CLAUDIUS PTOLEMY (c.90-168)

(NOT to be confused with the royal dynasty of the Ptolemys)

c.150 – Alexandria, Egypt

‘The Earth is at the centre of all the cosmos’

This erroneous belief dominated astronomy for 14 centuries.

‘The Earth does not rotate; it remains at the centre of things because this is its natural place – it has no tendency to go either one way or the other. Around it and in successively larger spheres revolve the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, all of them deriving their motion from the immense and outermost spheres of fixed stars’. Ptolemy wrote in the thirteen-volume Almagest (Arabic for ‘The Greatest’), in which he synthesised the work of his predecessors. It provided a definitive compilation of all that was known and accepted in the field of astronomy up to that point.

Almagest’s eminence, importance and influence can only be compared with Euclid’s Elements. A major part of Almagest deals with the mathematics of planetary motion. Ptolemy explained the wandering of the planets by a complicated system of cycles and epicycles. Starting from the Aristotelian notion that the earth was at the centre of the universe, with the stars and the planets rotating in perfect circles around it, the Ptolemaic system argued for a system of ‘deferents’, or large circles, rotating around the earth, and eighty epicycles, or small circles, which circulated within the deferents. He also examined theories of ‘movable eccentrics’. These proposed just one circle of rotation, with its centre slightly offset from the earth, as well as ‘equants’ – imaginary points in space that helped define the focal point of the rotation of the celestial bodies. Ptolemy’s texts were written with such authority that later generations struggled for a thousand years to convincingly challenge his theories and they remained the cornerstone of Western and Arab astronomy until the sixteenth century.

Ptolemy’s theory was challenged by COPERNICUS and demolished by KEPLER. Ptolemy supported Eratosthenes’ view that the Earth is spherical.

Ptolemy’s other major text is his Tetrabiblos, a founding work on the then science of astrology.

Despite that Ptolemy’s ideas of a geocentric universe have been shown to be erroneous by modern researchers it must be remembered that at the time the observable phenomena would support this view of the cosmos. Without a more informed understanding of the mechanisms involved it can appear that heavenly bodies do in fact move according to the Ptolemaeic model and mathematical evidence was available to provide verification and vindication.

 Medieval Astronomy from Melk Abbey Credit: Paul Beck (Univ. Vienna), Georg Zotti (Vienna Inst. Arch. Science) Copyright: Library of Melk Abbey, Frag. 229  Explanation: Discovered by accident, this manuscript page provides graphical insight to astronomy in medieval times, before the Renaissance and the influence of Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho de Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo. The intriguing page is from lecture notes on astronomy compiled by the monk Magister Wolfgang de Styria before the year 1490 at Melk Abbey in Austria. The top panels clearly illustrate the necessary geometry for a lunar (left) and solar eclipse in the Earth-centered Ptolemaic system. At lower left is a diagram of the Ptolemaic view of the solar system and at the lower right is a chart to calculate the date of Easter Sunday in the Julian calendar. Text at the upper right explains the movement of the planets according to the Ptolemaic system. The actual manuscript page is on view at historic Melk Abbey as part of a special exhibition during the International Year of Astronomy.

Library of Melk Abbey, Frag. 229

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  • The Almagest (thesevenworlds.wordpress.com)

NICOLAUS COPERNICUS (1473-1543)

1543 – Poland

‘The Sun is at the centre of the solar system, fixed and immobile, and planets orbit around it in perfect circles in the following order: Mercury, Venus, Earth with its moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn’

diagram of the heliocentric Copernican system

The heliocentric Copernican system

The Copernican system defied the dogma that the Earth stood still at the centre of the universe – a concept that dated back to ARISTOTLE, which had been given observational legitimacy by PTOLEMY and authority by Christendom – and set forth a new theory of a Sun centered universe. Why would God create a hugely complicated system of equants, epicycles and eccentrics, as Ptolemy had used to explain planetary motion around the Earth, when it would be much more simple and graceful to have them all revolving around the Sun?

“Eight hundred years before Copernicus, a model of the solar system was advanced with the Earth as a planet orbiting the Sun along with other planets”
A few centuries later this idea fell into disfavour with the early Christian Church, which placed mankind at the centre of the universe in a geo-centric model. The alternative teaching would be deemed heresy punishable by death and it would not be until the seventeenth century that the work of GALILEO, KEPLER and NEWTON gave credence to the ideas revitalized by Copernicus in 1543.

Not only did Copernicus place the Sun at the centre of the solar system, but he also gave detailed accounts of the motions of Earth, the Moon and those planets that were known at that time. Between 1510 and 1514 he drafted Commentariolus, his initial exposition of the theory. In order to have credence, the idea required that the Earth itself be not fixed in position. He said that the Earth revolves on its own axis once every twenty-four hours, which accounts for day and night and explains the apparent movement of the stars and Sun across the sky. Copernicus suggested in Commentariolus that the time taken for each planet to complete its cycle through the night sky might increase the further it is from the Sun.

Mercury’s cycle takes 88 days, which makes it the nearest planet to the Sun. Venus takes 225 days, Earth 1 year, Mars 1.9 years, Jupiter 12 years and Saturn 30 years. Thus Copernicus was able to work out the truth and attempted to establish the order of the planets.

He did not publish his findings because they were thought to contravene the teachings of the Catholic Church. Religious leaders of his time were against him. Martin Luther (founder of the Lutheran Church in Germany) denounced him as ‘a new astrologer…. the fool’ who wanted ‘to overturn the entire science of astronomy’. His book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the revolution of the celestial spheres) was published at the very end of his life, and a copy placed on his deathbed. Thus the greatest astronomer of his time died without seeing his book in print – the book as influential as Newton’s Principia and Darwin’s ‘On The Origin of Species’.

Portrait of Copernicus

The text was rejected by many academics; partially because the author had undermined the simplicity of his initial ideas by clinging to the Aristotelian belief that planetary motion took place in perfect circles. This meant Copernicus had been forced to introduce his own system of epicycles and other complex motions to fit in with observational evidence, thereby producing as equally complicated an explanation as the geocentric one he had initially rejected for its lack of simplicity.

It was not until Johannes Kepler offered the solution that the planets move in an elliptical, not circular, motion in 1609 that the simplicity that Copernicus had been seeking was offered and the rest of the model could be vindicated.

In fact, it was not until 1616 that the Church banned the text Copernicus eventually published for its ‘blasphemous’ content, although that sanction remained in place until 1835.

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