Why write a blog about classics relating to astronomy? Well, in case you are asking, (and if not then you’re probably not reading this anyway) grab a cuppa and I will tell you a story…
It really began with reading as many books as I could about Copernicus, the reason for that I will talk about as this blog progresses. Nicolaus Copernicus (there are many different ways of spelling his name) was persuaded to write down and publish his reasons for coming to believe that Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the other way around. This was known as the Heliocentric Theory. How he was persuaded is a fascinating story, and has been written about extensively both in fact and fiction. Copernicus was an amateur astronomer, his day job was a catholic priest and also the local GP. His great work was first published in 1543, which also was the year he died.
In the manuscript edition in which his own signature is written, in his great finished work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) were *several references to a man called Aristarchus of Samos, also often referred to as The Mathematician.
Aristarchus of Samos was born around 310 BC and died around 230 BC. He is most famous for being the first person who is recorded as suggesting the Heliocentric System, in other words, that the Earth goes around the Sun, and not the Sun around the Earth. Just pause, and take this in for a moment…take another sip of tea/coffee of whatever you are drinking and think of this, Aristarchus suggested this, around eighteen hundred years before Copernicus published his great work suggesting the same.
To put it another way, nearly two thousand years before Copernicus, there was a mathematician who figured out that the Earth moved around the Sun. We know that Copernicus knew about Aristarchus. It is not certain how much he knew about Aristarchus’ suggestion of the Earth going around the Sun.
My questions are,
- Why did it take nearly two thousand years before someone else came to believe Earth went around the Sun, and
- How did Aristarchus, (and in fact Copernicus) work this out? what observations did they make and did they work it out in the same way(s)?
These are actually enormous questions, and I have spent the last 13 years reading, studying, wondering, pondering, speculating, and now I am about to embark on year two of my Masters in Classical Studies with the OU. One of my many reasons for doing this Masters is to step into my TARDIS and travel back into the world of Ancient Greece and Rome, to try to see glimpses of Aristarchus’ perception of the world. Who was this man? What do we know about him? How did he understand history and his generation’s place in it? How do we know he suggested the Earth went around the Sun? What is the evidence? Then, finally, why was his ‘theory’ dismissed? Or, in fact, was it dismissed or is that what has come down to us through the ages as being the case, but was it? Can we really be sure and how does dipping into Aristarchus’ world affect our own understanding of our perception of the Universe?
I’m stepping into my TARDIS now…see you in Ancient Greece
*Professor Owen J. Gingerich describes these mentions in his article, Did Copernicus owe a debt to Aristarchus (Journal for the history of astronomy, Vol 16, NO.1/FEB. p.37, 1985 if you want to look it up)