Proving Heliocentricity

Is it stupid to think that the Sun revolves around the Earth?

Oblique view of the phases of Venus
Oblique view of the phases of Venus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, of course anyone even slightly exposed to scientific thinking who believes that today is certifiably a fruitcake or, as Professor Brian Cox puts it “a nobber”.

But proving heliocentricity – unlike, say, the spherical nature of the Earth, is not actually all that simple at all.

The crudest evidence suggests to us that the Sun goes round the Earth once every 24 hours and it is quite easy to disprove that, but the alternative – that the Sun goes round the Earth once every year is a lot more difficult.

Painstaking collection of data about planetary movements will show they (other than Mercury and Venus) display so-called “retrograde movement” at around the time they are in opposition to the Sun (on the opposite side of the sky) – something that is much simpler to explain through heliocentricity than geocentricity – but collecting that data is not something you and I are likely to do in a hurry.

Venus and Mercury’s different behaviour does suggest they orbit the Sun and as the geocentric model came under attack in the 16th and 17th centuries that was one of the earliest concessions of geocentricity’s defenders: but even that is not definitive (remember we have no theory of gravity here and so we may posit any orbital period we like for these planets).

Even the discovery of the phases of Venus towards the end of the opening decade of the 17th Century did not completely kill the idea of geocentricity off – though it was the heaviest blow yet.

In fact the idea of geocentricity lingered on in scientific thinking for some decades. Partly that was the influence of the Catholic Church but that is not the full explanation – heliocentricity turns out to be quite hard to prove.

Author: Adrian McMenamin

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