What was the Heliocentric Model of the Universe

When one stands at any point on the Earth and looks out toward the horizon, the perspective does not afford any notion of the curvature of its surface. Likewise, when one observes the Sun Moon and planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn rising on the eastern horizon and setting in the west, the notion that these celestial orbs encircle the Earth would seem the most likely conclusion. Based on just such conclusions, ancient humans developed the concept or model of a geocentric (Earth centered) universe thousands of years ago. The Greek philosopher Anaximander of Miletus (610-547 BCE) is given formal accreditation for establishing the geocentric theory.

In the geocentric model, the Earth stood flat and immobile, the Sun Moon and planets in orbit of it against the backdrop of fixed position stars. In the 4th century BCE the famed Greek philosopher Aristotle codified the geocentric model buy representing the universe or “world” as it was known in that day in five encapsulating glass spheres. But even in Aristotle’s time and before, there were conflicting views with respect to the cosmological configuration based on certain observed anomalies. Nevertheless, the geocentric model, being the most perceptively obvious became the accepted belief.

The most prominent evidence calling into question the geocentric model were irregularities in the movements of the planets Mercury and Venus, which were never observed to climb higher than 45 degrees in the sky [in other words, they never appear to make a complete orbit of the Earth]. The two planets appear first on the western horizon climbing higher in the sky each night, but then after reaching a circular ebb of 45 degrees begin to appear lower again each night until they are again no longer visible. Some months later, the planets repeat their peculiar performance on the eastern horizon in the early morning. Venus is the more prominent of the two  and thus was dubbed both the morning star and evening star for its brilliance during its orbital phases.

As early as the fifth century BCE, Pythagoras of Samos (c. 572-500 BCE) posited that the Earth was spherical and not flat or cylindrical. Pythagoras’ following also developed a sun centered model of the world as elaborated on by the Pythagorean Philolaus, but the geocentric model was simply to entrenched in the minds of most learned men of the time and Philolaus’ notions were considered lunacy by the establishment of classical thinking in the day. The first concept of a heliocentric (Sun centered – see the difference heliocentric and geocentric ) model of the universe can therefore be attributed to the Pythagoreans who envisioned a solar system consisting of the Sun at the center encircled by the Earth, Moon, five then known planets, an outer fire (the stars) and a Pythagorean novelty, a counter Earth which was always on the other side of the Sun and therefore never visible from Earth.[1] Add their number and you come up with ten, the Pythagorean mathematical representation of harmony and perfection.

In the 3rd century BCE Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) breathed new life into the idea of a heliocentric universe, his model pretty much reflecting the Pythagorean perspective without any counter Earth. A generation after Aristarchus, Eratosthenes (276-195 BCE)  concluded based on the different lengths of shadows, cast by sticks placed in the earth and at right angles to it at different latitudes on the same day of the year, was intrinsic evidence that Pythagoras’ theory of a spherical earth was indeed a true reality. He went on to accurately compute the circumference of the earth based on his findings. Ironically, although most respectable scientist thereafter considered the Earth to be spherical it would take another 1500 years and one adventurous explorer named Columbus to provide proof enough of the fact to convinced the religious consistory.

Meanwhile Hipparchus (c. 190-120 BCE) taking into account positional observations of stars recorded 200 years earlier detected a slight westerly drift of the backdrop of star constellations on the southern horizon. In reality it was a profound discovery of a phenomena called the precession of the equinox’s which 1600 years later would play heavily in the mind of one Nicholas Copernicus while considering the absurdities of Ptolemy’s (Claudius Ptolemaeus c. 90-168  CE) epicyclical explanations for Mercury and Venus’ peculiar movements, and other fabricated notions supporting Ptolemy’s unique model of a geocentric universe. It was also a time when a wave of monotheist religious fervor was sweeping the Roman empire and the most literal inference of more ancient theosophical writings was given credence. The book of Joshua chapter ten verse 13 unequivocally states “God commanded the Sun to stand still,” clear evidence by word of God that the Earth was immobile and that it was the Sun that was in motion around it. For the next 14 centuries the Earth would remain, in the minds of most men flat and immobile at the center of the universe where God the creator had put it.

And so it was, that the Aristotilian/Ptolimaic view of a geocentric universe would become the law of the land for the next millennium and a half and anyone who dared suggest otherwise would surely forfeit their life in the bonfire of the iniquities [be burned at the steak] for their heretical beliefs and blasphemous uttering of it. But a young student studying cannon Law at the University de Ferrara (c. 1496) developed an energetic interest in Astronomy and it would become the love of his life. By 1516, Nicholas Copernicus had concluded that Ptolemy was simply wrong and himself forged a better understanding of the universe supporting a heliocentric reality.

Copernican heliocentricity literally smashed Aristotle’s geocentric glass sphere model and called into question Ptolemy’s whimsical notions, but far more egregiously it suggested that Joshua 10:13 and at least ten other versus of presumably infallible biblical scripture were in error. The Copernican theory was far beyond revolutionary, it was heresy plain and simple and Copernicus knew that, and was well aware of the death penalty he would face were he to make public his new heliocentric model of the universe. Nevertheless, he continued to share his ideas with other astronomers in private and to bolster his own theory with Euclidean geometric proofs. He wrote an absolutely  magnificent book called “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” [On the revolution of the Heavenly Orbs] defining his heliocentric model of the universe in precisely accurate terms. In the introduction Copernicus gives credit to Philolaus who’s ideas foreshadowed his own.

Ironically, Copernicus’ model of the heliocentric universe came close to perishing along with the Polish/German astronomer who died in 1543. During his life he simply would not permit the printing of his book for fear of facing a fiery hellish death at the hands of the Inquisition. Had “The Revolutions…” never been set to type, it’s likely the Earth would have remained immobile at the center of the Universe for some time to come. Fortunately, Copernicus’s friend Tiedemann Giese, and a man Georg Jaohim Rheticus, who Dennis Danielson   refers to as “The First Copernican,” convinced Copernicus to publish the work while on his death bed.[2] It is reported that Copernicus got to see a first edition copy of the book before he passed.

There probably weren’t a lot of people outside of the astronomy community who could comprehend Copernicus’ book in the 16th century, and it is likely there are not a whole lot more today who can appreciate the meticulous mathematical evidence and logical dialogue Copernicus so eloquently used to frame his arguments. One early convert to heliocentric theory, Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, was arrested for his support for Copernicanism and tortured for eight years, but never recanted his support for heliocentricity. Ultimately, Bruno was lashed naked and upside down to a pole and with his tong tied in a gag to symbolize the silencing of his blasphemy, dragged to the center of Campo de’ Fiori in Rome and roasted over hot coals in the most grotesque fashion possible. In 1616, The Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs was added to the Catholic Churches band book list.

But in the now Protestant regions of northern Europe a zeal for humanism and free thought was taking hold, and views like Copernican heliocentricity, calling into question more classical notions, were being entertained and to some degree tolerated. It was in this environment that the Lutheran Johannes Kepler would flourish and use the trigonometric functions Copernicus himself had envisioned, and which Rheticus meticulously worked out to 5 decimal places in log tables, to precisely calculate the orbits of the known planets in that day. At the same time in Italy, Galileo Galilee was uncovering immutable intrinsic proof of the Copernican reality with his telescope. Ironically, Galileo himself, for espousing the Copernican heliocentric model, would be hauled before the inquisition in the very same room where sentence had been passed on Giordano Bruno. Knowing all to well Bruno’s fate, Galileo immediately recanted his support of heliocentricity. His life was spared, but he was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

It took almost 150 years after the Copernican heliocentric model was accepted as fact by science, that church dogma began to reluctantly be brought into conformance with it. Many people, well into the twentieth century, continued to believe the Earth was flat and religious fundamentalists still in many cases have not come to grips with the fact that the biblical text, the word of God, is not infallible. It is by no mistake that classes in the science of Astronomy are not taught in any American high school to this day. Just as right-wing religious fundamentalism seek today to prohibit the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools, indeed, to abolish the public education system altogether, they have already successfully hung the Copernican heliocentric model as an ornament on the tree of forbidden fruit.[3] Most high school graduates no little of Copernicus, if they even recognize the name at all, or of the revolutionary heliocentric model of the universe he proposed, and of the profound implications of it.

[1] Kitty Ferguson, The Music Of Pythagoras, Walker & Company, New York, 2008

[2] Dennis Danielson, The First Copernican, Walker & Company, New York, 2006

[3] David Hildebrandt, Forbidden Fruit – The Evolution of Human Intellect, Q/M Publishing, 2010