Copernicus Heliocentric Theory Explained


Heliocentrism is the idea that the sun is the center of the solar system and the planets orbit around it. It is an idea that was made famous and permanent by Copernicus, but originated in antiquity. As early as the 4th century BC, a philosopher named Philolaus was one of the first to suggest that the Earth moved around the sun instead of the sun orbiting around the Earth.

Through antiquity and the Middle Ages, however, it was the latter idea that dominated science. When Copernicus published his suggestion in 1543 that the sun was motionless and that it was the Earth that orbited the sun, it would begin a drive toward the modern movement of astronomy and provide the fuel for the Scientific revolution.

What Is the Core of the Copernicus Heliocentric Theory?

Copernicus had one challenge that needed to be met. Ptolemy had offered a model of the universe in the 1st century AD that was treated as scientific fact instead of the theory it happened to be. His observations regarding the universe were considered a viable method for how the universe worked – namely, that the Earth was the center of it and everything else revolved around it.

Copernicus needed to come up with a viable model that could compete with Ptolemy. To do this, he included for key points that would become the foundation of his theory.

  1. The Earth was just one of several planets that revolved around the sun, which was stationary, and each planet had its own predetermined order and orbit.
  2. There are 3 motions of the planet Earth: an annual revolution, a daily rotation, and the tilting of the planet on its axis.
  3. The motion of the Earth provides and explanation for the retrograde motion of the other planets that are seen in the sky.
  4. The distance from the Sun to the Earth is small compared to the distance of other stars and the Earth.

To present the theory, Copernicus realized he would need to incorporate elements from Ptolemy’s theory so that the scientific world would accept a heliocentric theory. That is why Copernicus retained several elements from the initial Ptolemy theory, even though even he felt that they may be in accurate.

That is why the Copernicus heliocentric theory contains circular orbits, epicycles, and planetary movements which occur at a uniform speed.

How Was the Copernicus Heliocentric Theory Accepted?

Despite the efforts that Copernicus took to ensure the scientific community would accept his theory about the universe, it was relatively rejected. His publication received little attention until the 18th century, though it was widely circulated. About 500 copies of the first and second edition of his work have survived through the centuries.

The issue was the movement of the Earth. Few of his peers were ready to accept the idea that the planet moved.

Yet even though there was little acceptance, the calculations and observations made by the Copernicus heliocentric theory created a certain elegance that was widely appreciated. The movements that Copernicus described help to explain the changing of the seasons, the stars in the night sky, and a simplistic way to consider retrograde motion.

What made acceptance difficult was the fact that, at the time, there was little direct observational evidence that Copernicus could provide as proof that helicoentrism was superior to geocentrism. Many took issue with the vast distances that would be required in the universe for the stars to be potential “suns” in their own right.

Religion and the Copernicus Heliocentric Theory

Many argued that the theory Copernicus presented went against common sense. How common sense was defined at the time was based on the Bible. Copernicus was literally arguing against what many viewed to be the inerrant Word of God.

The miracle described in Joshua, then repeated in Habakkuk, describes a sun that stands still, the moon staying put, and no changes occurring over the course of an entire day.

Joshua, in the Bible, commanded the sun to stand still and it did. His order was not to stop the Earth from rotating.

There are several other passages which suggest geocentrism. 1 Chronicles 16:30 says that the world “stands firm” and “will never be moved.” Psalm 93 repeats this suggestion, as does Psalm 96.

Several passages even describe the world as a “foundation.” Foundations do not move.

Fighting against religion is a familiar story in the scientific world. Personal beliefs are treated as facts until they can be disproven without a doubt. That is why the Copernicus heliocentric theory struggled to catch on for so long. Today, however, it is treated as part of the foundation of a scientific awakening.