2.2: Heliocentrism vs. Geocentrism: A Case Study

The difficulty with applying the scientific method to this type of astronomical “experiment” is that one cannot “experiment” on this big of a system. There is no “control group.” However, we can still use the structure of the method to show how, over several centuries and several countries in Europe, heliocentrism became the norm.

Hypothesis: The First Modern Statement of the Theory

A Pole with the Latin pen name Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) determined that the best way to explain all the “odd” astronomical data was to switch the positions of the Sun and the Earth. Poland was (and still is) a predominantly-Catholic country in Eastern Europe, so for much of his life Copernicus kept this theory to himself. Copernicus did not want to question the Church and be subject to persecution (or worse) from Poland’s secular leadership, especially as the Reformation spread throughout Europe.

Copernicus was not the first to profess of the heliocentric theory: some ancient and even medieval writers wrote about this possibility: Most labeled it as nonsense after weighing it with the common sense, beauty, and sense of self-worth attained from geocentrism.

Copernicus was convinced throughout his mature life that heliocentrism was the correct theory to describe the movement of the Earth and the Sun—however, the data still did not “match” perfectly, even with a heliocentric Earth-Sun swap in the system.

Nonetheless, Copernicus wanted to publish his views, and he did so in 1543, the last year of his life. He did this intentionally, as he knew he was dying and therefore knew that the Church couldn’t persecute him too much—on this planet, at least. Approving the final proofs of his book (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies) from his death-bed, Copernicus died before the book came out. However, as he had suspected, the Church was not pleased: Church officials placed the book on the Index.

The Data: Galileo Galilei and His Telescope

Throughout the next century, the “Copernican system” (as heliocentrism was now called) gathered more and more followers among the small new “scientific” community. This was especially true after more sophisticated observations emerged from the development of the telescope. However, it should be noted that, throughout the 17th century, the common people had not yet “converted,” as the theory still seemed like nonsense, especially when the Church labeled it as incorrect.

Though the telescope originally arrived in Europe through Holland, an Italian scientist, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), perfected it and first aimed it at the night-time sky for scientific purposes. What he discovered was a major blow to Aristotelianism: the moon and the Sun were not perfect spheres but had ridges, mountains, and “sunspots” (first seen by Galileo and, many historians suspect, the cause of his later blindness).

The biggest observation that started to convert some in the scientific community to heliocentrism, however, was the published discovery of new moons. In his book The Starry Messenger (1610), Galileo wrote of sightings of four moons of Jupiter, which he named after his patrons, calling them “the Medicean Stars.” (Does that name look familiar from Chapter 1?) The fact that Galileo observed moons orbiting around a planet that was not Earth directly contradicted Aristotle’s and the Church’s position that the Earth was the center of everything in the universe. Jupiter was now seen to have moons while revolving around the Sun itself. Why couldn’t the Earth’s motion be the same, especially if this new system better described the observations coming from telescopes all over Europe?

At that point in 1610, however, Galileo refrained from commenting on the significance of his theory, fearing Church retaliation. Galileo waited until a mathematician pope was in Rome (another 20 years and then some) before coming out strongly in favor of the Copernican system in his book written in Plato’s dialogue style: Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems (1632). While the geocentric-favoring figure technically had the last word, it was clear from the text that the evidence for heliocentrism far outweighed the evidence for geocentrism.

Advocates of geocentrism, however, claimed that the telescopes were faulty, that Galileo twisted the data, or that God had put this new evidence as “a test” for believers’ true faith. The Church put the book on the Index and the Inquisition put Galileo on trial and showed him instruments of torture that could be used to “convince” him of the geocentric truth. Galileo backed down and publicly took back his views, but he did not escape punishment. Fearing that Galileo would flee to Protestant Northern Europe, Church officials placed him under house arrest: he was “grounded” for the rest of his life, conducting small inclined plane experiments as his eyesight continued to fail him.

The Mathematical “Conclusion”: the Law of Universal Gravitation

The Church was right to fear the continuation of Galileo’s work in the North. In Anglican England, a brilliant young mathematician and scientist named Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was convinced that heliocentrism described the true way God had set up the universe. (We might call Newton a “mystic” today, in addition to a scientist, as he spent just as much time on alchemy and determining the exact date/time of God’s Creation of the universe as he did on gravity.)

Newton undertook to develop a system of precise mathematical laws that would support heliocentrism and accurately describe the entirety of the data about the planets. Luckily, he was a genius and his Latin book Principia Mathematica (1687) presented some very convincing mathematical manipulation and argued for a new math-based law that would more accurately describe the entirety of the known universe: the Law of Universal Gravitation. With “gravity” guiding him, Newton was not just able to describe the past observations. He was able to predict future observations such as eclipses, something that had not been possible under any variant of the geocentric theory ever proposed.

With Newton’s findings, the world was literally flipped upside-down. By the mid-18th century, heliocentrism had prevailed and geocentrism was seen as a superstition of the past. Nonetheless, due to the ever-critical nature of the scientific method, major holes in Newton’s theory came to light relatively quickly: while Aristotle’s theory lasted more than 2000 years, the “truth” of Newton’s theory lasted 300 or so. (We used to see about this “relatively quick light” in Chapter 7. [Ask Greenfield about Einsteinian space-time if you want the full story.])

The “new world” of scientific questioning (and uncertainty) was in place, and nothing physical, chemical, or biological could ever again be viewed with complete faith (and therefore without skepticism).

(The Church was a little behind the curve, though: the Inquisition’s errors with Galileo were finally apologized for in 1992.)


13 thoughts on “2.2”

  1. I learned that religion still had a lot of power with regards to their influence on science especially when it came to famous scientists like Copernicus and Galileo; both fearful to reveal their discoveries for fear of punishment from the religious establishment.
    By the time Newton came along and disproved geocentrism, the Church had to accept heliocentrism. It was at this point that religion lost its power over science.

  2. Why was the Church so powerful with its influence over people. Like why were people afraid to go against the Church’s beliefs?

  3. In 2.2, I learned that humanism’s funnel effect is the reason for the discovery of our solar system among other things found by scientists. Nicolaus Copernicus’ idea of the sun being the center of the earth spread throughout the small scientific world. This led to Galileo’s development and use of the telescope to discover the appearance and movement of planets and moons. Galileo’s work inspired the work of Isaac Newton, who developed mathematical laws about the heliocentric system that are still used today.

  4. Did the Church just hate science/humanistic point of view altogether, because they thought they were superior to everyone else?

  5. In the 2 sections of chapter 2 I could really see how anti-humanistic the church was, with how they shut down all of the new scientists who brought new theories. In a sense I understand where they were coming from though because they did not care about all of things, only about getting to the afterlife and not the real truth of the world they lived in.

  6. How do we know if Newton is a genius and all he says is true? What if he is like one of the priests in the dark ages and just tell the people what he thinks we should know, and all the supporters are the same?

  7. Why was the church so against the ways of science? I learned that The only reason Copernicus released his studies was that he was dying. He wasn’t afraid of the church prosecuting him anymore because he was already going to die.

  8. Did the church and the people of power not want the people to give themselves the opportunity to learn? If so, why were they like that in not wanting everyone to have a fair chance to learn?

  9. in section 2.2, I learned that the Church controlled pretty much everything in the people’s life. it told people what and what not to believe. if you had any theory that went against the word of the Lord, it was wrong. Galileo questioned the unquestionable, he looked through the lens of truth to see how the stars and planets actually moved and appeared. his works inspired Newton to disprove the concept of geocentrism.

  10. Did the Church ever think to test their views which were based on the book? Did they ever experiment, or use the scientific method to try and ensure that they were correct?

  11. In 2.2 I learned that the church was still a powerful source of the time. As Galileo kept working the church feared his findings. After Galileo a man name Isaac newton started to follow and also found a lot more information about the beyond

  12. The Church controlled every aspect of daily life, using their supposed power over sin and the priesthood to continuously fight any change that could shake what they saw in the universe. In reality, they tried to push their own egocentrism instead of accepting genuine scientific proofs, because it threatened their chance of keeping power over the populace. If the Earth is not the center of the universe, how much could God truly care about this tiny rock?

  13. In physics and chemistry we talk about the history of the atom and the scientists who have evolved the theory behind it, many of whom are mentioned in chapter 2 (ie: Isaac Newton). I think it’s cool to learn about the other side of these people, and what was really going down behind the scenes of science. I would’ve never known Newton didn’t just make up his own ideas; he was inspired by and followed Galileo. Cool chapter, Greenfield.

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