2.3 The Heliocentric Model of the Solar System

Posted by Andri Fadillah Martin on Monday, February 13, 2012

The Heliocentric Model of the Solar System

Figure 2.7 Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543). (E. Lessing / Art Resource, NY)
The Ptolemaic picture of the universe survived, more or less intact, for almost 13 centuries, until a sixteenth-century Polish cleric, Nicholas Copernicus (Figure 2.7), rediscovered Aristarchus's heliocentric (Sun-centered) model and showed how, in its harmony and organization, it provided a more natural explanation of the observed facts than did the tangled geocentric cosmology. Copernicus asserted that Earth spins on its axis and, like the other planets, orbits the Sun. Only the Moon, he said, orbits Earth. Not only does this model explain the observed daily and seasonal changes in the heavens, as we saw in Chapter 1, but it also naturally accounts for planetary retrograde motion and brightness variations. The critical realization that Earth is not at the center of the universe is now known as the Copernican revolution. The seven crucial statements that form its foundation are summarized in Discovery 2-1.

Figure 2.8 shows how the Copernican view explains both the varying brightness of a planet (in this case, Mars) and its observed looping motions. If we suppose that Earth moves faster than Mars, then every so often Earth "overtakes" that planet. Mars will then appear to move backward in the sky, in much the same way as a car we overtake on the highway seems to slip backward relative to us. Notice that in the Copernican picture the planet's looping motions are only apparent. In the Ptolemaic view, they were real.

Figure 2.8 Retrograde Motion The Copernican model of the solar system explains both the varying brightnesses of the planets and the phenomenon of retrograde motion. Here, for example, when Earth and Mars are relatively close to one another in their respective orbits (as at position 6), Mars seems brighter. When they are farther apart (as at position 1), Mars seems dimmer. Also, because the line of sight from Earth to Mars changes as the two planets orbit the Sun, Mars appears to loop back and forth in retrograde motion. The line of sight changes because Earth, on the inside track, moves faster in its orbit than does Mars. The white curves are the actual planetary orbits. The apparent motion of Mars, as seen from Earth, is shown as the red curve.

Copernicus's major motivation for introducing the heliocentric model was simplicity. Even so, he was still influenced by Greek thinking and clung to the idea of circles to model the planets' motions. To bring his theory into agreement with observations, he was forced to retain the idea of epicyclic motion, although with the deferent centered on the Sun rather than on Earth, and with smaller epicycles than in the Ptolemaic picture. Thus, he retained unnecessary complexity and actually gained little in accuracy over the geocentric model. The heliocentric model did rectify some small discrepancies and inconsistencies in the Ptolemaic system, but for Copernicus, the primary attraction of heliocentricity was its simplicity, its being "more pleasing to the mind." His theory was more something he felt than he could prove. To the present day, scientists still are guided by simplicity, symmetry, and beauty in modeling all aspects of the universe.

Despite the support of some observational data, neither his fellow scholars nor the general public easily accepted Copernicus's model. For the learned, heliocentricity went against the grain of much previous thinking and violated many of the religious teachings of the time, largely because it relegated Earth to a noncentral and undistinguished place within the solar system and the universe. And Copernicus's work had little impact on the general populace of his time, at least in part because it was published in Latin (the standard language of academic discourse at the time), which most people could not read. Only long after Copernicus's death, when others—notably Galileo Galilei—popularized his ideas, did the Roman Catholic Church take them seriously enough to bother banning them. Copernicus's writings on the heliocentric universe were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1616, 73 years after they were first published. They remained there until the end of the eighteenth century.

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