What is the Speed of Light?

Since ancient times, philosophers and scholars have sought to understand light. In addition to trying to discern its basic properties (i.e. what is it made of – particle or wave, etc.) they have also sought to make finite measurements of how fast it travels. Since the late-17th century, scientists have been doing just that, and with increasing accuracy.

In so doing, they have gained a better understanding of light’s mechanics and the important role it plays in physics, astronomy and cosmology. Put simply, light moves at incredible speeds and is the fastest moving thing in the Universe. Its speed is considered a constant and an unbreakable barrier, and is used as a means of measuring distance. But just how fast does it travel?

Speed of Light (c):

Light travels at a constant speed of 1,079,252,848.8 (1.07 billion) km per hour. That works out to 299,792,458 m/s, or about 670,616,629 mph (miles per hour). To put that in perspective, if you could travel at the speed of light, you would be able to circumnavigate the globe approximately seven and a half times in one second. Meanwhile, a person flying at an average speed of about 800 km/h (500 mph), would take over 50 hours to circle the planet just once.

Illustration showing the distance between Earth and the Sun. Credit: LucasVB/Public Domain
Illustration showing the distance light travels between the Earth and the Sun. Credit: LucasVB/Public Domain

To put that into an astronomical perspective, the average distance from the Earth to the Moon is 384,398.25 km (238,854 miles ). So light crosses that distance in about a second. Meanwhile, the average distance from the Sun to the Earth is ~149,597,886 km (92,955,817 miles), which means that light only takes about 8 minutes to make that journey.

Little wonder then why the speed of light is the metric used to determine astronomical distances. When we say a star like Proxima Centauri is 4.25 light years away, we are saying that it would take – traveling at a constant speed of 1.07 billion km per hour (670,616,629 mph) – about 4 years and 3 months to get there. But just how did we arrive at this highly specific measurement for “light-speed”?

History of Study:

Until the 17th century, scholars were unsure whether light traveled at a finite speed or instantaneously. From the days of the ancient Greeks to medieval Islamic scholars and scientists of the early modern period, the debate went back and forth. It was not until the work of Danish astronomer Øle Rømer (1644-1710) that the first quantitative measurement was made.

In 1676, Rømer observed that the periods of Jupiter’s innermost moon Io appeared to be shorter when the Earth was approaching Jupiter than when it was receding from it. From this, he concluded that light travels at a finite speed, and estimated that it takes about 22 minutes to cross the diameter of Earth’s orbit.

Prof. Albert Einstein uses the blackboard as he delivers the 11th Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the auditorium of the Carnegie Institue of Technology Little Theater at Pittsburgh, Pa., on Dec. 28, 1934. Using three symbols, for matter, energy and the speed of light respectively, Einstein offers additional proof of a theorem propounded by him in 1905 that matter and energy are the same thing in different forms. (AP Photo)
Prof. Albert Einstein delivering the 11th Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the Carnegie Institute of Technology on Dec. 28th, 1934, where he expounded on his theory of how matter and energy are the same thing in different forms. Credit: AP Photo

Christiaan Huygens used this estimate and combined it with an estimate of the diameter of the Earth’s orbit to obtain an estimate of 220,000 km/s. Isaac Newton also spoke about Rømer’s calculations in his seminal work Opticks (1706). Adjusting for the distance between the Earth and the Sun, he calculated that it would take light seven or eight minutes to travel from one to the other. In both cases, they were off by a relatively small margin.

Later measurements made by French physicists Hippolyte Fizeau (1819 – 1896) and Léon Foucault (1819 – 1868) refined these measurements further – resulting in a value of 315,000 km/s (192,625 mi/s). And by the latter half of the 19th century, scientists became aware of the connection between light and electromagnetism.

This was accomplished by physicists measuring electromagnetic and electrostatic charges, who then found that the numerical value was very close to the speed of light (as measured by Fizeau). Based on his own work, which showed that electromagnetic waves propagate in empty space, German physicist Wilhelm Eduard Weber proposed that light was an electromagnetic wave.

The next great breakthrough came during the early 20th century/ In his 1905 paper, titled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, Albert Einstein asserted that the speed of light in a vacuum, measured by a non-accelerating observer, is the same in all inertial reference frames and independent of the motion of the source or observer.

A laser shining through a glass of water demonstrates how many changes in speed it undergoes - from 186,222 mph in air to 124,275 mph through the glass. It speeds up again to 140,430 mph in water, slows again through glass and then speeds up again when leaving the glass and continuing through the air. Credit: Bob King
A laser shining through a glass of water demonstrates how many changes in speed (in mph) it undergoes as it passes from air, to glass, to water, and back again. Credit: Bob King

Using this and Galileo’s principle of relativity as a basis, Einstein derived the Theory of Special Relativity, in which the speed of light in vacuum (c) was a fundamental constant. Prior to this, the working consensus among scientists held that space was filled with a “luminiferous aether” that was responsible for its propagation – i.e. that light traveling through a moving medium would be dragged along by the medium.

This in turn meant that the measured speed of the light would be a simple sum of its speed through the medium plus the speed of that medium. However, Einstein’s theory effectively  made the concept of the stationary aether useless and revolutionized the concepts of space and time.

Not only did it advance the idea that the speed of light is the same in all inertial reference frames, it also introduced the idea that major changes occur when things move close the speed of light. These include the time-space frame of a moving body appearing to slow down and contract in the direction of motion when measured in the frame of the observer (i.e. time dilation, where time slows as the speed of light approaches).

His observations also reconciled Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism with the laws of mechanics, simplified the mathematical calculations by doing away with extraneous explanations used by other scientists, and accorded with the directly observed speed of light.

During the second half of the 20th century, increasingly accurate measurements using laser inferometers and cavity resonance techniques would further refine estimates of the speed of light. By 1972, a group at the US National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colorado, used the laser inferometer technique to get the currently-recognized value of 299,792,458 m/s.

Role in Modern Astrophysics:

Einstein’s theory that the speed of light in vacuum is independent of the motion of the source and the inertial reference frame of the observer has since been consistently confirmed by many experiments. It also sets an upper limit on the speeds at which all massless particles and waves (which includes light) can travel in a vacuum.

One of the outgrowths of this is that cosmologists now treat space and time as a single, unified structure known as spacetime – in which the speed of light can be used to define values for both (i.e. “lightyears”, “light minutes”, and “light seconds”). The measurement of the speed of light has also become a major factor when determining the rate of cosmic expansion.

Beginning in the 1920’s with observations of Lemaitre and Hubble, scientists and astronomers became aware that the Universe is expanding from a point of origin. Hubble also observed that the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it appears to be moving. In what is now referred to as the Hubble Parameter, the speed at which the Universe is expanding is calculated to 68 km/s per megaparsec.

This phenomena, which has been theorized to mean that some galaxies could actually be moving faster than the speed of light, may place a limit on what is observable in our Universe. Essentially, galaxies traveling faster than the speed of light would cross a “cosmological event horizon”, where they are no longer visible to us.

Also, by the 1990’s, redshift measurements of distant galaxies showed that the expansion of the Universe has been accelerating for the past few billion years. This has led to theories like “Dark Energy“, where an unseen force is driving the expansion of space itself instead of objects moving through it (thus not placing constraints on the speed of light or violating relativity).

Along with special and general relativity, the modern value of the speed of light in a vacuum has gone on to inform cosmology, quantum physics, and the Standard Model of particle physics. It remains a constant when talking about the upper limit at which massless particles can travel, and remains an unachievable barrier for particles that have mass.

Perhaps, someday, we will find a way to exceed the speed of light. While we have no practical ideas for how this might happen, the smart money seems to be on technologies that will allow us to circumvent the laws of spacetime, either by creating warp bubbles (aka. the Alcubierre Warp Drive), or tunneling through it (aka. wormholes).

Until that time, we will just have to be satisfied with the Universe we can see, and to stick to exploring the part of it that is reachable using conventional methods.

We have written many articles about the speed of light for Universe Today. Here’s How Fast is the Speed of Light?, How are Galaxies Moving Away Faster than Light?, How Can Space Travel Faster than the Speed of Light?, and Breaking the Speed of Light.

Here’s a cool calculator that lets you convert many different units for the speed of light, and here’s a relativity calculator, in case you wanted to travel nearly the speed of light.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode that addresses questions about the speed of light – Questions Show: Relativity, Relativity, and more Relativity.


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,


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.


How Many Miles Around the Earth?

Planet Earth, which we humans and all currently-known forms of life call home, is the third planet from the Sun, and the largest of the terrestrial planets. With a mean radius of 6,371 km (3,958.8 miles), it is slightly larger than Venus (which has a radius of approx. 6,050 km), almost twice the size of Mars (~3,390 km), and almost three times the size of Mercury (~2,440 km).

Basically, Earth is a pretty big world. But just how big if one were to measure it from end to end? If one were to just start walking, how many kilometers (and/or miles) would they have to go before they got back to where they started. Well, the short answer is just over 40,075 km (or just over 24,901 miles). But as always, things get a little more complicated when you look closer.

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