Who Discovered Gravity?

Four fundamental forces govern all interactions within the Universe. They are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity. Of these, gravity is perhaps the most mysterious. While it has been understood for some time how this law of physics operates on the macro-scale – governing our Solar System, galaxies, and superclusters – how it interacts with the three other fundamental forces remains a mystery.

Naturally, human beings have had a basic understanding of this force since time immemorial. And when it comes to our modern understanding of gravity, credit is owed to one man who deciphered its properties and how it governs all things great and small – Sir Isaac Newton. Thanks to this 17th century English physicist and mathematician, our understanding of the Universe and the laws that govern it would forever be changed.

While we are all familiar with the iconic image of a man sitting beneath an apple tree and having one fall on his head, Newton’s theories on gravity also represented a culmination of years worth of research, which in turn was based on centuries of accumulated knowledge. He would present these theories in his magnum opus, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), which was first published in 1687.

In this volume, Newton laid out what would come to be known as his Three Laws of Motion, which were derived from Johannes Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion and his own mathematical description of gravity.  These laws would lay the foundation of classical mechanics, and would remain unchallenged for centuries – until the 20th century and the emergence of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Newton's own copy of his Principia, with hand-written corrections for the second edition. Credit: Trinity Cambridge/Andrew Dunn
Newton’s own copy of his Principia, with hand-written corrections for the second edition. Credit: Trinity Cambridge/Andrew Dunn

Physics by 17th Century:

The 17th century was a very auspicious time for the sciences, with major breakthroughs occurring in the fields of mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry. Some of the greatest developments in the period include the development of the heliocentric model of the Solar System by Nicolaus Copernicus, the pioneering work with telescopes and observational astronomy by Galileo Galilei, and the development of modern optics.

It was also during this period that Johannes Kepler developed his Laws of Planetary Motion. Formulated between 1609 and 1619, these laws described the motion of the then-known planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) around the Sun. They stated that:

  • Planets move around the Sun in ellipses, with the Sun at one focus
  • The line connecting the Sun to a planet sweeps equal areas in equal times.
  • The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube (3rd power) of the mean distance from the Sun in (or in other words–of the”semi-major axis” of the ellipse, half the sum of smallest and greatest distance from the Sun).

These laws resolved the remaining mathematical issues raised by Copernicus’ heliocentric model, thus removing all doubt that it was the correct model of the Universe. Working from these, Sir Isaac Newton began considering gravitation and its effect on the orbits of planets.

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

Newton’s Three Laws:

In 1678, Newton suffered a complete nervous breakdown due to overwork and a feud with fellow astronomer Robert Hooke. For the next few years, he withdrew from correspondence with other scientists, except where they initiated it, and renewed his interest in mechanics and astronomy. In the winter of 1680-81, the appearance of a comet, about which he corresponded with John Flamsteed (England’s Astronomer Royal) also renewed his interest in astronomy.

After reviewing Kepler’s Laws of Motion, Newton developed a mathematical proof that the elliptical form of planetary orbits would result from a centripetal force inversely proportional to the square of the radius vector. Newton communicated these results to Edmond Halley (discoverer of “Haley’s Comet”) and to the Royal Society in his De motu corporum in gyrum.

This tract, published in 1684, contained the seed of what Newton would expand to form his magnum opus, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. This treatise, which was published in July of 1687, contained Newton’s three laws of motion, which stated that:

  • When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.
  • The vector sum of the external forces (F) on an object is equal to the mass (m) of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector (a) of the object. In mathematical form, this is expressed as: F=ma
  • When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

Together, these laws described the relationship between any object, the forces acting upon it and the resulting motion, laying the foundation for classical mechanics. The laws also allowed Newton to calculate the mass of each planet, the flattening of the Earth at the poles, and the bulge at the equator, and how the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon create the Earth’s tides.

In the same work, Newton presented a calculus-like method of geometrical analysis using ‘first and last ratios’, worked out the speed of sound in air (based on Boyle’s Law), accounted for the procession of the equinoxes (which he showed were a result of the Moon’s gravitational attraction to the Earth), initiated the gravitational study of the irregularities in the motion of the moon, provided a theory for the determination of the orbits of comets, and much more.

Newton and the “Apple Incident”:

The story of Newton coming up with his theory of universal gravitation as a result of an apple falling on his head has become a staple of popular culture. And while it has often been argued that the story is apocryphal and Newton did not devise his theory at any one moment, Newton himself told the story many times and claimed that the incident had inspired him.

In addition, the writing’s of William Stukeley – an English clergyman, antiquarian and fellow member of the Royal Society – have confirmed the story. But rather than the comical representation of the apple striking Newton on the head, Stukeley described in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life (1752) a conversation in which Newton described pondering the nature of gravity while watching an apple fall.

“…we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees; only he, & my self. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple…”

John Conduitt, Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint (who eventually married his niece), also described hearing the story in his own account of Newton’s life. According to Conduitt, the incident took place in 1666 when Newton was traveling to meet his mother in Lincolnshire. While meandering in the garden, he contemplated how gravity’s influence extended far beyond Earth, responsible for the falling of apple as well as the Moon’s orbit.

Similarly, Voltaire wrote n his Essay on Epic Poetry (1727) that Newton had first thought of the system of gravitation while walking in his garden and watching an apple fall from a tree. This is consistent with Newton’s notes from the 1660s, which show that he was grappling with the idea of how terrestrial gravity extends, in an inverse-square proportion, to the Moon.

Sapling of the reputed original tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton to consider gravitation. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Loodog
Sapling of the reputed original tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton to consider gravitation. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Loodog

However, it would take him two more decades to fully develop his theories to the point that he was able to offer mathematical proofs, as demonstrated in the Principia. Once that was complete, he deduced that the same force that makes an object fall to the ground was responsible for other orbital motions. Hence, he named it “universal gravitation”.

Various trees are claimed to be “the” apple tree which Newton describes. The King’s School, Grantham, claims their school purchased the original tree, uprooted it, and transported it to the headmaster’s garden some years later. However, the National Trust, which holds the Woolsthorpe Manor (where Newton grew up) in trust, claims that the tree still resides in their garden. A descendant of the original tree can be seen growing outside the main gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, below the room Newton lived in when he studied there.

Newton’s work would have a profound effect on the sciences, with its principles remaining canon for the following 200 years. It also informed the concept of universal gravitation, which became the mainstay of modern astronomy, and would not be revised until the 20th century – with the discovery of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.

We have written many interesting articles about gravity here at Universe Today. Here is Who was Sir Isaac Newton?, Who Was Galileo Galilei?, What Is the Force of Gravity?, and What is the Gravitational Constant?

Astronomy Cast has some two good episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 37: Gravitational Lensing, and Episode 102: Gravity,


Io, Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon

This global view of Jupiter's moon, Io, was obtained during the tenth orbit of Jupiter by NASA's Galileo spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Exploring the Solar System is like peeling an onion. With every layer removed, one finds fresh mysteries to ponder over, each one more confounding than the last. And this is certainly the case when it comes to Jupiter’s system of moons, particularly its four largest – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Known as the Galilean Moons, in honor of their founder, these moons possess enough natural wonders to keep scientists busy for centuries.

As Jupiter’s innermost moon, it is also the fourth-largest moon in the Solar System, has the highest density of any known moon, and is the driest known object in the Solar System. It is also one of only four known bodies that experiences active volcanism and – with over 400 active volcanoes – it is the most geologically active body in the Solar System.

Continue reading “Io, Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon”

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.


Spectacular ATV Kepler Launch Photo Captured from Orbiting ISS


Have you ever seen a space launch from orbit ?

Check out the spectacular launch photo (above) of the Johannes Kepler ATV streaking skyward atop an Ariane 5 rocket as captured by astronaut Paolo Nespoli from his unparalleled vantage point looking out the windows aboard the International Space Station (ISS), in orbit some 350 km above Earth.

The launch photo shows the rising exhaust trail from the rocket just minutes after blast off of the Ariane booster on Feb. 16 from the ESA rocket base in Kourou, French Guiana, South America. The rocket was still on a vertical ascent trajectory to orbit. Additional launch photos below from space and Earth.

Photo captured on 16 February 2011 from the real-time video from the Ariane 5 launcher during the flight V200 during the time of jettisoning the boosters.

The photo vividly illustrates the maturity of the European space effort since the launch base, Ariane booster rocket, Kepler payload and astronaut Nespoli all stem from Europe and are crucial to the future life of the ISS.

Ariane 5 rocket at the Launch pad at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana with Johannes Kepler ATV bolted on top prior to Feb. 16 blast off.

Kepler is set to dock at the ISS on Feb. 24 and an on time arrival is essential because of an impending orbital traffic jam.

Space Shuttle Discovery is due to link up with the ISS just six hous after Kepler if the orbiter launches according to schedule on Feb. 22.

Everything is nominal with Kepler’s spacecraft systems and orbital performance at this time say European Space Agency (ESA) officials, including the deployment of ATV’s four large solar wings.

Ariane 5 liftoff with Johannes Kepler ATV

The ATV, or Automated Transfer Vehicle, is a European built resupply vessel designed to transport essential cargo and provisions to the ISS. It is Europe’s contribution to stocking up the ISS.

Kepler is carrying carries more than seven metric tons of supplies and cargo for the ISS and will be used to reboost the outpost to a higher orbit during its planned four month mission.

“ATV is a truly European spacecraft. Flying it requires experts from ESA, partner agencies and industry across half a dozen countries,” said ESA’s Bob Chesson, Head of the Human Spaceflight Operations Department.

“Getting it built, into orbit and operating it in flight to docking requires a lot of hard work and dedication from hundreds of people.”

The ATV is named after Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the German astronomer and mathematician who is best known for discovering the laws of planetary motion. NASA also named its powerful new planet hunting space telescope after Kepler, which recently discovered the first earth sized planets orbiting inside the habitable zone.

After the shuttle is forcibly retired later this year in 2011, the very survival and continued use of the ISS will be completely dependent on a steady train of cargo and payloads lofted by unmanned resupply vessels including the ATV from Europe, HTV from Japan, Progress from Russia and commercial carriers such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.

Photos of Ariane rockets rising exhaust trail from Feb. 16 ATV launch photographed from the ISS. Credits: ESA/ NASA

European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Paolo Nespoli, Expedition 26 flight engineer, conducts a test run with the French/CNES neuroscientific research experiment 3D-Space (SAP) in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station.