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The Church and Copernicus

The Church and Copernicus | Galileo Galilei | Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler | Isaac Newton

Pre-20th Navigation


The Christian Church's doctrine was pretty much solidified 1500 years ago. It had been heavily influenced by Greek and Roman philosophers, especially in its views of science. Among those teachings lay the solid belief in a geocentric universe. Geocentric means Earth -centered; the Earth is the center of everything, and especially the center of the solar system.

However, with the Scientific Revolution that went hand-in-hand with the Renaissance of Europe, there was a resurgence of classical studies, but also a new way of looking at things. The people of the Scientific Revolution wanted to base everything in provable or observable basis. That was the start of it.

Geocentric Model

As discussed in the Ancient Astronomy section, the geocentric model had seemingly logical evidence. First of all, if the Earth were moving, then wouldn't we feel it, or feel a strong wind in the direction of movement? Also, if the Earth really moved around the sun, then wouldn't we see the stars move? This last phenomena, called parallax, is a real thing, but is much too small to be seen without a telescope due to the extreme distance to stars.

Besides these arguments, the geocentric model puts humans in a special place at the center of everything. Think of it this way: You are trying to recruit people to your belief system, a system that, during its conception and for the first several hundred years it was around, people were persecuted for. It is human nature to want to feel special. Therefore, your religion offers as one of its fundamental beliefs that you are not only a special person, created personally by your divine being, but you live in a special place: At the center of everything.

And then Along Came CopernicusNicholas Copernicus

The Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) never liked the Earth-based view of the universe, yet he never publicly announced his views until he was old. This was due to the Church -- anyone who opposed Church doctrine was branded a heretic, and that would destroy your reputation, put you in prison, or even sentence you to death.

Copernicus did not invent the idea of a heliocentric - sun-centered - system, but he was the first modern person to advance it. The heliocentric model was able to easily explain things that the geocentric system had a hard time doing, most notably the seemingly retrograde motion of the planets. The planets usually follow an eastward direction in the sky, but sometimes they mysteriously flip and travel westward. The geocentric model attempted to solve this by adding extra orbits upon orbits that the planets would follow. However, the heliocentric model explains this with the Earth simply reversing direction of movement relative to the planet being observed.

Copernicus' publication On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres was not published until after he died in order for him to avoid being persecuted by the Church. Often called the Copernican Revolution, this actually was not much of a revolution. The book was published in Latin, so the general public was not able to read it. Academics could, but few learned people were willing to face the Church and risk death. It wasn't even until 73 years after it was published, 1616, did the Church consider it important enough to place on its Index of Prohibited Books.

However, it did put heliocentric views out in the restricted open, and it was useful to people such as Galileo to help revolutionize astronomy in Europe.

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