Copernicus and the Sun

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Copernicus and the Sun


Nicolas Copernicus real name was Mikolaj Korpenik before he Latinized his name. He was born in 1473 in Poland. He developed his heliocentric argument about the universe as a reaction to the Ptolemy’s complicated geocentric model. According to the model of Ptolemy, the sun, the moon and all the planets of the solar system, travel in what he called epicycles around equal point as they orbit around the earth. There were many other unrealistic arguments contained in the model that provoked the reaction of Copernicus. The work that influenced him most was called the Almagest that had a commentary of Ptolemy’s observations indicating various discrepancies like the distance of the moon from the earth. This is because he had learnt of other theories that talked of the sun being at the middle of the universe. His insight was triggered by an experiment that started by posing a question of how the motion of the heavens would look if watched from another point apart from the earth. This is when he came to a realization that the earth was in motion around other bodies of the heaven look as if they were moving in the alternate direction. He completed his model of the universe in 1510 and gave it to some of his close friends, though he did not publish the models manuscript that was dubbed the little commentary because he never thought he would create a model that would solve all the issues that the one of Ptolemy had. It was much later in 1539 when Rheticus convinced Copernicus to publish his model and he himself oversaw the publication (Kuhn 1999)


Heliocentrism is the theory that holds that the sun is at the middle of the universe .This theory distances itself from another theory called geocentrism that had postulated tha the earth is at the centre of the universe. Standing and looking at the sky one sees as if the earth is fixed at a certain place while everything else in the sky is going round. Over a long period, the movements become complicated and it appears, as the heavenly bodies are moving in a reverse direction in what is called retrograde motion. Ptolemy proposed this geocentric explanation. The first person to propose Heliocentricsm was Aristacchus in the 270 BC but his works were not documented anywhere and it is only through the accounts of others that his explanations are given (Kuhn 1999). Archimedes later used this model in a work that was labeled, The Reckoner, making the assumption that the distance of the stars in a fixed position had the relationship with the earths orbit radius. This helped in the explanation of the parallax of the stellar which is beyond the ability of detection by observers. People aimed this at making an explanation of the perceived motion while standing on the earth that makes them think that it is the other bodies moving as the earth remains static. For a long time, there was opposition to heliocentricsm around Europe with people arguing that if it was true that the earth was moving around the sun then its contents would be falling off as it spins. There was no one who had a better comprehension of physics to give a valid response to the objections until Copernicus revived the debate in the 1500s.In his argument, there is no centre of the heavenly bodies and the middle of the earth is not necessarily the middle of the universe.

The middle the earth is just the centre of the lunar sphere and that of the gravity. This means that earth and the planets revolve around the sun, the central point and therefore, the centre of the universe. He also postulated there is a very small ratio of the distance of the earth from the sun to the outer sphere of the universe that has the stars. In his claim, the motion that we see, while standing on the earth is not of the sun or any other bodies but it is that of the earth because the earth rotates as it revolves around the sun just like all the other planets. This means that the earth is involved in more than one motion: the revolution and the rotation.

Copernicus argued that the retrograde motion of the heavenly bodies was just apparent because of an effect he called parallax just like when a car is moving, people inside see as if the objects outside are also moving backwards. His theory managed to solve some of the major problems in the Ptolemaic model though some of the propositions of the geocentric model were retained. Heliocentricsm was denounced for being against religion even during the time of Aristacchus (Kuhn 1999). However, the issue gained a lot of significance in 1543 when Copernicus first published his model. Copernicus had a good relationship with the Catholic Church and he dedicated the work to the reigning pope saying that whatever he had written was just mathematical and did not represent any proven reality.


The debate about his work did not start immediately though some Protestants including Martin Luther immediately objected saying that there is no way the earth can go around the sun while we know it is the other way round. He quoted the scripture in the book of Joshua where he says that Joshua told the sun to remain and not the earth. As time went by the Catholic Church mounted its criticisms of the heliocentricsm as it went on protecting the geocentric view. Pope Urban III started chiding Galileo who had just published a work on the theories of the world because he thought that the scientist had used his dialogue to mock him. Though the Catholic Church never supported the idea that the earth was flat, it refused to agree that the sun was at the middle of the universe and all the other bodies went around it the way Copernicus had modeled. Tychos model was vehemently mocked and labeled as the most confusing model of astrology. However, as the hard-line stance against the Copernicans model increased, the tychonian one gained more relevance. At this time, Copernicus was long dead and the person who was pushing for his heliocentric model was Galileo. By 1633, the tychonian model had been accepted as the mandatory model to be used to explain the universe and for his continued proposition of the Heliocentricsm; Galileo was placed under house arrest for during the sunset of his life. However, Theologians argue that the church was opposing the Galileo’s heliocentrism not because they did not believe in it but it was because of his arrogance and differences with the reigning pope meaning that the church still regarded the model of Copernicus albeit secretly. In 1664, the Pope published all the versions that had condemned Heliocentricsm and dropped the suspension of books that advocated the controversial model. During his trial in 1633, Galileo was charged with teaching a doctrine that was false that the sun is immobile and the earth goes around it. This was deemed as a disobedience to a decree by pope that ordered everyone to stick to the tychonian model. The model was even said to contradict the Judaic teachings. Before Copernicus made his view, the scientific teachings about the universe corresponded with the religious point of view. His view challenged that of the Judaic teachings. Modern science also does not fully agree with the Copernicus heliocentric model (Koyré 1992). This is because it has been proved that the sun is not actually in the middle of the universe and is actually one of the billions of stars that are there in the universe. Going back to the relationship between the Copernicus view and the religious view there is a serious challenge on the religious view that the earth is static and changed the way people find the universe.

It was Pope John Paul II that conceded that the earth was not stationary and revolved around the sun. The church had maintained that the earth was stationary and quoted the scriptures to support its stance and for many years, it had been believed that all the heavenly bodies revolved around the world. There were consequences of not sticking to the church stance and that is why Copernicus feared publishing his work. He was right because what he feared happened to Galileo who was detained for opposing the decree of the church. The insistence was that the scriptures were not wrong but the interpretation by church theologians was wrong. This is what pope John Paul II eventually admitted when he made the confession that there was a misinterpretation of the scriptures when Galileo was being charged and when his model that was akin to that of Copernicus was being rejected (Koyré 1992)


Going into the religious interpretations, religious beliefs postulate that the earth and the sun are symbols that represent operates relationship with God. The variations that arise in the face of geocentricism versus heliocentricsm is comparable to The religious one that sees man (earth) at the centre and God (sun) going around man caring for his needs. That is why the sun and the earth are symbolic in the religious interpretation of the universe perspectives meaning it cannot be the other way round because there is no way that Man (earth) can revolve around Sun (God). The religion offers a perspective that is reverse; where God is placed in an obvious position while that of man is treated as a novelty and the essence of reality is God whose symbol is the sun. That is why religion was fervent in the defense of the geocentric model because it was in line with their assumptions of sun revolving around the earth just like God goes round man caring for his needs and not the vice versa. The sun worshipers also were very cautious of Heliocentricsm model that tried to put the sun as the static Object in the middle of the universe. Sun being their God could not be an immobile figure as the heliocentrism argued out. However, the scientific model of corpenicus bonds with the new horizons brought out by the sun worshipers, which assume that the sun is a symbol of Godliness a thing that is static and cannot be changed. The earth represents a possibility of change and adaptation, which agrees with the heliocentric theory that the earth that revolves around the sun. This symbolically means that God, represented by the sun and not man, represented by the earth, is at the centre of the universe (Koyré 1992)


Reading the book of Corpenicus that is called Da Revolutionibus, the mathematical view of Copernicus is quite dominant (Koyré 1992). It successfully joined the humanists in using mathematics as the basis to rise above the conventional arguments and went into the books of history as one of the few people who could make major astronomical announcements. He had the courage to contradict all the commonly held arguments but he was modest enough not to arouse controversy within the church. Notably, the discussions surrounding Heliocentrism especially from a religious perspective are the ones that have helped to shape this view. From the time of corpenicus and Galileo up to 1992, the controversy has been raging until the pope conceded that the scriptures were misinterpreted, the Catholic Church came to accept the postulation that the earth revolves around the sun, and the sun is at the centre of the universe. Though there are other models that have emerged that render Heliocentrism irrelevant, it is notable that it is the view that shaped the study of the arrangement of the universe, developed by its clash with mysticism and concordance with sun worshipers.


Koyré, A. (1992). The Astronomical Revolution: Copernicus, New York: Courier Dover Publications.

Kuhn, T. S. (1999). The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.