Introduction to the Astronomy Revolution - The Big Picture


Greetings to you, my Astronomy students. This page serves to introduce you to the biggest picture aspect of the Astronomy Revolution, which brought about a return to scientific thought that was absent from Western civilization for almost 1400 years. In this section, you will see how the work of Copernicus changed the world, but just as importantly, how other who came after Copernicus built upon his work and that of each other to give a truthful understanding of the Solar System and the Earth's place in it.

Throoughout these pages, please keep this central battle in mind. While the world had many different cultures and peoples, the European nations had been dominated by two great forces: The Roman Catholic Church who described the working of the Universe entirely from a Biblical viewpoint. The Earth was the center-piece of God's creation and everything observationally and theologically went around us. The other great force at work was the army of the Roman Empire that was needed to protect the European people from their enemies to the East. Taxes to this army as well as excessive "church taxes" robbed the people of what little money they had. Additionally, all church lessons were delivered in Latin, which was a language that no one spoke or read except for the priests. Critical thinking and scientific inquiry that contradicted the views of the Church was met with by excommunication and penalty of death.

Martin Luther challenged the way of the Church in 1521 and encouraged people to read a Bible in their own language and study the Word and thus generate their own conclusions. In a manner of speaking, this was akin to the Scientific Method that encouoraged careful analysis, as well as deductive reason based on "evidence." Just 22 years later, Nicholas Copernicus proposed a model of the Solar System that placed the Sun in the center with the Earth orbiting it. He encouraged people to study the evidence in the sky and interpret it from what could be seen, as opposed to what was written in Biblical texts. The writing of Copernicus brought about the rebirth of true scientific inquiry and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. Two ordinary men took on the challenge of facing the largest religious institution in the world at the time ... and their work turned the world upside-down.

Here is a one page look at the sequence of events that brought about the Astronomy Revolution.

1) Nicholas Copernicus - 1643. This was the year of his death. After studying the night sky for many years, he came to conclude that the Sun was the center of the Solar System (HELIOCENTRIC MODEL). While he placed the Sun in the center, he believed that the planets orbited in perfectly circular orbits with small epicycle motions as the model of Ptolemy proposed in 140 AD. Copernicus waited until he way dying before publishing his little book "de Revolutionibus." Fearful that he would be excommunicated, he waited until the last possible moment to publish. While his book was quickly banned by the Vatican council, the word got out. "It's time to take a new look at the night sky."

2) Tycho Brahe - 1572. Tycho witnessed a supernova (a new star suddenly appearing in the sky), and began a career as an astronomer. He generated exquisitely accurate maps of the night sky and precisely traced the motion of planets. However, he believed that the Earth was in the center (GEOCENTRIC MODEL). Furthermore, he contended that the Moon orbited Earth as well as the Sun, but that Mercury and Venus orbited the Sun while the Sun was going around Earth. While few of his own workers agreed with him, Tycho presisted in pushing forward his hybrid model of the Solar System that combined Copernicus and Ptolemy. He provided the mapping evidence that proved Copernicus was correct, but he misinterpreted his own maps. He has done great scientific observational work, but made the wrong conclusion.

3) Johannes Kepler - 1601-1619. During this time, Kepler got a hold of Tycho's notes and correctly interpreted them. He discovered that the Sun is in the middle, but the planets are orbiting in an elliptical path. Furthermore, he discovered three laws of planetary motion that allowed astronomers for the first time to get an idea of where the planets were in relation to the Sun. While Aristotle taught that the planets were in equally space orbital spheres, Kepler showed that the gap between planets increases the farther out you go. Kepler gave us a picture of how the planets were moving in the Copernican system.

4) Galileo - 1609-1642. During this time, Galileo built his telescopes and studied the night sky. He provided observational proof that the Sun was in the center. He made four significant discoveries that proved Copernicus was correct, and that things in space are not perfect as was believed by the Church: a) The Sun has spots, b) The Moon has bumps and holes, c) There are four moons orbiting Jupiter, so not everything goes around Earth, d) You can follow the phases of Venus. His writings of his discoveries so angered the Church that Galileo was brought before the Inquisition in 1633. There he was tried and found guilty of heresy. Galileo recanted what he had discovered.

5) Isaac Newton - 1666-1684. During this time, Newton formulated the Laws of Gravity and Motion and was able to provide a mathematical model that described why and how things moved in space. His book, "Principia Mathematica" is considered the greatest single intellectual achievement of all time. Now, astronomers could quantify the motions of the planets and make predictions that were demonstrated to come true.

The Revolution was complete. Scientific thought had returned. The Catholic Church has long since reformed its stand on the interpretation of Biblical references to celestial phenomena. Each of these 5 people had a role to play in changing a viewpoint whose origin can be traced all the way back to Aristotle in 384 BC. This is the big picture of the Astronomy Revolution. To learn more connect to the pages below.

We will begin by going to Copernicus. Of course, you can always return to the Syllabus or the Home page.

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