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Aristarchus of Samos

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English: The Greek astronomer Aristarchus of S...

The Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC – 230 BC), in the 17th century atlas of Andreas Cellarius. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus is commonly regarded as the genius who first devised a sun-centered model of the solar system, but this is a modern fable. Way before Copernicus, another science prodigy, Aristarchus of Samos, (310 – 230 BCE) proposed a heliocentric model—that is, that the earth revolves around the sun.¹

Today it seems amazing that this ancient Greek thinker also accurately predicted that the reason we don’t see parallax (the stars moving relative to each other as the Earth travels around the sun) is because the stars are very far away from the Earth. In essence, Aristarchus was imagining great distances that most ancient people could not really conceive of.

Aristarchus's 3rd century BC calculations on t...

Aristarchus’s 3rd century BC calculations on the relative sizes of the Earth, Sun and Moon, from a 10th century AD Greek copy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But as usual, forward thinkers are rarely rewarded in their day. They almost always meet with resistance from ignorant, possibly stupid, and certainly regimented thinkers. His theory was roundly rejected in favor of the geocentric models (where everything rotates around the earth) of Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and, later, of Ptolemy (90-168 CE).²

¹ Aristarchus was influenced by the ideas of Philolaus (circa 470–385 BCE), who spoke of a “central fire.” Not as precise as Aristarchus’ model, Philolaus’ ideas have given him the honor of being the first in recorded history to propose a non-geocentric (Earth-centered) view of the universe.

² His only other ancient follower was Seleucus of Seleucia (born circa 190 BC), who demonstrated Aristarchus’ heliocentric model through reasoning.

Nicolaus Copernicus - Heliocentric Solar System

Nicolaus Copernicus – Heliocentric Solar System (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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