 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Credit: Wikipedia/Berlin-George

Through the use of the telescope, Galileo also discovered moons orbiting Jupiter, Sunspots, and the imperfections on the Moon’s surface, all of which helped to undermine the notion that the planets were perfect orbs, rather than planets similar to Earth. While Galileo’s advocacy of Copernicus’ theories resulted in his house arrest, others soon followed.

German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) also helped to refine the heliocentric model with his introduction of elliptical orbits. Prior to this, the heliocentric model still made use of circular orbits, which did not explain why planets orbited the Sun at different speeds at different times. By showing how the planet’s sped up while at certain points in their orbits, and slowed down in others, Kepler resolved this.

In addition, Copernicus’ theory about the Earth being capable of motion would go on to inspire a rethinking of the entire field of physics. Whereas previous ideas of motion depended on an outside force to instigate and maintain it (i.e. wind pushing a sail) Copernicus’ theories helped to inspire the concepts of gravity and inertia. These ideas would be articulated by Sir Isaac Newton, who’s Principia formed the basis of modern physics and astronomy.

Today, Copernicus is honored (along with Johannes Kepler) by the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) with a feast day on May 23rd. In 2009, the discoverers of chemical element 112 (which had previously been named ununbium) proposed that the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry rename it copernicum (Cn) – which they did in 2011.

Crater Copernicus on the Moon. Mosaic of photos by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, . Credit: NASA/LRO
Mosaic image of the Copernicus Crater on the Moon, taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, . Credit: NASA/LRO

In 1973, on the 500th anniversary of his birthday, the Federal Republic of Germany (aka. West Germany) issued a 5 Mark silver coin (shown above) that bore Copernicus’ name and a representation of the heliocentric universe on one side.

In August of 1972, the Copernicus – an Orbiting Astronomical Observatory created by NASA and the UK’s Science Research Council – was launched to conduct space-based observations. Originally designated OAO-3, the satellite was renamed in 1973 in time for the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Operating until February of 1981, Copernicus proved to be the most successful of the OAO missions, providing extensive X-ray and ultraviolet information on stars and discovering several long-period pulsars.

Two craters, one located on the Moon, the other on Mars, are named in Copernicus’ honor. The European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA) is currently conducting the Copernicus Program. Formerly known as Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), this program aims at achieving an autonomous, multi-level operational Earth observatory.

On February 19th, 2013, the world celebrated the 540th anniversary of Copernicus’ birthday. Even now, almost five and a half centuries later, he is considered one of the greatest astronomers and scientific minds that ever lived. In addition to revolutionizing the fields of physics, astronomy, and our very concept of the laws of motion, the tradition of modern science itself owes a great debt to this noble scholar who placed the truth above all else.

Universe Today has many interesting articles on ancient astronomy, such as What is the Difference Between the Geocentric and Heliocentric Models of the Solar System.

For more information, you should check out Nicolaus Copernicus, the biography of Nicolaus Copernicus, and Planetary Motion: The History of an Idea That Launched the Scientific Revolution.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Episode 338: Copernicus.

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