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Aristarchus: Biography, Facts & Theory

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

This essay will discuss the scientist Aristarchus of Samos, the person who first suggested that the Earth and the other visible planets revolved around the sun.

A Statue of Aristarchus, founder of Heliocentrism
Aristarchus

Aristarchus' Life

We don't really know much about Aristarchus as a person. He was born in around 310 B.C.E. on the island of Samos, which is off the coast of Asia Minor (i.e., modern-day Turkey). Where and when he was born means he was active during the Hellenistic Age, when Greek culture was traveling to India, Egypt, and dozens of other cultures in the Middle East and southwestern Asia.

We do know one specific thing about Aristarchus' life. At some point in his adult life, he spoke to Cleanthes, the leader of the Stoics, a group of people who worshiped the sun, opposed Heliocentrism, and believed in making decisions without emotions. When he spoke to Cleanthes, Aristarchus jokingly told him he should be charged with impiety. For Aristarchus, someone who believed the Earth was at the center of everything shouldn't worship the sun but the Earth. The comment says a lot about Aristarchus. He was not a spiteful intellect, but more of a sociable person willing to put personal philosophies aside.

Heliocentrism

Heliocentrism: the Earth orbiting the sun
Heliocentrism

Aristarchus' biggest contribution was Heliocentrism, the belief that the Earth and the other visible planets traveled around the sun. Before Aristarchus, the Greeks had officially believed that Apollo rode his sun chariot over the Earth during the day. Scholars like Aristotle and Ptolemy had suggested that the sun and the other planets revolved around the Earth, which is also known as geocentrism. Using geometry and astronomical observation, Aristarchus realized that both ideas didn't make any sense and devised heliocentricism as an alternative.

The Stars

Aristarchus had to make all his studies based on what he could see with the naked eye. This meant that he couldn't see small changes in the sky, or any changes made by distant stars. Previous astronomers had thought they were just points of light in the sky, but Aristarchus followed Anaxagoras in suspecting they might be suns just like our own. He just couldn't prove it.

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