Heliocentric Theory: Definition & Model

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  • 0:44 Ancient Greek…
  • 1:42 The Renaissance And Copernicus
  • 3:22 The Copernican…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the foundational astronomic theory of the heliocentric theory and test your understanding about the history of astronomy including the lives of major contributors to the science.

Definition of Heliocentric Theory

Think about the Sun. It comes up in the morning and sets at night. Why? For a long time, people believed it was because the earth was the center of the universe, and the Sun revolved around us. Now we know the opposite is true; the Sun is the center of our solar system and we revolve around it.

The theory that the earth revolves around the Sun is called the heliocentric theory, helio meaning 'sun' and centric meaning 'in the center.' This theory was developed in parts by different astronomers over many years, namely Aristarchus, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.

Ancient Greek Astronomers and Aristarchus of Samos

The first true astronomers in Western history looked to the stars and began formulating theories about our place in the universe. In the second century BCE, Pythagoras developed a mathematical model that measured the distance from Earth to other planets with a high degree of accuracy and proposed the geocentric model of the universe with the earth in the center. This was one of the foundational moments for astronomy as a science.

The first development of a heliocentric theory came from Aristarchus of Samos around 270 BCE. Aristarchus calculated the size of the earth and the distance to the Sun and determined that the Sun was much larger than the earth. Therefore, he concluded, the earth must revolve around the Sun rather than the other way around. Aristarchus' theory was not widely accepted by most Greek astronomers. This is a model developed by Aristarchus to measure the size of the Sun (see video).

The Renaissance and Copernicus

During the Renaissance, a period from roughly 1300-1600, European culture was given a large boost after the Middle Ages with new wealth from trade. This led to a huge increase in art, engineering, math, and science as people pushed the boundaries of these disciplines. The Renaissance was also characterized by a belief that European civilization held its roots in the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, so everybody from artists to astronomers began reading the works of the ancients.

One of the men who developed an interest in ancient Greek astronomy was Nicholaus Copernicus in the 16th century. Copernicus developed a model to explain that the earth revolved around the Sun and for the first time, described the idea in full geometric equations. Copernicus' model, published in his book De revolutionibus, made several important claims:

  1. The earth and all the planets revolve around the Sun.
  2. The earth rotates but also spins on a tilted axis.
  3. The distance from the earth to the Sun is less than the distance from the earth to the stars, which are very far away.
  4. Inconsistent motions recorded in the motion of the stars and planets is a result of the earth moving at the same time as those other celestial bodies.

Unlike Aristarchus', Copernicus' model was widely accepted and read across Europe, resulting in a new wave of astronomy called the Copernican Revolution. Even the Catholic Church, which maintained that that the earth was the center of the universe, treated the book with intellectual curiosity.

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