An Introduction to Solar System Astronomy
Prof. Scott Gaudi
Lecture 14: The Revolutions of Nicolaus
The Medieval Interruption
Copernicus' Heliocentric System:
- Earth rotates on its axis once a day.
- Earth & Planets revolve around the Sun.
- Retained epicycles, but purged Ptolemy's equant,
restoring uniform circular motion.
- "Impossibility" of a moving earth
- Non-observation of stellar parallaxes
The Great Interruption
Most classical knowledge was lost, or only dimly remembered, in Europe
after the fall of Rome c. 400AD.
However, the rise of a brilliant Islamic civilization in the Middle East
c.750AD led to survival of classical learning in Arabic translation:
In this way, the ancient classical learning was to be nurtured and
extended by Islamic society while most of contemporary Europe fell into
a kind of intellectual slumber.
- The Baghdad-Abbasid caliphs sponsored the systematic translation of
surviving classical texts into Arabic in the 9th century in the famous
"House of Wisdom" founded by Caliph Abu al-Abbas al-Ma'mun.
- Islamic scholars not only preserved these older works, they also
advanced knowledge themselves with original discoveries in mathematics
- This included the invention of algebra & advancement of
trigonometry, and fundamental work in optics, astronomy, geography, and
Spain became the center for translation of Arabic texts into Latin in
the 11th century.
As these works made their way out of Spain, Europeans slowly
rediscovered their intellectual heritage:
- Primarily the work of Jewish scholars working between the Christian
and Islamic worlds.
- The principal centers of this work were the magnificent libraries of
Toledo and Córdoba.
In particular, the astronomy of Ptolemy, in the form of his Almagest
(the Arabic name of the Syntaxis), was to be elevated to
the almost to the level of religious dogma.
- Aristotle & Ptolemy rediscovered in the 12th century.
- Christian scholars (e.g., Aquinas) reconciled these with
works with the body of Christian dogmas (13th century)
From Rediscovery to Rebirth
The period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were times of
great social and intellectual change:
- The rise of the great Universities.
- The invention and spread of printing.
- Challenges to the spiritual and political authority of
the Roman Church by reformers.
- Extended ocean voyages of discovery and trade by Portugal
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)
Born in Torun, Poland. Educated at Krakow, Bologna, and Padua in
mathematics, medicine, law, astronomy, & philosophy. Spent most of
his life as a Canon at Frauenberg Cathedral in Poland.
Copernicus was a very traditional thinker:
- Aristotelian in outlook.
- Conservative compared to his contemporaries (e.g., the humanist
Copernicus sought to purge Ptolemy's system of the messy expedient of
Note: Copernicus was not alone in his discontent with the
Equant. Arabic astronomers in the 13th and 14th centuries undertook
reforms to the Ptolemaic model (specifically the
astronomer/mathematicians al-Tusi, al-`Urdi, and ash-Shatir), while
preserving its overall geocentric character.
- The equant violates the Aristotelian notion of uniform circular
- He felt that a good system must please the mind as well as
"preserve appearances" (i.e., make accurate
The Heliocentric System Revived
Copernicus revived the Heliocentric system of Aristarchus, which he did
not know in detail, but rather through the surviving description in
Archimedes' The Sand Reckoner.
These were radical ideas for their time, but Copernicus was no radical.
- The Sun, not the Earth, is at the center.
- The Earth rotates around its axis, producing the daily
motions of celestial bodies.
- The Earth revolves (orbits) around the Sun, producing the
De Revolutionibus Orbi Coelstium
On the Revolution of the Heavenly Orbs (1543)
It was not, however, a bestseller:
- The work was dedicated to Pope Paul III
- It was printed with the formal approval (Imprimatur) of Church authorities.
Despite this, his ideas got serious attention, both for and against.
Far from being "the book nobody read" as it is often incorrectly
portrayed, De Revolutionibus was widely read and commented
upon by the scholars of the day, both for and against his ideas.
- It was a long, difficult Latin treatise
- It was not widely circulated
When is a revolution not a revolution?
Copernicus still clung to strict Aristotelian ideas in his heliocentric
This made his system complex:
- It retained epicycles, if now they were centered on the Sun
instead of the Earth.
- It required uniform circular motion.
Still only described the motions of the planets without
explaining them physically.
- 48 epicycles, compared to 40 in the Ptolemaic geocentric system.
- but, it did not use the complicated equant.
One point, however, needs to be emphasized. The geocentric models of
Ptolemy and others described in Lecture 13
introduced epicycles primarily in order to produce the observed
retrograde motion of the planets. In the Copernican system, retrograde
motion comes naturally as a consequence of viewing moving planets from
the perspective of a moving Earth, without resort to epicycles. While
Copernicus' system does not need epicycles to produce retrograde motion,
because of his insistance on uniform circular motion he still had to use
them in order to get his model to make accurate predictions (i.e., to
"preserve appearances"), particularly to reproduce the non-uniform speeds
of the planets.
Simple in principle
While Copernicus' Heliocentric system was more complex in detail,
it does provide a considerable measure of conceptual
Herein lies its virtue. It explained naturally what was more difficult
to explain in the Ptolemaic system without things being "just so" or
highly contrived. Specifically...
Inferior and Superior Planets
In each, much of the detail of both systems has been stripped away to
show the basic arrangement of planets and orbits. The Copernican
diagram entirely omits the epicycles that Copernicus employed, opting
instead for a view of the true Solar System.
- The Inferior Planets (Mercury & Venus) are those that orbit
closer to the Sun than the Earth.
- The Superior Planets (Mars, Jupiter, & Saturn) are those that
orbit further from the Sun than the Earth.
- Natural consequence of observing moving planets from a moving Earth.
- By contrast, Ptolemy's system required epicycles to
get retrograde motion.
- Copernicus still needed epicycles to reproduce the non-uniform
speeds of the planets correctly.
Geometric Distances to Planets
The Heliocentric System's geometry provides a natural way to measure the
distances of the planets from the Sun.
- Use geometry of maximum elongation (see figure below)
- Measure time from opposition to quadrature
- More complicated but quite tractable.
By contrast, you cannot estimate planetary distances with the Ptolemaic
system by any simple means. You have to find them some other, arbitrary
way, if at all.
The distances from the Sun are only measured relative to the
Earth-Sun distance (the Astronomical Unit).
The problem was, neither Copernicus nor anybody else at the time knew
how big an AU (the mean Earth-Sun distance) was in everyday units to any
degree of precision. That is a another story for another day...
Opposition to Copernicus
The Copernican Heliocentric System met with almost immediate opposition.
These were of less
immediate consequence and concern to Copernicus than the scientific
- Luther, Calvin, & Melancthon objected on the ground
that a moving Earth contradicted scriptures.
- The Catholic Church was officially silent at first.
A rotating and revolving Earth was deemed an absurdity by strict
Both motions require very large speeds:
There was no observational evidence of Earth's orbital motion:
- Speed of rotation at Columbus: 1280 km/hour
- Orbital Speed: 107,000 km/hr = 30 km/sec!
There was no observational evidence of Earth's rotation:
- Stellar Parallaxes were not observed.
- Stars weren't brighter at opposition.
- Daily motions are as easily explained by a fixed earth.
- The motions do not require a rotating earth.
Copernicus was aware of these problems, but lacked the observational
tools to address them definitively.
The most important was the non-observation of Stellar Parallaxes.
Parallax is the apparent back-and-forth motion of nearby stars
with respect to more distant stars caused by the changing perspective of
the Earth at is orbits around the Sun.
The reason stellar parallaxes were not observed is that the stars are
much farther than people thought at the time. However, this explanation,
while true, sounds like special pleading (it's there, but it is too
small to measure), so until it could be measured this remained the principal
objection to the Heliocentric system.
The Power of Ideas
In detail, the Copernican System was complex and unwieldy. It was
arguably only an incremental improvement over the Ptolemaic system,
insofar as it made somewhat better predictions of the positions of the
planets than the Ptolemaic calculations of the day, and it was somewhat
easier to use mathematically because it eliminated the difficult
artiface of the equant.
In practice, however, it made up for this by offering a considerable
measure of conceptual simplicity: many of the contrivances of the
geocentric system needed to explain retrograde motions and the
differences in the motions between inferior and superior planets were
In a world of increasing change, the idea behind it was to prove
powerful, and truly revolutionary.
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