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Greek evidence for the Earth's shape and spin

A round Earth
Pythagoras' pupils, if not the great man himself, knew that the Earth is round.
Traveller's tales of ships disappearing over the horizon and the Pole Star shifting to
a higher position in the sky as one journeyed north suggested a curved Earth.

Aristotle (about 340 BC), two centuries later, supported the idea of a spherical
Earth, Moon and planets because:
the sphere is a perfect solid and the heavens are a region of perfection
the Earth's component pieces, falling naturally towards the centre, would press into
a round form in an eclipse of the Moon, the Earth's shadow is always circular: a flat
disc would cast an oval shadow even in short travels northwards the Pole Star is
higher in the sky.
This mixture of dogmatic reasons and experimental common sense was typical of
him and he did much to set science on its feet.
A spinning Earth

The Copernican Model:

A Sun-Centered Solar System
The Earth-centered Universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy held sway on Western thinking
for almost 2000 years. Then, in the 16th century a "new" (but remember
Aristarchus) idea was proposed by the Polish astronomer Nicolai Copernicus (14731543).
The Heliocentric System
In a book called On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies (that was published as
Copernicus lay on his deathbed), Copernicus proposed that the Sun, not the Earth,
was the center of the Solar System. Such a model is called a heliocentric system.
The ordering of the planets known to Copernicus in this new system is illustrated in
the following figure, which we recognize as the modern ordering of those planets.

The Copernican Universe

In this new ordering the Earth is just another planet (the third outward from the
Sun), and the Moon is in orbit around the Earth, not the Sun. The stars are distant
objects that do not revolve around the Sun. Instead, the Earth is assumed to rotate

once in 24 hours, causing the stars to appear to revolve around the Earth in the
opposite direction.
Retrograde Motion and Varying Brightness of the Planets
The Copernican system by banishing the idea that the Earth was the center of the
Solar System, immediately led to a simple explanation of both the varying
brightness of the planets and retrograde motion:
1. The planets in such a system naturally vary in brightness because they are
not always the same distance from the Earth.
2. The retrograde motion could be explained in terms of geometry and a faster
motion for planets with smaller orbits, as illustrated in the following

A similar construction can be made to illustrate retrograde motion for a planet

inside the orbit of the Earth.
Copernicus and the Need for Epicycles
There is a common misconception that the Copernican model did away with the
need for epicycles. This is not true, because Copernicus was able to rid himself of
the long-held notion that the Earth was the center of the Solar system, but he did
not question the assumption of uniform circular motion. Thus, in the Copernican
model the Sun was at the center, but the planets still executed uniform circular
motion about it. As we shall see later, the orbits of the planets are not circles, they
are actually ellipses. As a consequence, the Copernican model, with its assumption
of uniform circular motion, still could not explain all the details of planetary motion
on the celestial sphere without epicycles. The difference was that the Copernican
system required many fewer epicycles than the Ptolemaic system because it moved
the Sun to the center.

Copernicus was an unlikely revolutionary. It is believed by many that his book was
only published at the end of his life because he feared ridicule and disfavor by his
peers and by the Church, which had elevated the ideas of Aristotle to the level of
religious dogma. However, this reluctant revolutionary set in motion a chain of
events that would eventually (long after his lifetime) produce the greatest
revolution in thinking that Western civilization has seen. His ideas remained rather
obscure for about 100 years after his death. But, in the 17th century the work of
Kepler, Galileo, and Newton would build on the heliocentric Universe of Copernicus
and produce the revolution that would sweep away completely the ideas of Aristotle
and replace them with the modern view of astronomy and natural science. This
sequence is commonly called the Copernican Revolution.
Been There, Done That: Aristarchus of Samos
There are many examples throughout history, including in modern times, where a
theory, or a part of a theory, is proposed and doesn't catch on initially but only later
bears fruit--and possibly with later proponent gaining credit that is really deserved
by the originator. I think the example of Aristarchus is a poignant one.
This applies here because the idea of Copernicus was not really new! A suncentered Solar System had been proposed as early as about 200 B.C.
by Aristarchus of Samos (Samos is an island off the coast of what is now Turkey).
Aristarchus actually proposed that the Earth rotated on in addition to its orbiting
around the sun. Many of Aristarchus' writings were unfortunately lost. More
importantly however, they did not survive long under the weight of Aristotle's
influence and the "common sense" of the time:
1. If the Earth actually spun on an axis (as required in a heliocentric system to
explain the diurnal motion of the sky), why
didn't objects fly off the spinning Earth?
2. If the Earth was in motion around the sun,
why didn't it leave behind the birds flying in
the air?
3. If the Earth were actually on an orbit around
the sun, why wasn't a parallax effect
observed? That is, as illustrated in the
adjacent figure, where stars would appear
to change their position with the respect to
the other background stars as the Earth
moved about its orbit, because of viewing
them from a different perspective (just as
viewing an object first with one eye, and then the other, causes the apparent
position of the object to change with respect to the background).

The first two objections were not valid because they represent an inadequate
understanding of the physics of motion that would only be corrected in the 17th
century. The third objection is valid, but failed to account for what we now know to
be the enormous distances to the stars. As illustrated in the following figure, the
amount of parallax decreases with distance.

Parallax is larger for closer objects

Note that Copernicus himself originally gave credit to Aristarchus in his heliocentric
treatise, De revolutionibus caelestibus, where he had written, "Philolaus believed in
the mobility of the earth, and some even say that Aristarchus of Samos was of that
opinion." Interestingly, this passage was crossed out shortly before publication,
maybe because Copernicus decided his treatise would stand on its own merit.

The Ptolemaic Model

The Ptolemaic model accounted for the apparent motions of the planets in a very
direct way, by assuming that each planet moved on a small sphere or circle, called
an epicycle, that moved on a larger sphere or circle, called a deferent. The stars, it
was assumed, moved on a celestial sphere around the outside of the planetary

Ptolemy's fame comes partly from what he figured out, but his influence was largely
because he wrote a great summary of everything known about astronomy. Ptolemy
insisted that the job of the astronomer was to explain the motions of the wanderers
using only uniform circular motion - the kind of motion that most gears and wheels
show. To make the planets appear to speed up and slow down, three tricks were
used. The epicycles we've just shown were the first trick. The second trick was to
move the observer out of the center of the circle, putting us into an "eccentric"
position. The third trick was called the equant and is illustrated here:

As an indication of exactly how good the Ptolemaic model is, modern planetariums
are built using gears and motors that essentially reproduce the Ptolemaic model for
the appearance of the sky as viewed from a stationary Earth. In the planetarium
projector, motors and gears provide uniform motion of the heavenly bodies. One
motor moves the planet projector around in a big circle, which in this case is the
deferent, and another gear or motor takes the place of the epicycle.

A traditional planetarium projector

While the fact that we base planetarium projectors on the Ptolemaic model of the
universe that was developed almost 2,000 years ago may seem impressive, a better
test of the model is how long the model was accepted by society. In this case, the
Ptolemaic model was not seriously challenged for over 1,300 years. When and why
it finally needed to be replaced will be described in the next subunit.


King Fredrick II of Denmark built Tycho Brahe an observatory to measure the

position of planets with high accuracy. However, the telescope had not yet been
invented, so the observatory was a naked eye observatory with oversized
These instruments allowed Brahe to not only measure the positions of planets with
high accuracy, but he also calculated the measurement error in his instruments.
Ascertaining the error in scientific instruments is expected today, but Brahe
pioneered the practice.
Brahe also noted that previous measurements of the planets, as recorded in the
texts of the time, were incorrect. With his new measuring devices, he was able to
record the position of the planets with the best possible accuracy for naked eye
observations - ten times more accurately than people had been getting until then.
Even with his high quality observations, Brahe was not able to detect any changes
in the positions of the stars over the year, which should occur if the Earth revolves
around the Sun. If he had, this would have constituted direct proof of the Earth's
motion. Thisparallax effect was not detected by astronomers until the 19th century.
You can see this effect by holding a finger about six inches from your face and
alternately closing one eye and then the other. You should see your finger "jump"
relative to background objects.
Brahe proposed a model of the solar system to explain Galileo's observation that
Venus has phases without making it necessary for Earth to be moving. His model
had all the planets (except Earth) orbiting around the Sun, but then the Sun orbited
around the Earth. This model satisfies ALL the observations because it corresponds
to reality except that is is viewed from the point of view of someone on Earth.

The science of astronomy took a huge leap forward in the first decade of the 1600s
with the invention of the optical telescope and its use to study the night sky. Galileo
Galilei did not invent the telescope but was the first to use it systematically to
observe celestial objects and record his discoveries. His book, Sidereus nuncius or
The Starry Messenger was first published in 1610 and made him famous. In it he
reported on his observations of the Moon, Jupiter and the Milky Way. These and
subsequent observations and his interpretations of them eventually led to the
demise of the geocentric Ptolemaic model of the universe and the adoption of a
heliocentric model as proposed in 1543 by Copernicus.

Galileo's drawings of phases of the Moon.

Question: What features are visible here that cannot be seen with the unaided

Galileo's Telescopes
The basic tool that Galileo used was a crude refracting telescope. His initial version
only magnified 8x but was soon refined to the 20x magnification he used for his
observations for Sidereus nuncius. It had a convex objective lens and a concave
eyepiece in a long tube. The main problem with his telescopes was their very
narrow field of view, typically about half the width of the Moon.

Galileo's drawing of the optical path of his telescope

The earliest known sketch of a telescope, August 1609.

One of Galileo's telescopes. The focal length is 1330 mm with a 26 mm aperture, it

magnifies 14x. It has an objective bi-convex lens and a plano-concave eyepiece.
Galileo's Observations
Galileo made several key discoveries through his systematic use and refinement of
the telescope.

The Moon
According to Aristotelian principles the Moon was above the sub-lunary sphere and
in the heavens, hence should be perfect. He found the "surface of the moon to be
not smooth, even and perfectly spherical,...,but on the contrary, to be uneven,
rough, and crowded with depressions and bulges. And it is like the face of the earth
itself, which is marked here and there with chains of mountains and depths of
valleys." He calculated the heights of the mountains by measuring the lengths of
their shadows and applying geometry.

One of Galileo's lunar drawings.

Note the craters, mountains and mare or "seas". The terminator between lunar day
and night is clearly seen down the centre.

Moons of Jupiter
Observations of the planet Jupiter over successive night revealed four star-like
objects in a line with it. The objects moved from night to night, sometimes
disappearing behind or in front of the planet. Galileo correctly inferred that these
objects were moons of Jupiter and orbited it just as our Moon orbits Earth. For the
first time, objects had been observed orbiting another planet, thus weakening the
hold of the Ptolemaic model. Today these four moons are known as the Galilean
satellites; Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Galileo's drawings of the moons of Jupiter of successive nights

The Phases of Venus

Venus was observed to go through a sequence of phases similar to the Moon. This
could not be explained in the Ptolemaic model but could be accounted for by either
the Sun-centered Copernican model or the Earth-centered Tychonic model that had

the other planets orbiting the Sun as it orbited the Earth. Galileo rejected Tycho's
model as an unnecessary hybrid and used the discovery to consolidate his support
of the Copernican model.

Along with contemporaries such as Thomas Harriot, David Frabicius and Christoph
Scheiner, Galileo observed dark regions that appeared to move across the surface
of the Sun. Debate centered on whether these were satellites of the Sun or actual
spots on its surface. Galileo, in his Letters on Sunspots supported the sunspot
interpretation and used it to show that the Sun was rotating. Its blemishes and
imperfections again undermined the Aristotelian ideal of a perfect cosmos.
"Appendages" on Saturn
Galileo noted two appendages from the sides of Saturn. These disappeared then
later reappeared. It was not until 1656 that the Dutch scientist, Christiaan Huygens
correctly described them as rings.
Stars in the Milky Way
Even through a telescope the stars still appeared as points of light. Galileo
suggested that this was due to their immense distance from Earth. This then eased
the problem posed by the failure of astronomers to detect stellar parallax that was a
consequence of Copernicus' model. On turning his telescope to the band of the
Milky Way Galileo saw it resolved into thousands of hitherto unseen stars. This
posed the question as to why there were invisible objects in the night sky?

More stars are resolved in this drawing by Galileo of the Pleiades than are visible to
the unaided eye.
Copernicus is often described as a lone astronomer who defiantly argued that the
sun, not the Earth was at the center of the cosmos. Copernicus' contributions to
astronomy are so significant that they warrant their own term: The Copernican

The story of this revolution is problematic for several reasons. First, as much as
Copernicius' ideas broke with the past, his model of the cosmos has more in
common with his contemporaries than it does with modern day astronomy and
physics. Second, although Copernicus' sun centered model was revolutionary it was
part of a series of early modern and renaissance innovations. For example, Tycho
Brahe collected observational data at an unprecedented scale, and developed his
own competing model. Similarly, Johannes Kepler developed mathematical models
for elliptical orbits that challenged some of the core assumptions of Aristotelian
Looking back on these advances, exactly whose revolution was it? Or, given that
each of these astronomers worked in ongoing traditions of modeling and
understanding the heavens, was there a revolution at all?
By briefly reviewing the works of Copernicus, Brahe and Kepler this essay offers you
the chance to develop your own answer to these questions.
Copernicus's Quest for Deeper Harmony and Order
Copernicus anticipated his ideas would be controversial. Because of this, he waited
more than 30 years to publish his book in 1543. De revolutionibus orbium
coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) puts the sun at the center
of the universe and the Earth in motion across the heavens as one of the planets.
De Revolutionibus opens with a brief argument for the heliocentric universe and
follows with an extensive technical set of mathematical proofs and astronomical
tables. Copernicus was not trying to thumb his nose at the accepted wisdom of
astronomers and religious thinkers; instead he sought to uncover a more elegant
order for the universe.
It was a revolutionary idea. With that said, Copernicus' ideas built on an existing line
of thinking. The movement of Mercury and Venus had been perplexing for a long
time. Plato and Eudoxus noted that these planets never strayed far from the sun. It
was almost like they were tethered to the sun, they could move a bit ahead of it or
lag behind. In the 5th century AD Martianus Capella had argued that Mercury and
Venus orbited the sun, which in turn rotated around the Earth. This was not the first
sun-centered system that was argued either. Aristarchus of Samos had proposed a
heliocentric system and the Pythagoreans before him had argued that the sun was
the "central fire". Although not part of the mainstream these were all ideas that
Copernicus built upon.
While Copernicus' contributions to astronomy were revolutionary, they are
fundamentally different from our conception of our solar system today. His model
still required perfect circular motion in the heavens. This meant that, like Ptolemy,
he needed to use circles on circles, called epicycles, to account for the movement of

the planets. Copernicus' circles were much smaller, but the model didn't get rid of
the need for them.

Brahe's, Data Collection and Importance of Overlapping

Copernicus had largely based his work on a body of existing observations of the
heavens. Although he did some observational work, the bulk of his contribution was
focused on re-evaluating existing data from a different perspective. However, Tycho
Brahe had a different approach. Born in 1546, (three years after the publication of
Copernicus' De Revolutionibus) Brahe became a famous astronomer, well known for
his unprecedented collection of astronomical data. Brahe's contributions to
astronomy had revolutionary impacts in their own right.
In 1563, at age 16, he observed Jupiter overtaking Saturn as the planets moved
past each other. Even with his simple observations he saw that existing tables for
predicting this conjunction were off by a month, and even Copernicus's model was
off by two days. In his work, he demonstrated that better data could help to create
much more robust models.

New Stars and Interpretations of Comets

In November of 1572 Brahe observed a new star in the constellation of Cassiopeia.
With a sextant and cross-staff he was able to measure the star's position and
became convinced that it was in the realm of the supposed unmoving fixed stars.
This observation was inconsistent with the longstanding belief that the celestial
realm was a place of perfect and unchanging fixed stars.
Alongside this development, the appearance of a comet in 1577 provided additional
evidence that things did change and did move in the celestial sphere. Based on
careful measurements, Brahe was able to identify that the comet was outside the
sphere of the moon and he eventually suggested it was moving through the spheres
of different planets.
Brahe's Model of the Cosmos
As a result of these observations, Brahe put forward a new model for the cosmos. In
Brahe's model, all of the planets orbited the sun, and the sun and the moon orbited
the Earth. Keeping with his observations of the new star and the comet, his model
allowed the path of the planet Mars to cross through the path of the sun.
Many scientists have been critical of Brahe's model as a backward step in the
progress of science. However, it is critical to remember the value that Brahe's
system offered. This system had the advantage of resolving the problem of stellar
parallax. One of the persistent critiques of Copernicus's model (and even of
Aristarchus model in ancient Greece) was that with a moving Earth one should

expect to see parallax movement of the stars. As the Earth changes position in
relationship to that of the stars, one would expect to see the stars change position
relative to each other. Copernicus' answer was that the stars had to be so distant
that it wasn't possible to detect parallax. Still, the distance required to make this
work was so massive as to be a problem for the system.
This was not a problem for Brahe's system because his model allowed for the circles
in the heavens to intersect. Brahe's model was not a step backward; but
revolutionary in the sense that it was a competing way to make sense of the data
the heavens provided.

Kepler's Harmonies of the Heavens

Johannes Kepler, born in 1571, made major contributions to astronomy as his work
mixed sophisticated mathematics and astronomy with mystical ideas about
astrology. Because of this Kepler remains difficult for contemporary readers to
understand. He was excited about the possibilities of developing new astrology that
was grounded in the work he engaged in as an astronomer. Kepler worked for Tycho
Brahe, publishing an extensive amount of Brahe's data in Rudolphine Tables.
Although he used much of that data for his own publications Kepler's work would
significantly depart from Brahe's.
Kepler's first major work, Mysterium Cosmographicum (The Cosmographic Mystery,
1596), and his later work Harmonice Mundi (Harmonies of the World, 1619) are both
largely concerned with the order and geometry of the heavens. In these works, he
explored how the different shapes of Platonic solids could be combined to explain a
superstructure for the heavens, and how the movements and patterns of the
heavens could be mapped on to scales. For Kepler, the heavens literally made
harmonies through their movements. He was not afraid to attribute qualities to
these harmonies and order that would strike us today as strange superstitions. He
was as interested in bringing together geometry and physics as he was with
bringing together alchemy and astrology.

Kepler's Elliptical Orbits

Kepler's quest to bring together geometry and physics led to a new shape of the
planetary orbits. In Astronomie Nova (1609),Kepler presented extensive research on
the orbit of Mars.
Using Tycho Brahe's observational data, Kepler was able to fine tune the
movements of the planets and demonstrate that the movement of Mars could be
described as an ellipse. The diagram fromAstronomia Nova shows the difference
between the perfect circle and the more pinched or squished inner ellipse. It was
generally taken for granted that motions in the heavens would involve only perfect
circles. However, through innovations in mathematics, Kepler was able to
mathematically describe ellipses that closely fit the paths the planets moved

through in the heavens. The ellipse enabled the removal of the epicycles and could
account for the path of the planets in a single shape. His commitment to order
pushed him to recalculate and rework his research until he figured out how to
represent the orbits of the planets. Alongside describing the elliptical nature of
orbits, Astronomie Nova offered initial arguments for a force of attraction that could
organize and hold this kind of system together. Kepler's work foreshadowed the
discovery of one of the fundamental forces of physics, the law of gravity.

So Whose Revolution was it?

Tracking the work and research of Copernicus, Brahe and Kepler illustrates a much
more intertwined and complicated story. The discontinuity usually ascribed to
Copernicus turns out to be a misconception, as his revolutionary work was part of a
long line of astronomers and philosophers whose ideas began to expose cracks in
the Aristotelian model. Instead of a simple narrative of progress and resistance to
progress we find a series of distinct advancements made in particular historical
contexts. Copernicus offered an important new model and a revised set of
observational data. Brahe left us a competing model and new observations of
motion in the heavens. Kepler's work on elliptical orbits played a key role in moving
toward a different conception of the cosmos. In each case, these individuals were
part of ongoing dialogs between astronomers, theologians and other scholars.
Without substantive use of the telescope, these stories illustrate how focused
observation and exploration can result in important advances. At the same time, it's
best not to confuse their understanding of the world with our own. Copernicus
remained sure in the perfect heavenly spheres, Brahe spent a lot of time working on
alchemy and Kepler wrote a great deal about astrology. Their underlying interest in
understanding the order and structure of the universe was consistent with their
belief in alchemy and astronomy. This suggests the need to recognize that our
understanding, like theirs, is contextualized in the world as we know it.

Kepler's Rudolphine Tables shows an interpretation of the history of astronomy,
connecting the work of Hiparchus, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Ptolemy. It presents
each of them as part of a tradition of observation, interpretation and
argumentation. Tabvl Rudolphin, qvibvs astronomic scienti, temporum

longinquitate collaps restauratio continetur; 1627In this diagram Copernicus

presents his sun-centered model of the heavens. The sun (Sol) is at the center of
the diagram, Terra (Earth) is depicted as the third planet orbiting the sun, and the
moon (illustrated as a small crescent) is shown orbiting the Earth. Note that the
outermost circle, Stellariem Fixarum (the fixed stars) is presented as immobile. The
Sun-centered model was a break with the past, but it was still very much a part of
the tradition of Aristotelian and Ptolemaic astronomy. This was still fundamentally a
system of heavenly spheres. The simplicity of this diagram obscures much of the
underlying complexity of Copernicus' system. Diagrams elsewhere in the book
illustrate how complicated the underlying model remained. De revolutionibus
orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), Nicolaus
Copernicus, 1543 Image 36. Rare Book and Special Collections

presented in the more
illustrates the underpaying
complexity of the system.
The sun is at the center
and the other circles are
necessary to illustrate the movement of just one of the
planets. Copernicus' system required perfect circular
motion, and as such, it still required (much smaller)
epicycles, for the planets to match their observed
motions. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the
Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), 1543 folio
96. Image 197. Rare Book and Special Coll
ections Division.
An image of Brahe's Uraniborg (Castle of the Heavens), a
massive observatory on the Danish island of Hven. Originally published in his 1602
book, Astronomiae Instauratae Mechanicae, this illustrates some of the scale of his
data collecting operation. Predating the invention of the telescope, Brahe and his
staff used a range of instruments to make the most accurate set of observations
that had ever been collected. This data was later used by Kepler to build his
theories. Image as republished in Overhead or, What Harry and Nelly discovered in

the heavens. 1876,p.135. General CollectionsIn this diagram Brahe presented his
model of the cosmos. This model incorporated much of what Brahe saw as the
values of the Copernican system. Here all of the planets orbit the sun, and the sun
orbits the Earth. This system offered much of the elegance of the Copernican
system, without the problems related to stellar parallax and
a moving Earth. Tychonis Brahe Dani Epistolarum
astronomicarum libri. 1601. Rare Book and Special C

Collections Division. This

illustration shows the new star
Brahe identified in the
constellation Cassiopeia. It is
marked as "Nova" and was
eventually understood to be a
star going supernova. It was a
critical piece of observational
information that
suggested that the heavens
were not perfect
and unchanging and played a
key role in his
proposal of a system which
allowed for circular orbits in the heavens to intersect and cross each other. Illus. in:
Opera omnia / Tycho Brahe. Francofurti: Impensis I.G. Schweteri, 1648, p. 235.Rare
Book and Special Collections Division via Prints and Photographs Division.

In Harmonices Mundi (Harmonies of the World)

Kepler ascribes ranges of musical notes to each
planet. He arrived at these harmonies by calculating
the velocities of each planet when nearest and
furthest from the sun. Notice that of each of the
planets the Earth's range is the smallest. He
explained, "The Earth sings Mi, Fa, Mi: you may infer
even from the syllables that in this our home misery and famine hold sway." Kepler's
mystical forays into the music of the spheres was more than a revival of
Pythagorean and Platonic ideas, for it was exactly these investigations that led him
to develop his ideas about planetary motion. Illustration in Harmonices Mundi, 1619.
Johann Kepler. Rare Book and Special Collections Division via Prints and Photographs
Division.In this diagram, Kepler demonstrated his
two laws of planetary motion. First, he showed that
Mars rotates in an almost circular elliptical orbit
around the sun (the broken line is Mars' orbit around
the sun, n). Second, he showed that if a radial line
were drawn from the sun to Mars (n to b,to m) it
would cover equal areas in equal time. Astronomia
nova, 1609 [1968]. Throughout the 17th century
Brahe's model of the heavens was presented
alongside Copernicus and Ptolomy's models. [Three
maps of the cosmological systems of Ptolemy,
Copernicus, and Brahe] 1669. Geography and Maps