The period known as the Scientific Revolution (ca. 16th to the 18th century) was a time of major scientific upheaval. In addition to advances made in mathematics, chemistry, and the natural sciences, several major discoveries were made in the field of astronomy. Because of this, our understanding of the size and structure of the Solar System was forever revolutionized.
Consider the discovery of Uranus. While this planet had been viewed on many occasions by astronomers in the past, it was only with the birth of modern astronomy that its true nature came to be understood. And with William Herschel‘s discovery in the 18th century, the planet would come to be officially named and added to the list of known Solar Planets.
The first recorded instance of Uranus being spotted in the night sky is believed to date back to the 2nd century BCE. At this time, Hipparchos – the Greek astronomer, mathematician and founder of trigonometry – apparently recorded the planet as a star in his star catalogue (completed in 129 BCE).
This catalog was later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest,which became the definitive source for Islamic astronomers and for scholars in Medieval Europe for over one-thousand years. During the 17th and 18th centuries, multiple recorded sightings were made by astronomers who catalogued it as being a star.
This included English astronomer John Flamsteed, who in 1690 observed the star on six occasions and catalogued it as a star in the Taurus constellation (34 Tauri). During the mid-18th century, French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier made twelve recorded sightings, and also recorded it as being a star. It was not until March 13th, 1781, when William Herschel observed it from his garden house in Bath, that Uranus’ true nature began to be revealed.
Herschel’s first report on the object was recorded on April 26th, 1781. Initially, he described it as being a “Nebulous star or perhaps a comet”, but later settled on it being a comet since it appeared to have changed its position in the sky. When he presented his discovery to the Royal Society, he maintained this theory, but also likened it to a planet.
As was recorded in the Journal of the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society on the occasion of his presentation:
“The power I had on when I first saw the comet was 227. From experience I know that the diameters of the fixed stars are not proportionally magnified with higher powers, as planets are; therefore I now put the powers at 460 and 932, and found that the diameter of the comet increased in proportion to the power, as it ought to be, on the supposition of its not being a fixed star, while the diameters of the stars to which I compared it were not increased in the same ratio. Moreover, the comet being magnified much beyond what its light would admit of, appeared hazy and ill-defined with these great powers, while the stars preserved that lustre and distinctness which from many thousand observations I knew they would retain. The sequel has shown that my surmises were well-founded, this proving to be the Comet we have lately observed.”
While Herschel would continue to maintain that what he observed was a comet, his “discovery” stimulated debate in the astronomical community about what Uranus was. In time, astronomers like Johann Elert Bode would conclude that it was a planet, based on its nearly-circular orbit. By 1783, Herschel himself acknowledged that it was a planet to the Royal Society.
Name and Meaning:
As he lived in England, Herschel originally wanted to name Uranus after his patron, King George III. Specifically, he wanted to call it Georgium Sidus (Latin for “George’s Star”), or the Georgian Planet. Although this was a popular name in Britain, the international astronomy community didn’t think much of it, and wanted to follow the historical precedent of naming the planets after ancient Greek and Roman gods.
Consistent with this, Bode proposed the name Uranus in a 1782 treatise. The Latin form of Ouranos, Uranus was the grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter in the Roman pantheon), the father of Cronos (Saturn), and the king of the Titans in Greek mythology. As it was discovered beyond the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, the name seemed highly appropriate. As he would later write in his 1784 book, “From the Newly Discovered Planet“:
“Already in the pre-read at the local Natural History Society on 12th March 1782 treatise, I have the father’s name from Saturn, namely Uranus, or as it is usually with the Latin suffix, proposed Uranus, and have since had the pleasure that various astronomers and mathematicians, cited in their writings or letters to me approving this designation. In my view, it is necessary to follow the mythology in this election, which had been borrowed from the ancient name of the other planets; because in the series of previously known, perceived by a strange person or event of modern times name of a planet would very noticeable. Diodorus of Cilicia tells the story of Atlas, an ancient people that inhabited one of the most fertile areas in Africa, and looked at the sea shores of his country as the homeland of the gods. Uranus was her first king, founder of their civilized life and inventor of many useful arts. At the same time he is also described as a diligent and skilful astronomers of antiquity … even more: Uranus was the father of Saturn and the Atlas, as the former is the father of Jupiter.”
There were some holdouts to this new name, largely in Britain, where the name Georgium Sidus remained popular. Nevertheless, Herschel’s proposal would become universally accepted by 1850. Uranus was the only planet in the Solar System named after a god from Greek mythology, rather than using the Roman counterpart’s name.
While Uranus remains the widely-recognized name for the Solar System’s seventh planet (and third gas giant), other cultures have recognized it by various other names. For example in traditional Chinese astronomy, it is known as Tianwángxing, which means literally “Sky King Star”.
The same name is recognized in the Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese astronomical traditions. To the Aztecs (and other Nahuatl-speaking peoples), Uranus was known as “Ilhuicateocitlalli” – named after the word for “sky” (“ilhuicatl”) – and also as “Xiuhteuccitlalli”, the Aztec god of fire, day, and heat. Many other cultures recognized Uranus in their mythological traditions and assigned various names.
The discovery of Uranus was one of several that would follow from the 18th century onward. In time, Neptune, the Asteroid Belt, Ceres, Vesta, Pluto and the Kuiper Belt would be added to the mix, thus creating a model of the Solar System that would endure until the early 21st century – when new bodies were discovered beyond the orbit that Neptune that would lead to the nomenclature debate.
The 17th century was an auspicious time for the sciences, with groundbreaking discoveries being made in astronomy, physics, mechanics, optics, and the natural sciences. At the center of all this was Sir Isaac Newton, the man who is widely recognized as being one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the Scientific Revolution.
An English physicist and mathematician, Newton made several seminal contributions to the field of optics, and shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of calculus. But it was Newton’s publication of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), for which he is most famous. Published in 1687, this treatise laid the foundations for classical mechanics, a tradition which would dominate scientists’ view of the physical universe for the next three centuries.
Isaac Newton was born on January 4th, 1643, – or December 25th, 1642 according to the Julian Calendar (which was in use in England at the time) – in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, a hamlet in the county of Lincolnshire. His father, for whom he was named, was a prosperous farmer who had died three months before his birth. Having been born prematurely, Newton was small as a child.
His mother, Hannah Ayscough, remarried when he was three to a Reverend, leaving Newton in the care of his maternal grandmother. His mother would go on to have three more children with her new husband, which became Newton’s only siblings. Because of this, Newton apparently had a rocky relationship with his stepfather and mother for some time.
By the time Newton was 17, his mother was widowed again. Despite her hopes that Newton would become a farmer, like his father, Newton hated farming and sought to become an academic. His interests in engineering, mathematics and astronomy were evident from an early age, and Newton began his studies with an aptitude for learning and inventing that would last for the rest of his life.
Between the ages of 12 and 21, Newton was educated at The King’s School, Grantham, where he learned Latin. While there, he became the top-ranked student, and received recognition for his building of sundials and models of windmills. By 1661, he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he paid his way by performing a valet’s duties (what was known as a subsizar).
During his first three years at Cambridge, Newton was taught the standard curriculum, which was based on Aristotelian theory. But Newton was fascinated with the more advanced science and spent all his spare time reading the works of modern philosophers and astronomers, such as René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, Thomas Street, and Johannes Kepler.
The result was a less-than-stellar performance, but his dual focus would also lead him to make some of his most profound scientific contributions. In 1664, Newton received a scholarship, which guaranteed him four more years until he would get his Masters of Arts degree.
In 1665, shortly after Newton obtained his B.A., the university temporarily closed due to the outbreak of the Great Plague. Using this time to study at home, Newton developed a number of ideas he had which would eventually cement to become his theories on calculus, optics and the law of gravitation (see below).
In 1667, he returned to Cambridge and was elected as a fellow of Trinity, though his performance was still considered less than spectacular. However, in time, his fortunes improved and he gained recognition for his abilities. In 1669, he received his M.A. (before he had turned 27), and published a treatise expounding on his mathematical theories for dealing with infinite series.
By 1669, he succeeded his one-time teacher and mentor Isaac Barrow – a theologian and mathematician who discovered the fundamental theorem of calculus – and became the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge. In 1672, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which he would remain a part of until the end of his life.
While studying at Cambridge, Newton maintained a second set of notes which he entitled “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae” (“Certain Philosophical Questions“). These notes, which were the sum total of Newton’s observations about mechanical philosophy, would lead him to discover the generalized binomial theorem in 1665, and allowed him to develop a mathematical theory that would lead to his development of modern calculus.
However, Newton’s earliest contributions were in the form of optics, which he delivered during annual lectures while holding the position of Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. In 1666, he observed that light entering a prism as a circular ray exits in the form of an oblong, demonstrating that a prism refracts different colors of light at different angles. This led him to conclude that color is a property intrinsic to light, a point which had been debated in prior years.
In 1668, he designed and constructed a reflecting telescope, which helped him prove his theory. From 1670 to 1672, Newton continued to lecture on optics and investigated the refraction of light, demonstrating that the multicoloured spectrum produced by a prism could be recomposed into white light by a lens and a second prism.
He also demonstrated that colored light does not change its properties, regardless of whether it is reflected, scattered, or transmitted. Thus, he observed that color is the result of objects interacting with already-colored light, rather than objects generating the color themselves. This is known as Newton’s theory of color.
The Royal Society asked for a demonstration of his reflecting telescope in 1671, and the organization’s interest encouraged Newton to publish his theories on light, optics and color. This he did in 1672 in a small treatise entitled Of Colours, which would later be published in a larger volume containing his theories on the “corpuscular” nature of light.
In essence, Newton argued that light was composed of particles (or corpuscles), which he claimed were refracted by accelerating into a denser medium. In 1675, he published this theory in a treatise titled “Hypothesis of Light“, in which he also posited that ordinary matter was composed of larger corpuscles and about the existence of an ether that transmitted forces between particles.
After discussing his ideas with Henry More, an English theosophist and a member of the Cambridge Platonists, Newton’s interest in alchemy was revived. He then replaced his theory of an ether existing between particles in nature with occult forces, based on Hermetic ideas of attraction and repulsion between particles. This reflected Newton’s ongoing interest in both the alchemical and scientific, for which there was no clear distinction at the time.
While later physicists favored a purely wavelike explanation of light to account for the interference patterns and the general phenomenon of diffraction, their findings owed a great deal to Newton’ theories. Much the same is true of today’s quantum mechanics, photons, and the idea of wave–particle duality, which bear only a small resemblance to Newton’s understanding of light.
Though both he and Leibniz are credited with having developed calculus independently, both men became embroiled in a controversy over who discovered it first. Though Newton’s work in developing modern calculus began in the 1660s, he was reluctant to publish it, fearing controversy and criticism. As such, Newton didn’t publish anything until 1693 and did not give a full account of his work until 1704, whereas Leibniz began publishing a full account of his methods in 1684.
However, Newton earlier works in mechanics and astronomy involved extensive use of calculus in geometric form. This includes methods involving “one or more orders of the infinitesimally small” in his 1684 work, De motu corporum in gyrum (“On the motion of bodies in orbit”), and in Book I of the Principia, which he referred to as “the method of first and last ratios”.
In 1678, Newton suffered a complete nervous breakdown, most likely due to overwork and an ongoing feud with fellow Royal Society member Robert Hooke (see below). The death of his mother a year later caused him to become increasingly isolated, and for six years he withdrew from correspondence with other scientists, except where they initiated it.
During this hiatus, Newton renewed his interest in mechanics and astronomy. Ironically, it was thanks to a brief exchange of letters in 1679 and 1680 with Robert Hooke that would lead him to make his greatest scientific achievements. His reawakening was also due to the appearance of a comet in the winter of 1680–1681, about which he corresponded with John Flamsteed – England’s Astronomer Royal.
Thereafter, Newton began considering gravitation and its effect on the orbits of planets, specifically with reference to Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. After his exchanges with Hooke, he worked out 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 his 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 that Newton would expand to form his magnum opus, the Principia. This treatise, which was published in July of 1687, contained Newton’s three laws of motion. These laws 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, calculate 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 precession 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.
This volume 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.
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 Netwon 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.
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.
Feud with Robert Hooke:
With the Principia, Newton became internationally recognized and acquired a circle of admirers. It also led to a feud with Robert Hooke, with whom he had a troubled relationship in the past. With the publication of his theories on color and light in 1671/72, Hooke criticized Newton in a rather condescending way, claiming that light was composed of waves and not colors.
While other philosophers were critical of Newton’s idea, it was Hooke (a member of the Royal Society who had performed extensive work in optics) that stung Newton the worst. This led to the acrimonious relationship between the two men, and to Newton almost quitting the Royal Society. However, the intervention of his colleagues convinced him to stay on and the matter eventually died down.
However, with the publication of the Principia, matters once again came to a head, with Hooke accusing Newton of plagiarism. The reason for the charge had to do with the fact that earlier in 1684, Hooke had made comments to Edmond Halley and Christopher Wren (also members of the Royal Society) about ellipses and the laws of planetary motion. However, at the time he did not offer a mathematical proof.
Nevertheless, Hooke claimed that he had discovered the theory of inverse squares and that Newton had stolen his work. Other members of the Royal Society believed the charge to be unfounded, and demanded that Hooke release the mathematical proofs to substantiate this claim. In the meantime, Newton removed all reference to Hooke in his notes and threatened to withdraw the Principia from subsequent publishing altogether.
Edmund Halley, who was a friend to both Newton and Hooke, tried to make peace between the two. In time, he was able to convince Newton to insert a joint acknowledgement of Hooke’s work in his discussion of the law of inverse squares. However, this did not placate Hooke, who maintained his charge of plagiarism.
As time moved on, Newton’s fame continued to grow while Hooke’s continued to diminish. This caused Hooke to become increasingly embittered and more protective of what he saw as his work, and he spared no opportunity to lash out at his rival. The feud finally ended in 1703, when Hooke died and Newton succeeded him as president of the Royal Society.
In addition to his work in astronomy, optics, mechanics, physics and alchemy, Newton also had a keen interest in religion and the Bible. During the 1690’s, he wrote several religious tracts that addressed literal and symbolic interpretations of the Bible. For instance, his tract on the Holy Trinity – sent to the famous political philosopher and social theorist John Locke and unpublished until 1785 – questioned the veracity of 1 John 5:7, the description which the Holy Trinity is based on.
Later religious works – like The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) – also remained unpublished until after his death. In Kingdoms, he dealt with the chronology of various ancient kingdoms – the First Ages of the Greeks, ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Medeans and Persians – and offered a description of the Temple of Solomon.
In Prophecies, he addressed the Apocalypse, as foretold within the Book of Daniel and Revelations, and espoused his belief that it would take place in 2060 CE (though other possible dates included 2034 CE). In his textual criticism titled An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture(1754), he placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on April 3rd, AD 33, which agrees with a traditionally accepted date.
In 1696, he moved to London to take up the post of warden of the Royal Mint, where he took charge of England’s great recoining. Newton would remain in this post for 30 years, and was perhaps the best-known Master of the Mint. So serious was his commitment to the role that he retired from Cambridge in 1701 to oversee the reform of England’s currency and the punishment of counterfeiters.
As Warden, and afterwards Master, of the Royal Mint, Newton estimated that 20 percent of the coins taken in during the Great Recoinage of 1696 were counterfeit. Conducting many investigations personally, Newton traveled to taverns and bars in disguise to gather evidence, and conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects – which led to the successful prosecution of 28 counterfeit coiners.
Newton was a member of the Parliament of England for Cambridge University in 1689–90 and 1701–2. In addition to being President of the Royal Society in 1703, he was an associate of the French Académie des Sciences. In April 1705, Queen Anne knighted Newton during a royal visit to Trinity College, Cambridge, making him the second scientist to be knighted (after Sir Francis Bacon).
Death and Legacy:
Towards the end of his life, Newton took up residence at Cranbury Park near Winchester with his niece and her husband, where he would stay until his death. By this time, Newton had become one of the most famous men in Europe and his scientific discoveries were unchallenged. He also had become wealthy, investing his sizable income wisely and bestowing sizable gifts to charity.
At the same time, Newton’s physical and mental health began to decline. By the time he reached 80 years of age, he began experiencing digestive problems and had to drastically change his diet and lifestyle. His family and friends also began to worry about his mental stability, as his behavior became increasingly erratic.
Then, in 1727, Newton experienced severe pain in his abdomen and lost consciousness. He died in his sleep on the next day, on March 2oth, 1727 (Julian Calendar; or March 31st, 1727, Gregorian Calendar) at the age of 84. He was buried in tomb at Westminster Abbey. And as a bachelor, he had divested much of his estate to relatives and charities during his final years.
After his death, Newton’s hair was examined and found to contain mercury, probably resulting from his alchemical pursuits. Mercury poisoning has been cited as a reason for Newton’s eccentricity in later life, as well as the nervous breakdown he experienced in 1693. Isaac Newton’s fame grew even more after his death, as many of his contemporaries proclaimed him to be the greatest genius who ever lived.
These claims were not without merit, as his laws of motion and theory of universal gravitation were unparalleled in his the time. In addition to being able to bring the orbits of the planets, the Moon, and even comets into one coherent and predictable system, he also invented modern calculus, revolutionized our understanding of light and optics, and established scientific principles that would remain in use for the following 200 years.
In time, much of what Newton espoused would be proven wrong, thanks largely to Albert Einstein. With his General Theory of Relativity, Einstein would prove that time, distance and motion were not absolutes, but dependent on the observer. In so doing, he overturned one of the fundamental precepts of universal gravitation. Nevertheless, Einstein was one of Newton’s greatest admirers and acknowledged a great debt to his predecessor.
In addition to calling Newton a “shining spirit” (in a eulogy delivered in 1927 on the 200th anniversary of Newton’s death), Einstein also remarked that “Nature to him was an open book, whose letters he could read without effort.” On his study wall, Albert Einstein is said to have kept a picture of Newton, alongside pictures of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.
A survey of Britain’s Royal Society was also conducted in 2005, where members were asked who had the greater effect on the history of science: Newton or Einstein. The majority of the Royal Society’s members agreed that overall, Newton had a greater impact on the sciences. Other polls conducted in recent decades have produced similar results, with Einstein and Newton vying for first and second place.
It is not easy thing to be living during one of the most auspicious times in history. Moreover, it is not easy in the midst of all of that to be blessed with an insight that will lead one to comes up with ideas that will revolutionize the sciences and forever alter the course of history. But throughout it all, Newton maintained a humble attitude, and summarized his accomplishments best with the famous words: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.“
When it comes to scientists who revolutionized the way we think of the universe, few names stand out like Galileo Galilei. A noted inventor, physicist, engineer and astronomer, Galileo was one of the greatest contributors to the Scientific Revolution. He build telescopes, designed a compass for surveying and military use, created a revolutionary pumping system, and developed physical laws that were the precursors of Newton’s law of Universal Gravitation and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
But it was within the field of astronomy that Galileo made his most enduring impact. Using telescopes of his own design, he discovered Sunspots, the largest moons of Jupiter, surveyed The Moon, and demonstrated the validity of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe. In so doing, he helped to revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos, our place in it, and helped to usher in an age where scientific reasoning trumped religious dogma.
Galileo was born in Pisa, Italy, in 1564, into a noble but poor family. He was the first of six children of Vincenzo Galilei and Giulia Ammannati, who’s father also had three children out of wedlock. Galileo was named after an ancestor, Galileo Bonaiuti (1370 – 1450), a noted physician, university teacher and politician who lived in Florence.
His father, a famous lutenist, composer and music theorist, had a great impact on Galileo; transmitting not only his talent for music, but skepticism of authority, the value of experimentation, and the value of measures of time and rhythm to achieve success.
In 1572, when Galileo Galilei was eight, his family moved to Florence, leaving Galileo with his uncle Muzio Tedaldi (related to his mother through marriage) for two years.When he reached the age of ten, Galileo left Pisa to join his family in Florence and was tutored by Jacopo Borghini -a mathematician and professor from the university of Pisa.
Once he was old enough to be educated in a monastery, his parents sent him to the Camaldolese Monastery at Vallombrosa, located 35 km southeast of Florence. The Order was independent from the Benedictines, and combined the solitary life of the hermit with the strict life of a monk. Galileo apparently found this life attractive and intending to join the Order, but his father insisted that he study at the University of Pisa to become a doctor.
While at Pisa, Galileo began studying medicine, but his interest in the sciences quickly became evident. In 1581, he noticed a swinging chandelier, and became fascinated by the timing of its movements. To him, it became clear that the amount of time, regardless of how far it was swinging, was comparable to the beating of his heart.
When he returned home, he set up two pendulums of equal length, swinging one with a large sweep and the other with a small sweep, and found that they kept time together. These observations became the basis of his later work with pendulums to keep time – work which would also be picked up almost a century later when Christiaan Huygens designed the first officially-recognized pendulum clock.
Shortly thereafter, Galileo accidentally attended a lecture on geometry, and talked his reluctant father into letting his study mathematics and natural philosophy instead of medicine. From that point onward, he began a steady processes of inventing, largely for the sake of appeasing his father’s desire for him to make money to pay off his siblings expenses (particularly those of his younger brother, Michelagnolo).
In 1589, Galileo was appointed to the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa. In 1591, his father died, and he was entrusted with the care of his younger siblings. Being Professor of Mathematics at Pisa was not well paid, so Galileo lobbied for a more lucrative post. In 1592, this led to his appointment to the position of Professor of Mathematics at the University of Padua, where he taught Euclid’s geometry, mechanics, and astronomy until 1610.
During this period, Galileo made significant discoveries in both pure fundamental science as well as practical applied science. His multiple interests included the study of astrology, which at the time was a discipline tied to the studies of mathematics and astronomy. It was also while teaching the standard (geocentric) model of the universe that his interest in astronomy and the Copernican theory began to take off.
In 1609, Galileo received a letter telling him about a spyglass that a Dutchman had shown in Venice. Using his own technical skills as a mathematician and as a craftsman, Galileo began to make a series of telescopes whose optical performance was much better than that of the Dutch instrument.
“About ten months ago a report reached my ears that a certain Fleming had constructed a spyglass by means of which visible objects, though very distant from the eye of the observer, were distinctly seen as if nearby. Of this truly remarkable effect several experiences were related, to which some persons believed while other denied them. A few days later the report was confirmed by a letter I received from a Frenchman in Paris, Jacques Badovere, which caused me to apply myself wholeheartedly to investigate means by which I might arrive at the invention of a similar instrument. This I did soon afterwards, my basis being the doctrine of refraction.”
His first telescope – which he constructed between June and July of 1609 – was made from available lenses and had a three-powered spyglass. To improve upon this, Galileo learned how to grind and polish his own lenses. By August, he had created an eight-powered telescope, which he presented to the Venetian Senate.
By the following October or November, he managed to improve upon this with the creation a twenty-powered telescope. Galileo saw a great deal of commercial and military applications of his instrument(which he called a perspicillum) for ships at sea. However, in 1610, he began turning his telescope to the heavens and made his most profound discoveries.
Achievements in Astronomy:
Using his telescope, Galileo began his career in astronomy by gazing at the Moon, where he discerned patterns of uneven and waning light. While not the first astronomer to do this, Galileo artistic’s training and knowledge of chiaroscuro – the use of strong contrasts between light and dark – allowed him to correctly deduce that these light patterns were the result of changes in elevation. Hence, Galileo was the first astronomer to discover lunar mountains and craters.
In The Starry Messenger, he also made topographical charts, estimating the heights of these mountains. In so doing, he challenged centuries of Aristotelian dogma that claimed that Moon, like the other planets, was a perfect, translucent sphere. By identifying that it had imperfections, in the forms of surface features, he began advancing the notion that the planets were similar to Earth.
Galileo also recorded his observations about the Milky Way in the Starry Messenger, which was previously believed to be nebulous. Instead, Galileo found that it was a multitude of stars packed so densely together that it appeared from a distance to look like clouds. He also reported that whereas the telescope resolved the planets into discs, the stars appeared as mere blazes of light, essentially unaltered in appearance by the telescope – thus suggesting that they were much farther away than previously thought.
Using his telescopes, Galileo also became one the first European astronomer to observe and study sunspots. Though there are records of previous instances of naked eye observations – such as in China (ca. 28 BCE), Anaxagoras in 467 BCE, and by Kepler in 1607 – they were not identifies as being imperfections on the surface of the Sun. In many cases, such as Kepler’s, it was thought that the spots were transits of Mercury.
In addition, there is also controversy over who was the first to observe sunspots during the 17th century using a telescope. Whereas Galileo is believed to have observed them in 1610, he did not publish about them and only began speaking to astronomers in Rome about them by the following year. In that time, German astronomer Christoph Scheiner had been reportedly observing them using a helioscope of his own design.
At around the same time, the Frisian astronomers Johannes and David Fabricius published a description of sunspots in June 1611. Johannes book, De Maculis in Sole Observatis (“On the Spots Observed in the Sun”) was published in autumn of 1611, thus securing credit for him and his father.
In any case, it was Galileo who properly identified sunspots as imperfections on the surface of the Sun, rather than being satellites of the Sun – an explanation that Scheiner, a Jesuit missionary, advanced in order to preserve his beliefs in the perfection of the Sun.
Using a technique of projecting the Sun’s image through the telescope onto a piece of paper, Galileo deduced that sunspots were, in fact, on the surface of the Sun or in its atmosphere. This presented another challenge to the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic view of the heavens, since it demonstrated that the Sun itself had imperfections.
On January 7th, 1610, Galileo pointed his telescope towards Jupiter and observed what he described in Nuncius as “three fixed stars, totally invisible by their smallness” that were all close to Jupiter and in line with its equator. Observations on subsequent nights showed that the positions of these “stars” had changed relative to Jupiter, and in a way that was not consistent with them being part of the background stars.
By January 10th, he noted that one had disappeared, which he attributed to it being hidden behind Jupiter. From this, he concluded that the stars were in fact orbiting Jupiter, and they were satellites of it. By January 13th, he discovered a fourth, and named them the Medicean stars, in honor of his future patron, Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his three brothers.
Later astronomers, however, renamed them the Galilean Moons in honour of their discoverer. By the 20th century, these satellites would come to be known by their current names – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – which had been suggested by 17th century German astronomer Simon Marius, apparently at the behest of Johannes Kepler.
Galileo’s observations of these satellites proved to be another major controversy. For the first time, a planet other than Earth was shown to have satellites orbiting it, which constituted yet another nail in the coffin of the geocentric model of the universe. His observations were independently confirmed afterwards, and Galileo continued to observe the satellites them and even obtained remarkably accurate estimates for their periods by 1611.
Galileo’s greatest contribution to astronomy came in the form of his advancement of the Copernican model of the universe (i.e. heliocentrism). This began in 1610 with his publication of Sidereus Nuncius, which brought the issue of celestial imperfections before a wider audience. His work on sunspots and his observation of the Galilean Moons furthered this, revealing yet more inconsistencies in the currently accepted view of the heavens.
Other astronomical observations also led Galileo to champion the Copernican model over the traditional Aristotelian-Ptolemaic (aka. geocentric) view. From September 1610 onward, Galileo began observing Venus, noting that it exhibited a full set of phases similar to that of the Moon. The only explanation for this was that Venus was periodically between the Sun and Earth; while at other times, it was on the opposite side of the Sun.
According to the geocentric model of the universe, this should have been impossible, as Venus’ orbit placed it closer to Earth than the Sun – where it could only exhibit crescent and new phases. However, Galileo’s observations of it going through crescent, gibbous, full and new phases was consistent with the Copernican model, which established that Venus orbited the Sun within the Earth’s orbit.
These and other observations made the Ptolemaic model of the universe untenable. Thus, by the early 17th century, the great majority of astronomers began to convert to one of the various geo-heliocentric planetary models – such as the Tychonic, Capellan and Extended Capellan models. These all had the virtue of explaining problems in the geocentric model without engaging in the “heretical” notion that Earth revolved around the Sun.
In 1632, Galileo addressed the “Great Debate” in his treatise Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), in which he advocated the heliocentric model over the geocentric. Using his own telescopic observations, modern physics and rigorous logic, Galileo’s arguments effectively undermined the basis of Aristotle and Ptolemy’s system for a growing and receptive audience.
In the meantime, Johannes Kepler correctly identified the sources of tides on Earth – something which Galileo had become interesting in himself. But whereas Galileo attributed the ebb and flow of tides to the rotation of the Earth, Kepler ascribed this behavior to the influence of the Moon.
Combined with his accurate tables on the elliptical orbits of the planets (something Galileo rejected), the Copernican model was effectively proven. From the middle of the seventeenth century onward, there were few astronomers who were not Copernicans.
The Inquisition and House Arrest:
As a devout Catholic, Galileo often defended the heliocentric model of the universe using Scripture. In 1616, he wrote a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, in which he argued for a non-literal interpretation of the Bible and espoused his belief in the heliocentric universe as a physical reality:
“I hold that the Sun is located at the center of the revolutions of the heavenly orbs and does not change place, and that the Earth rotates on itself and moves around it. Moreover … I confirm this view not only by refuting Ptolemy’s and Aristotle’s arguments, but also by producing many for the other side, especially some pertaining to physical effects whose causes perhaps cannot be determined in any other way, and other astronomical discoveries; these discoveries clearly confute the Ptolemaic system, and they agree admirably with this other position and confirm it.“
More importantly, he argued that the Bible is written in the language of the common person who is not an expert in astronomy. Scripture, he argued, teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.
Initially, the Copernican model of the universe was not seen as an issue by the Roman Catholic Church or it’s most important interpreter of Scripture at the time – Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. However, in the wake of the Counter-Reformation, which began in 1545 in response to the Reformation, a more stringent attitude began to emerge towards anything seen as a challenge to papal authority.
Eventually, matters came to a head in 1615 when Pope Paul V (1552 – 1621) ordered that the Sacred Congregation of the Index (an Inquisition body charged with banning writings deemed “heretical”) make a ruling on Copernicanism. They condemned the teachings of Copernicus, and Galileo (who had not been personally involved in the trial) was forbidden to hold Copernican views.
However, things changed with the election of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) in 1623. As a friend and admirer of Galileo’s, Barberini opposed the condemnation of Galileo, and gave formal authorization and papal permission for the publication of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.
However, Barberini stipulated that Galileo provide arguments for and against heliocentrism in the book, that he be careful not to advocate heliocentrism, and that his own views on the matter be included in Galileo’s book. Unfortunately, Galileo’s book proved to be a solid endorsement of heliocentrism and offended the Pope personally.
In it, the character of Simplicio, the defender of the Aristotelian geocentric view, is portrayed as an error-prone simpleton. To make matter worse, Galileo had the character Simplicio enunciate the views of Barberini at the close of the book, making it appear as though Pope Urban VIII himself was a simpleton and hence the subject of ridicule.
As a result, Galileo was brought before the Inquisition in February of 1633 and ordered to renounce his views. Whereas Galileo steadfastly defended his position and insisted on his innocence, he was eventually threatened with torture and declared guilty. The sentence of the Inquisition, delivered on June 22nd, contained three parts – that Galileo renounce Copernicanism, that he be placed under house arrest, and that the Dialogue be banned.
According to popular legend, after recanting his theory publicly that the Earth moved around the Sun, Galileo allegedly muttered the rebellious phrase: “E pur si muove” (“And yet it moves” in Latin). After a period of living with his friend, the Archbishop of Siena, Galileo returned to his villa at Arcetri (near Florence in 1634), where he spent the remainder of his life under house arrest.
In addition to his revolutionary work in astronomy and optics, Galileo is also credited with the invention of many scientific instruments and theories. Much of the devices he created were for the specific purpose of earning money to pay for his sibling’s expenses. However, they would also prove to have a profound impact in the fields of mechanics, engineering, navigation, surveying, and warfare.
In 1586, at the age of 22, Galileo made his first groundbreaking invention. Inspired by the story of Archimedes and his “Eureka” moment, Galileo began looking into how jewelers weighed precious metals in air and then by displacement to determine their specific gravity. Working from this, he eventually theorized of a better method, which he described in a treatise entitled La Bilancetta (“The Little Balance”).
In this tract, he described an accurate balance for weighing things in air and water, in which the part of the arm on which the counter weight was hung was wrapped with metal wire. The amount by which the counterweight had to be moved when weighing in water could then be determined very accurately by counting the number of turns of the wire. In so doing, the proportion of metals like gold to silver in the object could be read off directly.
In 1592, when Galileo was a professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, he made frequent trips to the Arsenal – the inner harbor where Venetian ships were outfitted. The Arsenal had been a place of practical invention and innovation for centuries, and Galileo used the opportunity to study mechanical devices in detail.
In 1593, he was consulted on the placement of oars in galleys and submitted a report in which he treated the oar as a lever and correctly made the water the fulcrum. A year later the Venetian Senate awarded him a patent for a device for raising water that relied on a single horse for the operation. This became the basis of modern pumps.
To some, Galileo’s Pump was a merely an improvement on the Archimedes Screw, which was first developed in the third century BCE and patented in the Venetian Republic in 1567. However, there is no apparent evidence connecting Galileo’s invention to Archimedes’ earlier and less sophisticated design.
In ca. 1593, Galileo constructed his own version of a thermoscope, a forerunner of the thermometer, that relied on the expansion and contraction of air in a bulb to move water in an attached tube. Over time, he and his colleagues worked to develop a numerical scale that would measure the heat based on the expansion of the water inside the tube.
The cannon, which was first introduced to Europe in 1325, had become a mainstay of war by Galileo’s time. Having become more sophisticated and mobile, gunners needed instruments to help them coordinate and calculate their fire. As such, between 1595 and 1598, Galileo devised an improved geometric and military compass for use by gunners and surveyors.
During the 16th century, Aristotelian physics was still the predominant way of explaining the behavior of bodies near the Earth. For example, it was believed that heavy bodies sought their natural place of rest – i.e at the center of things. As a result, no means existed to explain the behavior of pendulums, where a heavy body suspended from a rope would swing back and forth and not seek rest in the middle.
Already, Galileo had conducted experiments that demonstrated that heavier bodies did not fall faster than lighter ones – another belief consistent with Aristotelian theory. In addition, he also demonstrated that objects thrown into the air travel in parabolic arcs. Based on this and his fascination with the back and forth motion of a suspended weight, he began to research pendulums in 1588.
In 1602, he explained his observations in a letter to a friend, in which he described the principle of isochronism. According to Galileo, this principle asserted that the time it takes for the pendulum to swing is not linked to the arc of the pendulum, but rather the pendulum’s length. Comparing two pendulum’s of similar length, Galileo demonstrated that they would swing at the same speed, despite being pulled at different lengths.
According to Vincenzo Vivian, one of Galileo’s contemporaries, it was in 1641 while under house arrest that Galileo created a design for a pendulum clock. Unfortunately, being blind at the time, he was unable to complete it before his death in 1642. As a result, Christiaan Huygens’ publication of Horologrium Oscillatoriumin 1657 is recognized as the first recorded proposal for a pendulum clock.
Death and Legacy:
Galileo died on January 8th, 1642, at the age of 77, due to fever and heart palpitations that had taken a toll on his health. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II, wished to bury him in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and other ancestors, and to erect a marble mausoleum in his honor.
However, Pope Urban VIII objected on the basis that Galileo had been condemned by the Church, and his body was instead buried in a small room next to the novice’s chapel in the Basilica. However, after his death, the controversy surrounding his works and heliocentricm subsided, and the Inquisitions ban on his writing’s was lifted in 1718.
In 1737, his body was exhumed and reburied in the main body of the Basilica after a monument had been erected in his honor. During the exhumation, three fingers and a tooth were removed from his remains. One of these fingers, the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand, is currently on exhibition at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy.
In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV authorized the publication of an edition of Galileo’s complete scientific works which included a mildly censored version of the Dialogue. In 1758, the general prohibition against works advocating heliocentrism was removed from the Index of prohibited books, although the specific ban on uncensored versions of the Dialogue and Copernicus’s De Revolutionibusorbium coelestium (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres“) remained.
All traces of official opposition to heliocentrism by the church disappeared in 1835 when works that espoused this view were finally dropped from the Index. And in 1939, Pope Pius XII described Galileo as being among the “most audacious heroes of research… not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments”.
On October 31st, 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Catholic Church tribunal. The affair had finally been put to rest and Galileo exonerated, though certain unclear statements issued by Pope Benedict XVI have led to renewed controversy and interest in recent years.
Alas, when it comes to the birth of modern science and those who helped create it, Galileo’s contributions are arguably unmatched. According to Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, Galileo was the father of modern science, his discoveries and investigations doing more to dispel the prevailing mood of superstition and dogma than anyone else in his time.
These include the discovery of craters and mountains on the Moon, the discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto), the existence and nature of Sunspots, and the phases of Venus. These discoveries, combined with his logical and energetic defense of the Copernican model, made a lasting impact on astronomy and forever changed the way people look at the universe.
Galileo’s theoretical and experimental work on the motions of bodies, along with the largely independent work of Kepler and René Descartes, was a precursor of the classical mechanics developed by Sir Isaac Newton. His work with pendulums and time-keeping also previewed the work of Christiaan Huygens and the development of the pendulum clock, the most accurate timepiece of its day.
Galileo also put forward the basic principle of relativity, which states that the laws of physics are the same in any system that is moving at a constant speed in a straight line. This remains true, regardless of the system’s particular speed or direction, thus proving that there is no absolute motion or absolute rest. This principle provided the basic framework for Newton’s laws of motion and is central to Einstein’s special theory of relativity.
The United Nations chose 2009 to be the International Year of Astronomy, a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture. The year 2009 was selected in part because it was the four-hundredth anniversary of Galileo first viewing the heavens with his a telescope he built himself.
A commemorative €25 coin was minted for the occasion, with the inset on the obverse side showing Galileo’s portrait and telescope, as well as one of his first drawings of the surface of the moon. In the silver circle that surrounds it, pictures of other telescopes – Isaac Newton’s Telescope, the observatory in Kremsmünster Abbey, a modern telescope, a radio telescope and a space telescope – are also shown.
Other scientific endeavors and principles are named after Galileo, including the NASA Galileo spacecraft, which was the first spacecraft to enter orbit around Jupiter. Operating from 1989 to 2003, the mission consisted of an orbiter that observed the Jovian system, and an atmospheric probe that made the first measurements of Jupiter’s atmosphere.
This mission found evidence of subsurface oceans on Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, and revealed the intensity of volcanic activity on Io. In 2003, the spacecraft was crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere to avoid contamination of any of Jupiter’s moons.
Yes, the sciences and humanity as a whole owes a great dept to Galileo. And as time goes on, and space exploration continues, it is likely we will continue to repay that debt by naming future missions – and perhaps even features on the Galilean Moons, should we ever settle there – after him. Seems like a small recompense for ushering in the age of modern science, no?
The 17th century was a very auspicious time for the sciences, with advancements being made in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and the natural sciences. But it was perhaps in the field of astronomy that the greatest achievements were made. In the space of a century, several planets and moons were observed for the first time, accurate models were made to predict the motions of the planets, and the law of universal gravitation was conceived.
In the midst of this, the name of Christiaan Huygens stands out among the rest. As one of the preeminent scientists of his time, he was pivotal in the development of clocks, mechanics and optics. And in the field of astronomy, he discovered Saturn’s Rings and its largest moon – Titan. Thanks to Huygens, subsequent generations of astronomers were inspired to explore the outer Solar System, leading to the discovery of other Cronian moons, Uranus, and Neptune in the following century.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The spring is a marvel of human engineering and creativity. For one, it comes in so many varieties – the compression spring, the extension spring, the torsion spring, the coil spring, etc. – all of which serve different and specific functions. These functions in turn allow for the creation of many man-made objects, most of which emerged as part of the Scientific Revolution during the late 17th and 18th centuries.
As an elastic object used to store mechanical energy, the applications for them are extensive, making possible such things as an automotive suspension systems, pendulum clocks, hand sheers, wind-up toys, watches, rat traps, digital micromirror devices, and of course, the Slinky.
Like so many other devices invented over the centuries, a basic understanding of the mechanics is required before it can so widely used. In terms of springs, this means understanding the laws of elasticity, torsion and force that come into play – which together are known as Hooke’s Law.
Hooke’s Law is a principle of physics that states that the that the force needed to extend or compress a spring by some distance is proportional to that distance. The law is named after 17th century British physicist Robert Hooke, who sought to demonstrate the relationship between the forces applied to a spring and its elasticity.
He first stated the law in 1660 as a Latin anagram, and then published the solution in 1678 as ut tensio, sic vis – which translated, means “as the extension, so the force” or “the extension is proportional to the force”).
This can be expressed mathematically as F= -kX, where F is the force applied to the spring (either in the form of strain or stress); X is the displacement of the spring, with a negative value demonstrating that the displacement of the spring once it is stretched; and k is the spring constant and details just how stiff it is.
Hooke’s law is the first classical example of an explanation of elasticity – which is the property of an object or material which causes it to be restored to its original shape after distortion. This ability to return to a normal shape after experiencing distortion can be referred to as a “restoring force”. Understood in terms of Hooke’s Law, this restoring force is generally proportional to the amount of “stretch” experienced.
In addition to governing the behavior of springs, Hooke’s Law also applies in many other situations where an elastic body is deformed. These can include anything from inflating a balloon and pulling on a rubber band to measuring the amount of wind force is needed to make a tall building bend and sway.
This law has had many important practical applications, with one being the creation of a balance wheel, which made possible the creation of the mechanical clock, the portable timepiece, the spring scale and the manometer (aka. the pressure gauge). Also, because it is a close approximation of all solid bodies (as long as the forces of deformation are small enough), numerous branches of science and engineering as also indebted to Hooke for coming up with this law. These include the disciplines of seismology, molecular mechanics and acoustics.
However, like most classical mechanics, Hooke’s Law only works within a limited frame of reference. Because no material can be compressed beyond a certain minimum size (or stretched beyond a maximum size) without some permanent deformation or change of state, it only applies so long as a limited amount of force or deformation is involved. In fact, many materials will noticeably deviate from Hooke’s law well before those elastic limits are reached.
Still, in its general form, Hooke’s Law is compatible with Newton’s laws of static equilibrium. Together, they make it possible to deduce the relationship between strain and stress for complex objects in terms of the intrinsic materials of the properties it is made of. For example, one can deduce that a homogeneous rod with uniform cross section will behave like a simple spring when stretched, with a stiffness (k) directly proportional to its cross-section area and inversely proportional to its length.
Another interesting thing about Hooke’s law is that it is a a perfect example of the First Law of Thermodynamics. Any spring when compressed or extended almost perfectly conserves the energy applied to it. The only energy lost is due to natural friction.
In addition, Hooke’s law contains within it a wave-like periodic function. A spring released from a deformed position will return to its original position with proportional force repeatedly in a periodic function. The wavelength and frequency of the motion can also be observed and calculated.
The modern theory of elasticity is a generalized variation on Hooke’s law, which states that the strain/deformation of an elastic object or material is proportional to the stress applied to it. However, since general stresses and strains may have multiple independent components, the “proportionality factor” may no longer be just a single real number.
A good example of this would be when dealing with wind, where the stress applied varies in intensity and direction. In cases like these, it is best to employ a linear map (aka. a tensor) that can be represented by a matrix of real numbers instead of a single value.
If you enjoyed this article there are several others that you will enjoy on Universe Today. Here is one about Sir Isaac Newton’s contributions to the many fields of science. Here is an interesting article about gravity.
There are also some great resources online, such as this lecture on Hooke’s Law that you can watch on academicearth.org. There is also a great explanation of elasticity on howstuffworks.com.