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Copernican heliocentrism is the name given to the astronomical model developed by Nicolaus Copernicus and published in 1543. This model positioned the Sun at the center of the Universe, motionless, with Earth and the other planets orbiting around it in circular paths, modified by epicycles, and at uniform speeds. The Copernican model displaced the geocentric model of Ptolemy that had prevailed for centuries, which had placed Earth at the center of the Universe. Copernican heliocentrism is often regarded as the launching point to modern astronomy and the Scientific Revolution.

Copernicus was aware that the ancient Greek Aristarchus had already proposed a heliocentric theory, and cited him as a proponent of it in a reference that was deleted before publication; however, there is no evidence that Copernicus had knowledge of, or access to, the specific details of Aristarchus' theory.[1] Although he had circulated an outline of his own heliocentric theory to colleagues sometime before 1514, he did not decide to publish it until he was urged to do so late in his life by his pupil Rheticus. Copernicus's challenge was to present a practical alternative to the Ptolemaic model by more elegantly and accurately determining the length of a solar year while preserving the metaphysical implications of a mathematically ordered cosmos. Thus, his heliocentric model retained several of the Ptolemaic elements, causing inaccuracies such as the planets' circular orbits, epicycles, and uniform speeds,[2] while at the same time introducing such innovative ideas as:-

  • The Earth is one of several planets revolving around a stationary sun in a determined order.
  • The Earth has three motions: daily rotation, annual revolution, and annual tilting of its axis.
  • Retrograde motion of the planets is explained by the Earth's motion.
  • The distance from the Earth to the Sun is small compared to the distance from the Sun to the stars.

Copernican Revolution

Whether Copernicus' propositions were "revolutionary" or "conservative" has been a topic of debate in the historiography of science. In his book The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (1959), Arthur Koestler attempted to deconstruct the Copernican "revolution" by portraying Copernicus as a coward who was reluctant to publish his work due to a crippling fear of ridicule. Thomas Kuhn argued that Copernicus only transferred "some properties to the Sun's many astronomical functions previously attributed to the earth."[2] Historians have since argued that Kuhn underestimated what was "revolutionary" about Copernicus' work, and emphasized the difficulty Copernicus would have had in putting forward a new astronomical theory relying alone on simplicity in geometry, given that he had no experimental evidence.[2]

See also