From Geocentrism to Heliocentrism: A Scientific Revolution

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This is a term paper written by Toyou Kim for Mr. Alexander Ganse's AP European History class. The topic was Revolution, Reaction, and Reform.



Definition of Revolution, Reaction, and Reform

The topic itself being “Revolution, Reaction, and Reform”, accurate definitions of the three terms are not optional but essential. Firstly, revolution means anything innovative that is significant enough to be considered a major issue of society. Revolutionary event or concept defies general trends of the era and this meets acceptance and resistance, which are reactions. Clashing of positive and negative reactions results may either overthrow the already established knowledge or leave it unchanged, and this is considered reaction.

In this paper, conversion from Ptolemaic geocentric model to Copernican heliocentric model will be the revolution part, positive reaction of the scientists who support Copernicus’s idea and negative reaction of the Church and opposing scientists will be discussed. Lastly, process of the society gradually accepting heliocentric model as more accurate astronomical model will be covered for reform part.

What is Scientific Revolution?

Scientific Revolution is neither a certain revolution nor a series of revolutions, but an era marked by numerous scientific innovations that became the cornerstones of modern science. This era is known to have started around end of the Renaissance era and continued through The Enlightenment period, late 18th century. Copernican revolution and Vesalius’s revolution on anatomy are considered to be the catalysis for other revolutions occurred during this era. Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543) is an example of overthrowing an original concept and replacing it with new concept, whereas Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica is an example of pioneering a new field of study, as dissecting human body was strictly prohibited before Renaissance era.

Objective of Study

The main focus will be on the progress of the heliocentrism throughout the entire revolution, to see how it becomes a complete and reliable cosmological theory to replace the Ptolemy’s Geocentrism. Also, its impact on Scientific Revolution era will be discussed briefly.



Geocentric model, or Ptolemaic system, is an outdated planetary system that claims the Earth is at the center of the universe, and all other planets orbit around it. This model served as the predominant concept of the cosmos in ancient civilizations such as ancient Greek. Among numerous systems that put the Earth as the center, most remarkable ones are those of Aristotle and Ptolemy. The Catholic Church was positive toward this system, as it seemed fit to place God’s creation (the Earth) at the center of the universe, and this was clearly projected during Copernican revolution as the Church was very resistant against the transition. Besides the Church, there were many scientists who believed in geocentric model as an impenetrable fact could not be questioned.


Geocentric model was the predominant astronomical system among ancient Greeks, but not all of them agreed with the model. There were Greeks who believed in other systems such as Pythagorean system, and many believed in heliocentric system. Therefore, there are known records of heliocentrism before Copernican revolution, but it was simply that Geocentrism was more popular in ancient civilizations. Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek astronomer who lived around 310 BC, was the most radical believer of heliocentrism, and he came up with a system that was closest to the cosmological system offered by Copernicus. Nevertheless, geocentric model was definitely predominant over other astronomical models before the publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.


Publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium is seen as the first step in the transition between these two theories. While this text is significant as it provoked an intense debate among scientists, itself is regarded an evidence of grand value that proves how Catholic Church suppressed this idea and threatened scientists associated with this issue. The publication date (1543) shows this, as the book was published in 1543, just after Copernicus’s death, which is incomprehensible since Copernicus is unable to join the discussion because he is dead. The most feasible hypothesis suggests that Copernicus was afraid of the reaction of the Church towards this idea and considering that he was the original holder of the idea to disseminate it, it is possible that Copernicus chose to publish the book after his book to avoid distressing pressure. If the assumption is valid, it can be used as an evidence to prove the Catholic Church’s oppressive stance against innovative ideas that refute the teaching of bible, and argue how this represents the Church’s struggle to maintain its authority over the society.


Positive Reaction: Scientists

Heliocentrism convinced many scientists to believe that Geocentrism is not the accurate representation of the sidereal system. Especially among them, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) are best known for polishing and pioneering the theory with multiple evidence based on scientific observations. All of the three scientists were contemporary to the Copernican Revolution, and their opinions are regarded the most significant and accurate portraits of position of revolutionary side at the time.

Naturally, Copernicus, the original holder of heliocentric cosmology, played the most significant role in shaping the idea, despite the fact that he was left out of the discussion. Five hundred copies of this “epochal” publication had survived during the era, which meant this book was quite popular for a technical text, according to the period’s standard. One drawback of this book, however, is that due to its extreme technicality, public with no background knowledge couldn’t understand the ideas proposed in this document, therefore the social receptions of this book has little reliability.

Galilei and Kepler were also crucial to development of this theory, as they provided with pragmatic applications of heliocentric model and well-founded examples that support heliocentrism. Galileo found several “real” evidences of newly found cosmological system with his enhanced telescope, whereas Johannes constructed astronomical laws based on heliocentric model, which correctly describes the motions of planets in the solar system. (In addition, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion refined the Copernican heliocentrism. For instance, Kepler’s laws changed the orbits from circular to elliptoid)

Similarly, this theory was upheld by many other scientists. One fine example is Sefer Elim (1629, before Galileo was put under house arrest), a book written by Hebrew scientist Joseph Solomon Qandia Delmedigo (1591 – 1655), who was an ardent supporter of Copernican Heliocentric system. In his book Sefer Elim, he wrote “the arguments of Copernicus are so strong, that only an imbecile will not accept them.” (Sefer Elim, Amsterdam, 1629, p. 304)

Negative Reaction: The Catholic Church

Catholic Church suppressed heliocentrism, as it is opposed to Catholic belief and it might potentially threat the hold the Catholic Church had on the public. Scientists who supported heliocentrism were punished by the Catholic Church. The most well-known example is Galilei, who was badly tortured and persecuted because of his strong support for heliocentrism. As the influence of heliocentric system increased, Catholic Church began to limit public access to the “forbidden” knowledge by including documents about heliocentrism to Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books). While the first version of the Index (1559) did not include De revolutionibus, the one published in 1664, which was after the Galileo affair, listed not only Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, but also numerous other books advocating heliocentrism.

As already been mentioned in the text above, the Catholic Church prohibited the knowledge of heliocentrism not only because of authority, but because it directly opposed to the cosmological system offered in the Bible. This is shown from a remark about De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Martin Luther, who wanted to reform the Catholic Church at the time. He said, “People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon…. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.” This quote implies that opposition of the Catholic Church was in part because of its religious message, as Martin Luther, who belonged to the Lutheran Church, also opposed to the heliocentric system.

Negative attitude of the Catholic Church towards heliocentrism continued through the 16th and the 17th century, and it started to fade in the mid-18th century, when Pope took out the publications advocating heliocentrism from the Index of Prohibited Books (1758).

Negative Reactions: Scientists

To be exact, scientists were not negative to the heliocentric concepts. However, many of them were reluctant to adapt to the new heliocentric model, as they couldn’t imagine the Aristotle’s geocentric model being overthrown by a newly found theory so easily. There were some Hebrew scientists refused to support heliocentrism as this was opposed to their religion, but this refusal was proposed on a non-scientific basis.

One ironic case, however, is that of Tycho Brahe. He refined the Copernican revolution in certain areas with further investigation of the system with his assistants, including Johannes Kepler, but he ended up proposing a system identical to that of Copernicus, but placing Earth at the center of the system. Being the most renowned astronomer of the time and the master of Johannes Kepler, this example explicitly shows how some scientists just weren’t ready to accept the system as it is.


Index Librorum Prohibitorum

Besides Church’s direct suppression of the theory, such as persecuting the scientists or destroying the responsible institutions, it also restricted the spread of this idea to the public by placing the related documents in the Index of Prohibited Books, which is published by the order of Roman Catholic Church.

An interesting fact to point out here is that the Index published in 1559 did not contain the document, while the one published in 1664 included not only the book by Copernicus, but also all of the books advocating heliocentrism. This change can be considered a significant reform as this shows how the Copernican heliocentrism had become an established theory and how the Church was aware of it.

These texts are excluded from the Index as the theory becomes more definite an alternative to the Geocentrism. In 1758, the Catholic Church removed the heliocentric publications from Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Additionally, there is a known record of publication of Newton’s Principia by two Catholic mathematicians (1742), Fathers le Seur and Jacquier of the Franciscan Minims, which was significant in a way as Principia provided an explanation of Kepler’s laws – which are based on heliocentrism – in terms of his own universal gravitation and laws of motion (The first version of Principia was published in 1687). In 1822, Pope Pius VII allowed the printing of heliocentric documents in Rome. The process of inclusion and exclusion of heliocentric documents in Index Librorum Prohibitorum and Church officials’ behavior regarding the forbidden texts are great evidences to see how heliocentrism reformed the way Catholic Church was and how it ultimately substituted for the geocentric model.

Scientific references

Copernican Revolution is a Scientific Revolution. Therefore, it is inevitable to evaluate how it reformed and changed astronomers’ view towards the universe and celestial system. Copernicus’s theory heavily affected the modern science, and numerous scientific texts with dependence on heliocentrism were published through the development of science.

Copernicus started the revolution with De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, but the theories proposed in the book were incomplete, and Copernicus definitely did not finish the revolution. Copernicus was still a believer of celestial spheres and he couldn’t provide with clear evidences that his model was better than that of Ptolemy’s. This led supporters to make attempts to find direct evidences for this theory through thorough observations of the universe. Best known example is Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, which are based on observations made by Tycho Brahe with the aid of his assistant to prove that celestial spheres don’t exist. Kepler’s laws proved to be an effective tool to convince scientists to turn to heliocentrism.

In addition, Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), a text advocating heliocentrism, clearly consulted to Copernican Heliocentrism. Also, Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), which essentially completed the Copernican revolution, gave physical explanations about the planet motions described by Kepler. Subsequently, it can be argued that these texts which enhanced the theory with strong examples and proposed new scientific analysis based on Copernican system completed the revolution and furthermore successfully placed it as the alternative for Geocentrism, which was regarded a truth for two millennia.

Since it is Copernican revolution responsible for the change of structures in various fields of science, several add-ups to the theory and scientific texts referring to the theory can be considered the tangible part of reform brought to the science by the revolution.


Consequently, Copernican Revolution was a successful revolution; it changed the fundamental structures of the celestial system and heavily affected the field of astronomy. Approximately two hundred years after the publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, The Catholic Church’s opposition towards the heliocentrism began to fade, and eventually the Church ceased, practically marking the end of the long lasted revolution.

Although it is arguable that this revolution was very influential by itself, its real significance does not lie within itself. Instead, the significance lies in the development process of the theory throughout the revolution. In the beginning of this particular revolution, where Copernicus proposed his original concepts of the celestial system, the theory was incomplete; he still believed in the existence of celestial spheres, and he thought the orbits were circular. This incomplete theory was polished and adjusted by numerous supporters of the heliocentric system who appeared in later period of history, and the integrity of it continued to rise until Isaac Newton’s physical explanations of the theory, which made it complete with accurate properties and reliable with solid evidences.

Conclusively, through the effort of numerous scientists, the dominant interpretation of celestial system shifted from geocentric model to heliocentric model. This overthrowing of an ancient scientific concept bears a very significant meaning. Copernican Revolution became the root of all the scientific revolutions occurred during the Scientific Revolution era, and ultimately it is responsible for the establishment of modern science, with many new concepts that contradict with ancient beliefs.


Annotated Bibliography

Wikipedia Articles


These articles use data from various sources, which increase their credibility. However, none of the sources are primary sources, as all of them are written in 20th and 21st Century. (Practical conversion, Copernican Revolution, took place around 16th ~ 17th Century.) Hence, these wikipedia articles were written from hindsight perspective, and thus they have smaller significance compared to primary, contemporary sources written at the time of the event. Also, since it has been proven with modern science that heliocentrism is closer to the modern astronomical model than Geocentrism, these articles maybe are affected by bias.

Associated sources

1. Heliocentrism. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2011

2. Johannes Kepler. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Dec. 2011 Web. 11 Dec. 2011

3. Galileo Galilei. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Dec. 2011 Web. 11 Dec. 2011

4. Nicolaus Copernicus. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2011

5. Copernian Revolution. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopeida. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Dec. 2011 Web. 11 Dec. 2011

6. Geocentrism. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopeida. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Dec. 2011 Web. 11 Dec. 2011

7. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopeida. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Dec. 2011 Web. 11 Dec. 2011

8. Tycho Brahe. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopeida. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Dec. 2011 Web. 11 Dec. 2011

2. Šelomo del Medigo, Yosef. Sefer Elim. Manasse b. Israel, 1629. Google Books. Web. 17 Sep. 2011.


The book was published in 1629, which is contemporary to the Copernican Revolution, thus regarded as a valuable primary source for the paper. The author was a Hebrew, who was very passionate about Copernicus’s idea of heliocentrism, and the work leans heavily toward the favor of heliocentrism, representing the reformation side of a successful revolution. A glimpse of his favor toward the idea was provided in a Wikipedia article named heliocentrism, stating that the author in his book wrote “the arguments of Copernicus are so strong, that only an imbecile will not accept them.” (Sefer Elim, Amsterdam, 1629, стр. 304)

3. Copernicus, Nicolaus. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Johnson Reprint Corp., 1543. Google Books. Web. 17 Sep. 2011


The book is best portrays the position of revolutionary side, as the book is written by holder of the idea himself, Nicolaus Copernicus. Instead of being contemporary to the event, the document was at the center of the whirlpool, which enables itself to be regarded as single most important reference for the paper. Besides the document itself, the fact that Copernicus published his book just before his death because of his fear the Church might punish him and negative receptions from the Church help to build up on the reaction side of the revolution. However, there is one downfall to this book. Since this book is extremely technical that normal people couldn’t possibly understand the ideas proposed in the document, which causes the reliability of social receptions to drop.

4. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Copernican revolution. Harvard University Press, 1957. Google Books. Web. 17 Sep. 2011.


In page 191, there is quote of Martin Luther about De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. “People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon.... This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.” (Kuhn, 191) This quote reveals the contemporary position of Church side, the negative reaction side to the revolution, about the heliocentrism. There is another quote by Martin Luther at the dinner table. "There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth." (“Heliocentrism”, Wikipedia)

5. Dreyer. History of the Planetary Systems from Thales to Kepler. Cosimo, Inc., 1953. Google Books. Web. 17 Sep. 2011


The book contains information about conflicts between religions and heliocentrism before Copernicus, such as Plutarch’s dialogue which describes that the philosopher Cleanthes had insisted that Aristarchus should be charged with impiety for his heliocentric system. Although it does not have a direct relationship with the specific event of Copernican Revolution, it is noteworthy information when viewing heliocentrism as a whole. In addition, this piece of information may help to build upon the idea of background of this scientific revolution, “why did Copernican Revolution occur?”

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