Heliocentrism and its denialism

Bill Woodrow, Wilson's Phalarope (94_03), 1994


After heliocentrism was seen as a legitimate topic of debate among scholastics in the 13th century and Copernicus' theory was viewed with sympathy in the Vatican, there was a radicalization of geocentrist dogma

The Catholic Church's condemnation of Copernicus' heliocentrism and Galileo's trial are well known. However, geocentrism had not always been a Catholic dogma, as it became in the 16th and 17th centuries. What could explain this dogmatic regression?

As we know, geocentrism prevailed in Antiquity and in the medieval period among Arabs, Persians and Europeans, supported by the philosophy of Aristotle (384-322 BC) and the astronomy of Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 AD). In Aristotle, the Earth occupied the center of the Universe, surrounded by the spheres of the seven planets, in the ancient sense, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and by the “Eighth Sphere”, that of the most distant stars. Sublunary space would be the locus of irregular, transitory, corruptible phenomena, and would be formed by the four elements earth, water, air and fire, while celestial space would be the locus of circular, regular and perfect movements, formed by a distinct quintessence of the elements terrestrial.

The astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, in his work known by the Arabic name Almagest, deals with these stars, with the same general conception, but based on measurements, and the idealized perfection is not fully confirmed. The greatest difficulty with geocentrism (R. Rigitano, personal communication) has always been Mercury and Venus: while the outer planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, in their orbit around the Sun, effectively go around the Earth, the inner planets, Mercury and Venus, no. Ptolemaic astronomy considered them through artificial epicycles, cycles upon cycles. To accommodate the data on the orbits of the stars in general to circles, another device was the equants, points around which the stars would move, and which would not be precisely the center of the Earth [1].

Because of these difficulties, in Antiquity there were defenders of heliocentrism, such as Philolao of Crete, Nikete of Syracuse and Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC), who attributed daily and annual movements to the Earth around the Sun [2].

Among the scholastics, the legitimacy of the discussion was expressed in 1277 by Etienne Tempier, archbishop of Paris. William of Ockhan (1285-1347), Jean Buridan (1301-1358), Albert of Saxony (1316-1390), and particularly Nicholas of Oresme (1320? – admitted a rotational movement for the Earth, not necessarily linked to the daily cycle). 1382), described by Dugas as a predecessor of Copernicus, although his Treatise on the Heavens and the World was not published, and should not have influenced Copernicus.

Oresme asserted that “no observation could demonstrate that the Heavens move with a diurnal motion, and that the Earth does not”, arguing in terms of the relativity of motion: “If a man were placed in the Heaven… if this man… could see the Earth clearly, and taking in the mountains, valleys, rivers, cities and castles, it will seem to him that the Earth moves day by day, just like us on Earth, Heaven seems to move.” Oresme also responds to arguments based on quotations from Scripture by interpreting the Bible non-literally. Regarding the quote that “The sun rises and sets, and returns to its place… God established the world of the earth that will not be moved,” he responds that the Scriptures are consistent with the speech of ordinary human beings. Regarding the episode in which the Sun stopped in the time of Joshua, resuming its journey in the time of King Hezekiah, he says that this was an illusion and that, in fact, the Earth had stopped.

Direct influence on Copernicus would have Epitome (1496) by Johannes Müller von Königsberg, or Regiomontanus (1436-1476), who summarized the contents of the Almagest, added more recent observations and made critical comments, in particular about an unconfirmed prediction: according to the Ptolemaic model, the distance from the Moon to Earth should vary a lot, so that its apparent size should vary much more than what is observed [1].

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was a Catholic canon, administrator, doctor and astronomer. Not long after 1510 he circulated the manuscript among friends Commentary (Small comment). The manuscript was the subject of a Vatican lecture attended by Pope Clement VII and several cardinals, one of whom, Nicholas von Schönberg, wrote to Copernicus encouraging publication. However, he would only publish his theory after the cooperation of Georg Joachim de Porris, known as Rheticus (1514-1574), professor of mathematics at the University of Wittenberg, who wrote the introductory pamphlet Prima Narratio (First report, 1540).

Copernicus wrote his complete account From revolutionibus orbium caelestium (Of the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies, 1543), dedicating it to Pope Paul III, and including Cardinal von Schönberg's letter of support. In his work, Copernicus developed a study of the various world systems since Antiquity. He used his own astronomical observations, but, mainly, incorporated data from Ptolemaic Astronomy converted to the new formulation. He started from Mercury and Venus to demonstrate the centrality of the Sun to the planets.

Rheticus delivered the edition of From revolutionibus to the Lutheran cleric Andreas Osiander who, without informing the author, included an unsigned preface saying that the book would not deal with a real description of the Universe, but with “a calculation consistent with observations”. From revolutionibus it was published in the year of Copernicus' death, 1543. According to Ronan [3], “it is assumed that a copy of the text reached him on his deathbed”. (One can also assume that Copernicus had a heart attack when he saw what Osiander had done with his theory.). Ronan believes that this undue addition was motivated by Luther's (1483-1546) strong disapproval of the discussion introduced by Rheticus: “The madman will turn the entire science of Astronomy upside down. But, as the Holy Book declares, it was the Sun and not the Earth that Joshua ordered to stop.” (The reformer does not need to be original). After publication, Copernicus' book was also opposed by another reformer, Melanchthon (1497-1560).

Tycho-Brahe (1546-1601) occupies a prominent place in astronomy due to the precision of the instruments he created and the wealth of observations he recorded, which would later support Kepler's laws. The world-system proposed by Tycho-Brahe maintained the Earth as the center of the Universe and center of the movements of the Sun, the Moon and the “Eighth Sphere”, but the other five planets would revolve around the Sun. It is presented as a “completely independent hypothesis”. agreement with the phenomenon and mathematical principles without being repugnant to physics and without incurring censure from theology”. It was thus, explicitly, a compromise solution between the precision of Copernicus' system and the religious approval of Ptolemy's system.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1631) worked as an assistant to Tycho-Brahe. He avoided polemicizing, presenting the world systems of Ptolemy, Copernicus and Tycho-Brahe in a neutral way. He carried out his own measurements, and was heir to Brahe's records, from which he deduced his three laws. The law of areas and the law of the elliptical motion of the planets were published in 1609, the law relating the periods of circulation and the distance to the Sun, in 1619.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) established himself in mechanics by pointing out the solution to the dynamic problem, which has a specific history. For Aristotle, forced movements required a permanent cause, so the speed of a body would be related to the force applied to it. This conception had difficulty explaining the movement of an arrow, or even a stone, after they separate from the bow or hand that projected them. Among Arabs and Europeans in the Middle Ages, the idea of impetum, which would disappear in the movement. Galileo presented the first formulation of the modern idea of ​​quantity of movement, which is maintained by inertia or varies as a result of external force.

Bernal [4] highlights Galileo's originality for founding the experimental method. The wise men of the XNUMXth century had even used illustrative experiments, but Galileo carried out exploratory and quantitative experiments, suitable for a mathematical formulation of phenomena.

Galileo's contribution to heliocentrism was associated with a telescope he built in 1609. With it he observed satellites following Jupiter along its annual trajectory, suggesting the same for the Moon in relation to Earth. He observed phases of Venus and sunspots, which made it possible to show the rotation of these stars and support the hypothesis of Earth's rotation. He was forced to retract his views on his first indictment by the Inquisition in 1615. However, in 1632 he published his Four dialogues on the two main world systems, those of Copernicus and Ptolemy. He was again forced to renounce his principles and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bernal [3] assesses that the Holy Office was relatively benign towards Galileo, who had solid scientific prestige and powerful friends. Others were not so lucky. The philosopher and mystic Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was condemned to the stake for heliocentrism and other heresies. Giovanni Domenico Campanella, or Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), who among many other works published Apology for Galileo, mathematico Florentino (Frankfurt, 1622), he was imprisoned for 27 years in Naples, without stopping being persecuted afterwards. Copernicus's book itself was officially condemned by the Congregation of Cardinal Inquisitors in 1616.

In Galileo's dynamics, the idea of ​​inertia was imprecisely extended to circular movements, as if the circular trajectories of the stars occurred due to inertia. These movements were best understood by Christiaan Huyghens (1628-1697), who restricted inertial movement to uniform rectilinear movement, and for curved movements he formulated the theory of centrifugal force, the tendency of bodies to move out of curves at speed. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) reformulated Huyghens' conception, in reciprocal terms of centripetal force, which maintains circular or curved movement [5], so that rectilinear and curved movements are described by the same general law. Starting from these principles, Newton demonstrated that the law of gravitational attraction between bodies, whereby the force of reciprocal attraction is proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distances, had as necessary consequences the three laws observed by Kepler. This unification of celestial and terrestrial mechanics was a gigantic scientific step, from which there would be no room for geocentrism in any academic environment.

In summary, after heliocentrism was seen as a legitimate topic of debate among scholastics in the 13th century and, at the beginning of the 16th century, Copernicus' theory was seen with sympathy in the Vatican, there was a radicalization of geocentrist dogma in the Catholic Church at the same time. throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, reflected in the trials against Giordano Bruno, Campanella and Galileo, as well as in the care taken by Tycho-Brahe and Kepler when exposing their achievements. What would have caused such dogmatic radicalization?

For Gribbin [1]: “the Catholic Church turned against the Copernican system of the Universe because it was taken over by the heretic Giordano Bruno”. Ronan [4] agrees with him, for whom the change was due, “in large part, to the open support for the heliocentric theory by the turbulent and arrogant Giordano Bruno”. For these authors, Bruno would be a supporter of hermeticism, associated with serious heresies, to the point that the authors seem to agree with his condemnation to the stake. But they do not explain why Bruno's other heresies would exacerbate the severity of heliocentrism, nor, if the problem was Bruno, why his death sentence did not satisfy the inquisitors.

A more convincing hypothesis is suggested by Dugas [2], noting that the Catholic Church in the XNUMXth century, “tolerant because of its power, had the wisdom to brush aside questions beforehand against any deviation from geocentrism”. On the contrary, the Catholic Church of the 16th and 17th centuries had its power threatened by the Reformation. As we saw from the criticisms of Luther and Melanchthon, the Catholic Church risked being accused of being heretical if it endorsed its son Copernicus, having common sense against it. Dogmatism and radicalization did not arise from scientific debate or theological debate, but from political confrontation.

*Jose Ricardo Figueiredo He is a retired professor at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at Unicamp. Author of Ways of seeing production in Brazil (Associated Authors\EDUC). [https://amzn.to/40FsVgH]


[1] Gribbin, J., Science A History 1543-2001, Penguin Books.

[2] Dugas, R., A History of Mechanics, Dover Publications, New York, 1988.

[3] Bernal, J.D., Social History of Science, v.1, Science in history, Ediciones Península, Barcelona, ​​1967.

[4] Ronan, CA, Illustrated History of Science, v.III From the Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution, Zahar, Rio de Janeiro, 1983.

[5] Crowe, M.J. Mechanics from Aristotle to Einstein, Green Lion Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2007.

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