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Heliocentric theory argues the sun is at the centre of the solar system.


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The heliocentric theory in astronomy, is the idea that the sun is at the center of the universe and/or the Solar System. Heliocentric is derived from the Greek (Helios = "Sun" and kentron = "Center"). Historically, heliocentrism is opposed to geocentrism and currently to Modern geocentrism, which places the earth at the center. (The distinction between the solar system and the universe was not clear until modern times, but extremely important relative to the controversy over cosmology and religion.) Although many early cosmologies speculated about the motion of the Earth around a stationary Sun, it was not until the 16th century that Copernicus presented a fully predictive mathematical model of a heliocentric system, which was later elaborated by Kepler and defended by Galileo, becoming the center of a major dispute.

Development of heliocentric theory.

Heliocentric Solar System.
Heliocentric Solar System with the sun in the middle.
Heliocentrism.
Heliocentric model (lower panel) in comparison to the geocentric model (upper panel).

To anyone who stands and looks at the sky, it seems clear that the earth stays in one place while everything in the sky rises and sets or goes around once every day. Observing over a longer time, one sees more complicated movements. The Sun makes a slower circle over the course of a year; the planets have similar motions, but they sometimes turn around and move in the reverse direction for a while (retrograde motion). As these motions became better understood, they required more and more elaborate descriptions, the most famous of which was the Ptolemaic system, formulated in the 2nd century, which, though considered incorrect today, still manages to calculate the correct positions for the planets to a very useful degree of accuracy. It is interesting to note that Ptolemy, himself, in his Almagest points out that any model for describing the motions of the planets is merely a mathematical device, and, since there is no actual way to know which is True, the simplest model that gets the right numbers should be used.

Heliocentric theory in ancient India.

The earliest traces of a counter-intuitive idea that it is the Earth that is actually moving and the Sun that is at the centre of the solar system (hence the concept of heliocentrism) is found in several Vedic Sanskrit texts written in ancient India. Yajnavalkya (c. 9th-8th century BC) recognized that the Earth is spherical and believed that the Sun was "the centre of the spheres" as described in the Vedas at the time. In his astronomical text Shatapatha Brahmana, he states:

"The sun strings these worlds - the earth, the planets, the atmosphere - to himself on a thread."

Yajnavalkya, Shatapatha Brahmana, 8.7.3.10.

He recognized that the Sun was much larger than the Earth, which would have influenced this early heliocentric concept. He also accurately measured the relative distances of the Sun and the Moon from the Earth as 108 times the diameters of these heavenly bodies, close to the modern measurements of 107.6 for the Sun and 110.6 for the Moon. He also described an accurate solar calendar in the Shatapatha Brahmana.

The Aitareya Brahmana (c. 9th-8th century BC) also states:

"The Sun never sets nor rises. When people think the sun is setting, it is not so; they are mistaken. It only changes about after reaching the end of the day and makes night below and day to what is on the other side."

-Aitareya Brahmana, 2.7.

Some interpret this to mean that the Sun is stationary, hence the Earth is moving around it, though others are less clear about the meanings of the terms. This would be elaborated in a later commentary Vishnu Purana (c. 1st century BC), which states:

"The sun is stationed for all time, in the middle of the day. [...] Of the sun, which is always in one and the same place, there is neither setting nor rising."

Vishnu Purana, 2.8.

Dick Teresi writes in Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science:

"Two hundred years before Pythagoras, philosophers in northern India had understood that gravitation held the solar system together, and that therefore the sun, the most massive object, had to be at its centre."

Heliocentric theory in ancient Greece.

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle wrote that:

"At the center, they (the Pythagoreans) say, is fire, and the earth is one of the stars, creating night and day by its circular motion about the center."

Aristotle, On the Heavens, Book Two, Chapter 13.

The reasons for this placement were philosophic based on the classical elements rather than scientific; fire was more precious than earth in the opinion of the Pythagoreans, and for this reason the fire should be central. However, the central fire is not the Sun. The Pythagoreans believed the Sun orbited the central fire along with everything else. Aristotle dismissed this argument and advocated geocentrism.

Earth, Sun and Moon.
Aristarchus's 2nd century BC calculations on the relative sizes of the Earth, Sun and Moon, from a 10th century CE Greek copy.

Heraclides of Pontus (4th century BC) explained the apparent daily motion of the celestial sphere through the rotation of the Earth, and probably realized also that Mercury and Venus rotate around the Sun. The first Greek astronomer to propose the heliocentric system, however, was Aristarchus of Samos (c. 270 BC). His writings on the heliocentric system are lost, but we get information about his system from other authors such as Archimedes, who lived in the third century BC. Like Eratosthenes, Aristarchus calculated the size of the earth, and measured the size and distance of the Moon and Sun, in a treatise which has survived. From his estimates, he concluded that the Sun is much larger than the Earth. Some people have suggested that paying attention to these numbers led Aristarchus to think that it made more sense for the Earth to be moving than for the huge Sun to be moving around it. However, Aristarchus's original work on heliocentrism has not survived and is known only from others' accounts; it is uncertain whether these arguments were his own. It should be noted that Plutarch mentions the 'followers of Aristarchus' in passing, so it is likely that there are other astronomers in the Classical period who also espoused heliocentrism whose work is now lost to us.

Much later on in antiquity Martianus Capella was also of the belief that at least some of the planets orbited the sun: and Copernicus mentions him as an influence on his own work.

Heliocentric theory in Hellenistic Babylonia.

In Hellenistic Babylonia, the astronomer Seleucus of Seleucia (b. 190 BC) adopted the heliocentric system of Aristarchus, and according to Plutarch, even proved it. His proof was probably related to his observations of the phenomenon of tides. Indeed Seleucus correctly theorized that tides were caused by the Moon, although he believed that the interaction was mediated by the Earth's atmosphere. He noted that the tides varied in time and strength in different parts of the world.

heliocentric model of the planets.
Aryabhata, 5th century, developed a sophisticated elliptical heliocentric model of the planets.
Copernican model of heliocentrism.
Nasir al-Din Tusi, 13th century, resolved significant problems in the Ptolemaic system, which played an important role in the Copernican model of heliocentrism.

Heliocentric theory in medieval India.

The Indian astronomer-mathematician Aryabhata (476-550), in his magnum opus Aryabhatiya, propounded a heliocentric model in which the Earth was taken to be spinning on its axis and the periods of the planets were given with respect to a stationary Sun. He was also the first to discover that the light from the Moon and the planets was reflected from the Sun, and that the planets follow an elliptical orbit around the Sun, and thus propounded an eccentric elliptical model of the planets, on which he accurately calculated many astronomical constants, such as the periods of the planets around the Sun, times of the solar and lunar eclipses, and the instantaneous motion of the Moon (expressed as a differential equation). Early followers of Aryabhata's model included Varahamihira and Brahmagupta.

Bhaskara (1114-1185) expanded on Aryabhata's heliocentric model in his astronomical treatise Siddhanta-Shiromani, where he mentioned the law of gravity, discovered that the planets don't orbit the Sun at a uniform velocity, and accurately calculated many astronomical constants based on this model, such as the solar and lunar eclipses, and the velocities and instantaneous motions of the planets. Arabic translations of Aryabhata's Aryabhatiya were available from the 8th century, while Latin translations were available from the 13th century, before Copernicus had written De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, so it is possible that Aryabhata's work had an influence on Copernicus' ideas.

Heliocentric theory in muslim world.

Due to the scientific dominance of the Ptolemaic system in the Muslim world, very few Muslim astronomers considered the possiblity of a heliocentric model, though others who followed the geocentric model did criticize the details of Ptolemy's model. Several Muslim scholars had discussions on whether the Earth moved and tried to explain how this might be possible, some of whom also considered the possibility of the sun being the center of the solar system and the orbits of the planets being elliptical. Most of the criticisms directed towards Ptolemy, however, remained within the geocentric framework and followed Ptolemy's astronomical paradigm. A. I. Sabra described their work as:

"A reformist project intended to consolidate Ptolemaic astronomy by bringing it into line with its own principles."

In 1030, Abu-Rayhan Biruni discussed the Indian heliocentric theories of Aryabhata, Brahmagupta and Varahamihira in his Ta'rikh al-Hind (Indica in Latin; Chronicles of India in English). Biruni stated that the followers of Aryabhata consider the Sun to be at the center. In fact, Al Biruni casually stated that this does not create any mathematical problems. In 1031, in his Kitab al-qanun al-Mas’udi (Canon Mas’udicus in Latin), Biruni observed that the planets revolved in elliptical orbits, instead of the circular orbits of the Greeks. Abu Said Sinjari, a contemporary of Biruni, also suggested the possible movement of the Earth around the Sun, which Biruni did not reject. Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen) in the 12th century wrote a scathing critique of Ptolemy's model:

"Ptolemy assumed an arrangement that cannot exist, and the fact that this arrangement produces in his imagination the motions that belong to the planets does not free him from the error he committed in his assumed arrangement, for the existing motions of the planets cannot be the result of an arrangement that is impossible to exist."

Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201-1274) resolved significant problems in the Ptolemaic system by developing the Tusi-couple as an alternative to the physically problematic equant introduced by Ptolemy, and conceived a plausible model for elliptical orbits. Tusi's student Qutb al-Din, in his The Limit of Accomplishment concerning Knowledge of the Heavens, discusses the possiblity of heliocentrism. 'Umar al-Katibi al-Qazwini (d. 1277), who also worked at the Maraghah observatory, in his Hikmat al-'Ain, wrote an argument for a heliocentric model, though he later rejected the idea. Ibn al-Shatir (1304-1375), in his A Final Inquiry Concerning the Rectification of Planetary Theory, eliminated the need for an equant by introducing an extra epicycle, departing from the Ptolemaic system in a way very similar to what Copernicus later also did. Ibn al-Shatir proposed a system that was only approximately geocentric, rather than exactly so, having demonstrated trigonometrically that the Earth was not the exact center of the universe. His rectification was later used in the Copernican model, along with the earlier Tusi-couple and the Urdi lemma of Mo'ayyeduddin Urdi (c. 1250). Their theorems played an important role in the Copernican model of heliocentrism. In the published version of his masterwork, Copernicus also briefly discusses the theories of Al-Battani and Averroes.

Heliocentric theory in Renaissance Europe. Copernican heliocentrism.

heliocentric planetary model.
Nicolaus Copernicus, 16th century, made great advances on the heliocentric planetary model.

Heliocentric ideas were known in Europe before Copernicus. Explorers and traders were increasingly venturing out beyond Europe and introducing the West to the Indian heliocentric traditions as detailed above (cf. the Silk Road and Muslim commentators). Scholars were also aware of the arguments of Aristarchus and Philolaus, as well as several other thinkers who had proposed (or were alleged to have proposed) heliocentric or quasi-heliocentric views, such as Hicetas and Heraclides Ponticus. During the 'Middle Ages' Bishop Nicole Oresme discussed the possibiliy that the Earth rotated on its axis and Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa in his Learned Ignorance asked whether there was any reason to assert that the Sun (or any other point) was the center of the universe. In parallel to a mystical definition of God, Cusa wrote that "Thus the fabric of the world (machina mundi) will quasi have its center everywhere and circumference nowhere."

In the 16th century the theory of heliocentrism was proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus, in a form consistent with then-current observations. This theory resolved the issue of planetary retrograde motion by arguing that such motion was only perceived and apparent, rather than real: it was a parallax effect, as a car that one is passing seems to move backwards against the horizon. This issue was also resolved in the geocentric Tychonic system; the latter, however, while eliminating the major epicycles, retained as a physical reality the irregular back-and-forth motion of the planets, which Kepler characterized as a "pretzel." Copernicus cited Aristarchus in an early (unpublished) manuscript of De Revolutionibus (which still survives) so he was clearly aware of at least one previous proponent of the heliocentric thesis. However, in the published version he restricts himself to noting that in works by Cicero he had found an account of the theories of Hicetas and that Plutarch had provided him with an account of the Pythagoreans Heraclides Ponticus, Philolaus, and Ecphantus. These authors had proposed a moving earth, which did not, however, revolve around a central sun.

Religious disputes over the heliocentric theory.

Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and Chronicles 16:30 state that "the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved." Psalm 104:5 says, "(the LORD) set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved." Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that "the sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises."

Galileo defended heliocentrism, and claimed it was not contrary to those Scripture passages. He took Augustine's position on Scripture: not to take every passage literally, particularly when the scripture in question is a book of poetry and songs, not a book of instructions or history. The writers of the Scripture wrote from the perspective of the terrestrial world, and from that vantage point the sun does rise and set. In fact, it is the earth's rotation which gives the impression of the sun in motion across the sky.

As early as the time of Aristarchus, the heliocentric idea was denounced as being against religion in Europe. The issue did not assume any importance, however, for nearly 2,000 years.

Nicolaus Copernicus published the definitive statement of his system in De Revolutionibus in 1543. Copernicus began to write it in 1506 and finished it in 1530, but did not publish it until the year of his death. Although he was in good standing with the Church and had dedicated the book to Pope Paul III, the published form contained an unsigned preface by Osiander stating that the system was a pure mathematical device and was not supposed to represent reality. Possibly because of that preface, the work of Copernicus inspired very little debate on whether it might be heretical during the next 60 years.

There was an early suggestion among Dominicans that the teaching should be banned, but nothing came of it at the time. Some Protestants, however, voiced strong opinions during the 16th century. Martin Luther once said once said:

"There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth."

This was reported in the context of dinner-table conversation and not a formal statement of faith. Melanchthon, however, opposed the doctrine over a period of years.

Over time, however, the Catholic Church began to become more adamant about protecting the geocentric view. Pope Urban VIII, who had approved the idea of Galileo's publishing a work on the two theories of the world, became hostile to Galileo. Over time, the Catholic Church became the primary opposition to the Heliocentric view.

The favored system had been that of Ptolemy, in which the Earth was the center of the universe and all celestial bodies orbited it. A geocentric compromise was available in the Tychonic system, in which the Sun orbited the Earth, while the planets orbited the Sun as in the Copernican model. The Jesuit astronomers in Rome were at first unreceptive to Tycho's system; the most prominent, Clavius, commented that Tycho was "confusing all of astronomy, because he wants to have Mars lower than the Sun." (Fantoli, 2003, p. 109) But as the controversy progressed and the Church took a harder line toward Copernican ideas after 1616, the Jesuits moved toward Tycho's teachings; after 1633, the use of this system was almost mandatory. For advancing heliocentric theory Galileo was put under house arrest for the last several years of his life.

Theologian and pastor Thomas Schirrmacher, however, has argued:

"Contrary to legend, Galileo and the Copernican system were well regarded by church officials. Galileo was the victim of his own arrogance, the envy of his colleagues, and the politics of Pope Urban VIII. He was not accused of criticizing the Bible, but disobeying a papal decree."

Catholic scientists also:

"appreciated that the reference to heresy in connection with Galileo or Copernicus had no general or theological significance."

-Heilbron (1999)

Cardinal Robert Bellarmine himself considered that Galileo's model made "excellent good sense" on the ground of mathematical simplicity; that is, as a hypothesis (see above). And he said:

"If there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion false which has been proved to be true. But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me."

Koestler (1959), p. 447-448.

Therefore, he supported a ban on the teaching of the idea as anything but hypothesis. In 1616 he delivered to Galileo the papal command not to "hold or defend" the heliocentric idea. In the discussions leading to the ban, he was a moderate, as the Dominican party wished to forbid teaching heliocentrism in any way whatever. Galileo's heresy trial in 1633 involved making fine distinctions between "teaching" and "holding and defending as true".

heliocentrism.
In the 17th century AD Galileo Galilei opposed the Roman Chatholic Church by his strong support for heliocentrism.

The official opposition of the Church to heliocentrism did not by any means imply opposition to all astronomy; indeed, it needed observational data to maintain its calendar. In support of this effort it allowed the cathedrals themselves to be used as solar observatories called meridiane; i.e., they were turned into "reverse sundials", or gigantic pinhole cameras, where the Sun's image was projected from a hole in a window in the cathedral's lantern onto a meridian line.

In 1664, Pope Alexander VII published his Index Librorum Prohibitorum Alexandri VII Pontificis Maximi jussu editus which included all previous condemnations of geocentric books. An annotated copy of Principia by Isaac Newton was published in 1742 by Fathers le Seur and Jacquier of the Franciscan Minims, two Catholic mathematicians with a preface stating that the author's work assumed heliocentrism and could not be explained without the theory. Pope Benedict XIV suspended the ban on heliocentric works on April 16, 1757 based on Isaac Newton's work. Pope Pius VII approved a decree in 1822 by the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition to allow the printing of heliocentric books in Rome.

Heliocentric theory and the view of modern science.

The realization that the heliocentric view was also not true in a strict sense was achieved in steps. That the Sun was not the center of the universe, but one of innumerable stars, was strongly advocated by the mystic Giordano Bruno; Galileo made the same point, but said very little on the matter, perhaps not wishing to incur the church's wrath. Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the status of the Sun as merely one star among many became increasingly obvious. By the 20th century, even before the discovery that there are many galaxies, it was no longer an issue.

Even if the discussion is limited to the Solar System, the sun is not at the geometric center of any planet's orbit, but rather at one focus of the elliptical orbit. Furthermore, to the extent that a planet's mass cannot be neglected in comparison to the Sun's mass, the center of gravity of the solar system is displaced slightly away from the center of the Sun. (The masses of the planets, mostly Jupiter, amount to 0.14% of that of the Sun.) Therefore a hypothetical astronomer on an extrasolar planet would observe a "wobble".

Giving up the whole concept of being "at rest" is related to the Principle of Relativity. While, assuming an unbounded universe, it was clear there is no privileged position in space, until postulation of the special theory of relativity by Albert Einstein, at least the existence of a privileged class of inertial systems absolutely at rest was assumed, in particular in the form of the hypothesis of the Luminiferous aether. Some forms of Mach's principle consider the frame at rest with respect to the masses in the universe to have special properties.

Modern use of geocentric and heliocentric.

In modern calculations, the origin and orientation of a coordinate system often have to be selected. For practical reasons, systems with their origin in the mass, solar mass or in the center of mass of solar system are frequently selected. The adjectives may be used in this context. However, such selection of coordinates has no philosophical or physical implications.




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