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9/10/2018 astronomy - Why did the ancients fail to discover that the Earth orbits the Sun?

over that the Earth orbits the Sun? - Physics Stack Exchange

Why did the ancients fail to discover that the Earth orbits the Sun?

The ancients observed that the Sun and the 'fixed' stars rotated about the Earth. They were also aware that the Earth was spherical. They performed many
astronomical measurements on the planets - which are far less 'obvious' than the Sun and the stars. Presumably they knew that the speed of rotation of the
Sun and the 'fixed' stars differed and that difference happened to be one day a year. It would seem (in retrospect) obvious that this was no coincidence and
no other heavenly motion was so clearly linked to any other. Could they not have deduced that the difference was due to the annual path of the Earth
around the Sun?

astronomy history solar-system

edited Jan 23 '13 at 4:43 asked Jul 4 '11 at 17:36


Alan-UK

Related: physics.stackexchange.com/q/25834 – Andrew Jul 4 '11 at 19:55

3 Answers

Others have already pointed out that heliocentrism was a theory in Ancient Greece. But the shortest
answer to geocentrism's prevalence is that geocentric systems like Ptolemy's more accurately predicted
planetary movements than heliocentric systems until Kepler discovered that the planets' orbits were
elliptical and not perfect circles. You can't persuade anyone to your theory if you can't prove it or
accurately relate your model to observation via accurate prediction. Ironically, geocentrism persisted
because the ancients were decent scientists and were unimpressed by (pre-Kepler) heliocentrism's
failure to support itself with observational data.

The Catholic Church had very little to do with the longevity of geocentric theory, as that theory
predated the Catholic Church and Church views of the world were based on Roman and Greek science
rather than the other way around. Also, once Kepler proposed the theory of elliptical orbits,
heliocentrism became such a simple model compared to Ptolemy's unwieldly cycles and epicycles, that
heliocentrism rapidly gained in popularity and quickly became the dominant theory.

answered Jul 5 '11 at 1:45


Paula Stiles

Hmm - seems to me that a heliocentric model could be pretty much like Ptolemy's geocentric one, based on epicycles rather
than single perfect circles. Do you have any references to specific less-accurate heliocentric models to support this notion? –
nealmcb Jul 27 '11 at 18:21

Actually, Copernicus' heliocentric model still had epicycles since it was still based on all circular motion. But it did away
with the largest of Ptolemy's epicycles. Galileo's observations of both the apparent size and the phases of Venus during its
orbit really clinched the heliocentric model. – Pete Jackson Aug 3 '11 at 21:09

Don't forget, that the only direct and observable proof of heliocentrism is the stellar parallax. Without it, both the
geocentric and heliocentric models are just theories, nothing more. You need modern instruments to accurately measure
stellar parallax. It was only measured for the first time in the 19th century. – vsz Sep 28 '14 at 11:53

To build on dagorym's answer, the Greeks did try to measure Earth's motion around the Sun to show
heliocentrism, but the closest stars were still too far away to show any parallax that would verify that
theory.

answered Jul 4 '11 at 20:49


Stuart Robbins
4,041 15 18

2 Why does this not have more upvotes??? This really hits the nail on the head: Observations supported a geocentric
model - the ancients were very good scientists, and they rejected the heliocentric model in large part because it made the
prediction of parallax that was not observed until the 19th century. – user10851 Jan 23 '13 at 4:42

Actually, heliocentric models were proposed in ancient times by many different people. The first of
which was Aristarchus of Samos in about 270 BC. See the Wikipedia article on Heliocentrism for full
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One major
policies reason geocentrism presisted, at least up through the time of Copernicus was due to the
and terms.
influence of the Catholic Chruch. They strongly held that the Earth was the center of creation and at
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some level attempted to supress opposing ideas.

Another reason that geocentrism held on so long is that we can't physically feel the Earth moving. To
our natural senses, the Earth is stationary and everything else is moving so the non-scientist would take
a lot of convincing to get them to believe otherwise.

answered Jul 4 '11 at 18:00


dagorym
5,917 22 40

1 You know, Paula has a good point. The Catholic Church was instrumental in postponing the acceptance of Keplerian
heliocentrism, but geocentrism dates back farther than we gave it credit. – Andrew Jul 5 '11 at 12:24

1 No, it was not. Read about the works and life of Galilei and you'll see that the Catholic Church didn't persecute
heliocentrism. They actually had astronomers who held heliocentric views who were not persecuted. Both geocentric and
heliocentric theories were widely discussed in that era, and before Newton's theory of gravity the geocentric view actually
made much more sense, and could predict the motion of the planets better than the heliocentric model! Only after the
heliocentric model became more accurate, did it start to gain influence. Also, it was not provable until the 19th century. –
vsz Sep 28 '14 at 11:58

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