Geocentric model

Figure of the heavenly bodies — An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

In astronomy, the geocentric model (also known as geocentrism, often exemplified specifically by the Ptolemaic system) is a superseded description of the Universe with Earth at the center. Under the geocentric model, the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets all orbited Earth.[1] The geocentric model was the predominant description of the cosmos in many ancient civilizations, such as those of Aristotle in Classical Greece and Ptolemy in Roman Egypt.

Two observations supported the idea that Earth was the center of the Universe:

  • First, from anywhere on Earth, the Sun appears to revolve around Earth once per day. While the Moon and the planets have their own motions, they also appear to revolve around Earth about once per day. The stars appeared to be fixed on a celestial sphere rotating once each day about an axis through the geographic poles of Earth.[2]
  • Second, Earth seems to be unmoving from the perspective of an earthbound observer; it feels solid, stable, and stationary.

Ancient Greek, ancient Roman, and medieval philosophers usually combined the geocentric model with a spherical Earth, in contrast to the older flat-Earth model implied in some mythology.[n 1][n 2][5] The ancient Jewish Babylonian uranography pictured a flat Earth with a dome-shaped, rigid canopy called the firmament placed over it (רקיע- rāqîa').[n 3][n 4][n 5][n 6][n 7][n 8] However, the ancient Greeks believed that the motions of the planets were circular and not elliptical, a view that was not challenged in Western culture until the 17th century, when Johannes Kepler postulated that orbits were heliocentric and elliptical (Kepler's first law of planetary motion). In 1687 Newton showed that elliptical orbits could be derived from his laws of gravitation.

The astronomical predictions of Ptolemy's geocentric model, developed in the 2nd century CE, served as the basis for preparing astrological and astronomical charts for over 1500 years. The geocentric model held sway into the early modern age, but from the late 16th century onward, it was gradually superseded by the heliocentric model of Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo (1564-1642), and Kepler (1571-1630). There was much resistance to the transition between these two theories. Some Christian theologians were reluctant to reject a traditional theory[citation needed] that agreed with Biblical passages.[12]Others felt that a new, unknown theory could not subvert an accepted consensus for geocentrism.

Ancient Greece

Illustration of Anaximander's models of the universe. On the left, summer; on the right, winter.

The geocentric model entered Greek astronomy and philosophy at an early point; it can be found in pre-Socratic philosophy. In the 6th century BC, Anaximander proposed a cosmology with Earth shaped like a section of a pillar (a cylinder), held aloft at the center of everything. The Sun, Moon, and planets were holes in invisible wheels surrounding Earth; through the holes, humans could see concealed fire. About the same time, Pythagoras thought that the Earth was a sphere (in accordance with observations of eclipses), but not at the center; they believed that it was in motion around an unseen fire. Later these views were combined, so most educated Greeks from the 4th century BC on thought that the Earth was a sphere at the center of the universe.[13]

In the 4th century BC, two influential Greek philosophers, Plato and his student Aristotle, wrote works based on the geocentric model. According to Plato, the Earth was a sphere, stationary at the center of the universe. The stars and planets were carried around the Earth on spheres or circles, arranged in the order (outwards from the center): Moon, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, fixed stars, with the fixed stars located on the celestial sphere. In his "Myth of Er", a section of the Republic, Plato describes the cosmos as the Spindle of Necessity, attended by the Sirens and turned by the three Fates. Eudoxus of Cnidus, who worked with Plato, developed a less mythical, more mathematical explanation of the planets' motion based on Plato's dictum stating that all phenomena in the heavens can be explained with uniform circular motion. Aristotle elaborated on Eudoxus' system.

In the fully developed Aristotelian system, the spherical Earth is at the center of the universe, and all other heavenly bodies are attached to 47–55 transparent, rotating spheres surrounding the Earth, all concentric with it. (The number is so high because several spheres are needed for each planet.) These spheres, known as crystalline spheres, all moved at different uniform speeds to create the revolution of bodies around the Earth. They were composed of an incorruptible substance called aether. Aristotle believed that the Moon was in the innermost sphere and therefore touches the realm of Earth, causing the dark spots (macula) and the ability to go through lunar phases. He further described his system by explaining the natural tendencies of the terrestrial elements: Earth, water, fire, air, as well as celestial aether. His system held that Earth was the heaviest element, with the strongest movement towards the center, thus water formed a layer surrounding the sphere of Earth. The tendency of air and fire, on the other hand, was to move upwards, away from the center, with fire being lighter than air. Beyond the layer of fire, were the solid spheres of aether in which the celestial bodies were embedded. They, themselves, were also entirely composed of aether.

Adherence to the geocentric model stemmed largely from several important observations. First of all, if the Earth did move, then one ought to be able to observe the shifting of the fixed stars due to stellar parallax. In short, if the Earth was moving, the shapes of the constellations should change considerably over the course of a year. If they did not appear to move, the stars are either much farther away than the Sun and the planets than previously conceived, making their motion undetectable, or in reality they are not moving at all. Because the stars were actually much further away than Greek astronomers postulated (making movement extremely subtle), stellar parallax was not detected until the 19th century. Therefore, the Greeks chose the simpler of the two explanations. Another observation used in favor of the geocentric model at the time was the apparent consistency of Venus' luminosity, which implies that it is usually about the same distance from Earth, which in turn is more consistent with geocentrism than heliocentrism. In reality, that is because the loss of light caused by Venus' phases compensates for the increase in apparent size caused by its varying distance from Earth. Objectors to heliocentrism noted that terrestrial bodies naturally tend to come to rest as near as possible to the center of the Earth. Further barring the opportunity to fall closer the center, terrestrial bodies tend not to move unless forced by an outside object, or transformed to a different element by heat or moisture.

Atmospheric explanations for many phenomena were preferred because the Eudoxan–Aristotelian model based on perfectly concentric spheres was not intended to explain changes in the brightness of the planets due to a change in distance.[14] Eventually, perfectly concentric spheres were abandoned as it was impossible to develop a sufficiently accurate model under that ideal. However, while providing for similar explanations, the later deferent and epicycle model was flexible enough to accommodate observations for many centuries.

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