Chapter 3: The Copernican Revolution

Chapter 1
How Science Works

  • The Scientific Method
  • Evidence
  • Measurements
  • Units and the Metric System
  • Measurement Errors
  • Estimation
  • Dimensions
  • Mass, Length, and Time
  • Observations and Uncertainty
  • Precision and Significant Figures
  • Errors and Statistics
  • Scientific Notation
  • Ways of Representing Data
  • Logic
  • Mathematics
  • Geometry
  • Algebra
  • Logarithms
  • Testing a Hypothesis
  • Case Study of Life on Mars
  • Theories
  • Systems of Knowledge
  • The Culture of Science
  • Computer Simulations
  • Modern Scientific Research
  • Astronomy
  • Astronomy as a Science
  • A Scale Model of Space
  • A Scale Model of Time
  • Questions

Chapter 2
Early Astronomy

  • The Night Sky
  • Motions in the Sky
  • Navigation
  • Constellations and Seasons
  • The Seasons
  • The Magnitude System
  • Angular Size and Linear Size
  • Phases of the Moon
  • Eclipses
  • Aurora
  • Dividing Time
  • Solar Calendars
  • History of Astronomy
  • Stonehenge
  • Ancient Observatories
  • Counting and Measurement
  • Astrology
  • Greek Astronomy
  • Aristotle and Geocentric Cosmology
  • Aristarchus and Heliocentric Cosmology
  • The Dark Ages
  • Arab Astronomy
  • Indian Astronomy
  • Chinese Astronomy
  • Mayan Astronomy
  • Questions

Chapter 3
The Copernican Revolution

  • Ptolemy and the Geocentric Model
  • The Renaissance
  • Copernicus and the Heliocentric Model
  • Tycho Brahe
  • Johannes Kepler
  • Elliptical Orbits
  • Kepler's Laws
  • Galileo Galilei
  • The Trial of Galileo
  • Isaac Newton
  • Newton's Law of Gravity
  • The Plurality of Worlds
  • The Birth of Modern Science
  • Layout of the Solar System
  • The Scale of the Solar System
  • The Idea of Space Exploration
  • Orbits
  • History of Space Exploration
  • Moon Landings
  • International Space Station
  • Manned versus Robotic Missions
  • Commercial Space Flight
  • Future of Space Exploration
  • Living in Space
  • Moon, Mars, and Beyond
  • Societies in Space
  • Questions

Chapter 4
Matter and Energy in the Universe

  • Matter and Energy
  • Rutherford and Atomic Structure
  • Early Greek Physics
  • Dalton and Atoms
  • The Periodic Table
  • The Structure of the Atom
  • Energy
  • Heat and Temperature
  • Potential and Kinetic Energy
  • Conservation of Energy
  • Velocity of Gas Particles
  • States of Matter
  • Thermodynamics
  • Entropy
  • Laws of Thermodynamics
  • Heat Transfer
  • Thermal Radiation
  • Wien's Law
  • Radiation from Planets and Stars
  • Internal Heat in Planets and Stars
  • Periodic Processes
  • Random Processes
  • Questions

Chapter 5
The Earth-Moon System

  • Earth and Moon
  • Early Estimates of Earth's Age
  • How the Earth Cooled
  • Ages Using Radioactivity
  • Radioactive Half-Life
  • Ages of the Earth and Moon
  • Geological Activity
  • Internal Structure of the Earth and Moon
  • Basic Rock Types
  • Layers of the Earth and Moon
  • Origin of Water on Earth
  • The Evolving Earth
  • Plate Tectonics
  • Volcanoes
  • Geological Processes
  • Impact Craters
  • The Geological Timescale
  • Mass Extinctions
  • Evolution and the Cosmic Environment
  • Earth's Atmosphere and Oceans
  • Weather Circulation
  • Environmental Change on Earth
  • The Earth-Moon System
  • Geological History of the Moon
  • Tidal Forces
  • Effects of Tidal Forces
  • Historical Studies of the Moon
  • Lunar Surface
  • Ice on the Moon
  • Origin of the Moon
  • Humans on the Moon
  • Questions

Chapter 6
The Terrestrial Planets

  • Studying Other Planets
  • The Planets
  • The Terrestrial Planets
  • Mercury
  • Mercury's Orbit
  • Mercury's Surface
  • Venus
  • Volcanism on Venus
  • Venus and the Greenhouse Effect
  • Tectonics on Venus
  • Exploring Venus
  • Mars in Myth and Legend
  • Early Studies of Mars
  • A Close-Up View of Mars
  • Modern Views of Mars
  • Missions to Mars
  • Geology of Mars
  • Water on Mars
  • Polar Caps of Mars
  • Climate Change on Mars
  • Terraforming Mars
  • Life on Mars
  • The Moons of Mars
  • Martian Meteorites
  • Comparative Planetology
  • Incidence of Craters
  • Counting Craters
  • Counting Statistics
  • Internal Heat and Geological Activity
  • Magnetic Fields of the Terrestrial Planets
  • Mountains and Rifts
  • Radar Studies of Planetary Surfaces
  • Laser Ranging and Altimetry
  • Gravity and Atmospheres
  • Normal Atmospheric Composition
  • The Significance of Oxygen
  • Questions

Chapter 7
The Giant Planets and Their Moons

  • The Gas Giant Planets
  • Atmospheres of the Gas Giant Planets
  • Clouds and Weather on Gas Giant Planets
  • Internal Structure of the Gas Giant Planets
  • Thermal Radiation from Gas Giant Planets
  • Life on Gas Giant Planets?
  • Why Giant Planets are Giant
  • Gas Laws
  • Ring Systems of the Giant Planets
  • Structure Within Ring Systems
  • The Origin of Ring Particles
  • The Roche Limit
  • Resonance and Harmonics
  • Tidal Forces in the Solar System
  • Moons of Gas Giant Planets
  • Geology of Large Moons
  • The Voyager Missions
  • Jupiter
  • Jupiter's Galilean Moons
  • Jupiter's Ganymede
  • Jupiter's Europa
  • Jupiter's Callisto
  • Jupiter's Io
  • Volcanoes on Io
  • Saturn
  • Cassini Mission to Saturn
  • Saturn's Titan
  • Saturn's Enceladus
  • The Discoveries of Uranus and Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Uranus' Miranda
  • Neptune
  • Neptune's Triton
  • Pluto
  • The Discovery of Pluto
  • Pluto as a Dwarf Planet
  • Dwarf Planets
  • Questions

Chapter 8
Interplanetary Bodies

  • Interplanetary Bodies
  • Comets
  • Early Observations of Comets
  • Structure of the Comet Nucleus
  • Comet Chemistry
  • Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt
  • Kuiper Belt
  • Comet Orbits
  • Life Story of Comets
  • The Largest Kuiper Belt Objects
  • Meteors and Meteor Showers
  • Gravitational Perturbations
  • Asteroids
  • Surveys for Earth Crossing Asteroids
  • Asteroid Shapes
  • Composition of Asteroids
  • Introduction to Meteorites
  • Origin of Meteorites
  • Types of Meteorites
  • The Tunguska Event
  • The Threat from Space
  • Probability and Impacts
  • Impact on Jupiter
  • Interplanetary Opportunity
  • Questions

Chapter 9
How Planetary Systems Form

  • Formation of the Solar System
  • Early History of the Solar System
  • Conservation of Angular Momentum
  • Angular Momentum in a Collapsing Cloud
  • Helmholtz Contraction
  • Safronov and Planet Formation
  • Collapse of the Solar Nebula
  • Why the Solar System Collapsed
  • From Planetesimals to Planets
  • Accretion and Solar System Bodies
  • Differentiation
  • Planetary Magnetic Fields
  • The Origin of Satellites
  • Solar System Debris and Formation
  • Gradual Evolution and a Few Catastrophies
  • Chaos and Determinism
  • Extrasolar Planets
  • Discoveries of Extrasolar Planets
  • Doppler Detection of Extrasolar Planets
  • Transit Detection of Extrasolar Planets
  • The Kepler Mission
  • Direct Detection of Extrasolar Planets
  • Properties of Extrasolar Planets
  • Implications of Extrasolar Planet Surveys
  • Future Detection of Extrasolar Planets
  • Questions

Chapter 10
Detecting Radiation from Space

  • Observing the Universe
  • Radiation and the Universe
  • The Nature of Light
  • The Electromagnetic Spectrum
  • Properties of Waves
  • Waves and Particles
  • How Radiation Travels
  • Properties of Electromagnetic Radiation
  • The Doppler Effect
  • Invisible Radiation
  • Thermal Spectra
  • The Quantum Theory
  • The Uncertainty Principle
  • Spectral Lines
  • Emission Lines and Bands
  • Absorption and Emission Spectra
  • Kirchoff's Laws
  • Astronomical Detection of Radiation
  • The Telescope
  • Optical Telescopes
  • Optical Detectors
  • Adaptive Optics
  • Image Processing
  • Digital Information
  • Radio Telescopes
  • Telescopes in Space
  • Hubble Space Telescope
  • Interferometry
  • Collecting Area and Resolution
  • Frontier Observatories
  • Questions

Chapter 11
Our Sun: The Nearest Star

  • The Sun
  • The Nearest Star
  • Properties of the Sun
  • Kelvin and the Sun's Age
  • The Sun's Composition
  • Energy From Atomic Nuclei
  • Mass-Energy Conversion
  • Examples of Mass-Energy Conversion
  • Energy From Nuclear Fission
  • Energy From Nuclear Fusion
  • Nuclear Reactions in the Sun
  • The Sun's Interior
  • Energy Flow in the Sun
  • Collisions and Opacity
  • Solar Neutrinos
  • Solar Oscillations
  • The Sun's Atmosphere
  • Solar Chromosphere and Corona
  • Sunspots
  • The Solar Cycle
  • The Solar Wind
  • Effects of the Sun on the Earth
  • Cosmic Energy Sources
  • Questions

Chapter 12
Properties of Stars

  • Stars
  • Star Names
  • Star Properties
  • The Distance to Stars
  • Apparent Brightness
  • Absolute Brightness
  • Measuring Star Distances
  • Stellar Parallax
  • Spectra of Stars
  • Spectral Classification
  • Temperature and Spectral Class
  • Stellar Composition
  • Stellar Motion
  • Stellar Luminosity
  • The Size of Stars
  • Stefan-Boltzmann Law
  • Stellar Mass
  • Hydrostatic Equilibrium
  • Stellar Classification
  • The Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram
  • Volume and Brightness Selected Samples
  • Stars of Different Sizes
  • Understanding the Main Sequence
  • Stellar Structure
  • Stellar Evolution
  • Questions

Chapter 13
Star Birth and Death

  • Star Birth and Death
  • Understanding Star Birth and Death
  • Cosmic Abundance of Elements
  • Star Formation
  • Molecular Clouds
  • Young Stars
  • T Tauri Stars
  • Mass Limits for Stars
  • Brown Dwarfs
  • Young Star Clusters
  • Cauldron of the Elements
  • Main Sequence Stars
  • Nuclear Reactions in Main Sequence Stars
  • Main Sequence Lifetimes
  • Evolved Stars
  • Cycles of Star Life and Death
  • The Creation of Heavy Elements
  • Red Giants
  • Horizontal Branch and Asymptotic Giant Branch Stars
  • Variable Stars
  • Magnetic Stars
  • Stellar Mass Loss
  • White Dwarfs
  • Supernovae
  • Seeing the Death of a Star
  • Supernova 1987A
  • Neutron Stars and Pulsars
  • Special Theory of Relativity
  • General Theory of Relativity
  • Black Holes
  • Properties of Black Holes
  • Questions

Chapter 14
The Milky Way

  • The Distribution of Stars in Space
  • Stellar Companions
  • Binary Star Systems
  • Binary and Multiple Stars
  • Mass Transfer in Binaries
  • Binaries and Stellar Mass
  • Nova and Supernova
  • Exotic Binary Systems
  • Gamma Ray Bursts
  • How Multiple Stars Form
  • Environments of Stars
  • The Interstellar Medium
  • Effects of Interstellar Material on Starlight
  • Structure of the Interstellar Medium
  • Dust Extinction and Reddening
  • Groups of Stars
  • Open Star Clusters
  • Globular Star Clusters
  • Distances to Groups of Stars
  • Ages of Groups of Stars
  • Layout of the Milky Way
  • William Herschel
  • Isotropy and Anisotropy
  • Mapping the Milky Way
  • Questions

Chapter 15
Galaxies

  • The Milky Way Galaxy
  • Mapping the Galaxy Disk
  • Spiral Structure in Galaxies
  • Mass of the Milky Way
  • Dark Matter in the Milky Way
  • Galaxy Mass
  • The Galactic Center
  • Black Hole in the Galactic Center
  • Stellar Populations
  • Formation of the Milky Way
  • Galaxies
  • The Shapley-Curtis Debate
  • Edwin Hubble
  • Distances to Galaxies
  • Classifying Galaxies
  • Spiral Galaxies
  • Elliptical Galaxies
  • Lenticular Galaxies
  • Dwarf and Irregular Galaxies
  • Overview of Galaxy Structures
  • The Local Group
  • Light Travel Time
  • Galaxy Size and Luminosity
  • Mass to Light Ratios
  • Dark Matter in Galaxies
  • Gravity of Many Bodies
  • Galaxy Evolution
  • Galaxy Interactions
  • Galaxy Formation
  • Questions

Chapter 16
The Expanding Universe

  • Galaxy Redshifts
  • The Expanding Universe
  • Cosmological Redshifts
  • The Hubble Relation
  • Relating Redshift and Distance
  • Galaxy Distance Indicators
  • Size and Age of the Universe
  • The Hubble Constant
  • Large Scale Structure
  • Galaxy Clustering
  • Clusters of Galaxies
  • Overview of Large Scale Structure
  • Dark Matter on the Largest Scales
  • The Most Distant Galaxies
  • Black Holes in Nearby Galaxies
  • Active Galaxies
  • Radio Galaxies
  • The Discovery of Quasars
  • Quasars
  • Gravitational Lensing
  • Properties of Quasars
  • The Quasar Power Source
  • Quasars as Probes of the Universe
  • Star Formation History of the Universe
  • Expansion History of the Universe
  • Questions

Chapter 17
Cosmology

  • Cosmology
  • Early Cosmologies
  • Relativity and Cosmology
  • The Big Bang Model
  • The Cosmological Principle
  • Universal Expansion
  • Cosmic Nucleosynthesis
  • Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
  • Discovery of the Microwave Background Radiation
  • Measuring Space Curvature
  • Cosmic Evolution
  • Evolution of Structure
  • Mean Cosmic Density
  • Critical Density
  • Dark Matter and Dark Energy
  • Age of the Universe
  • Precision Cosmology
  • Future of Astronomical Sources
  • Fate of the Universe
  • Alternatives to the Big Bang Model
  • Space-Time
  • Particles and Radiation
  • The Very Early Universe
  • Mass and Energy in the Early Universe
  • Matter and Antimatter
  • The Forces of Nature
  • Fine-Tuning in Cosmology
  • The Anthropic Principle in Cosmology
  • String Theory and Cosmology
  • The Multiverse
  • The Limits of Knowledge
  • Questions

Chapter 18
Life On Earth

  • Nature of Life
  • Chemistry of Life
  • Molecules of Life
  • The Origin of Life on Earth
  • Origin of Complex Molecules
  • Miller-Urey Experiment
  • Pre-RNA World
  • RNA World
  • From Molecules to Cells
  • Metabolism
  • Anaerobes
  • Extremophiles
  • Thermophiles
  • Psychrophiles
  • Xerophiles
  • Halophiles
  • Barophiles
  • Acidophiles
  • Alkaliphiles
  • Radiation Resistant Biology
  • Importance of Water for Life
  • Hydrothermal Systems
  • Silicon versus Carbon
  • DNA and Heredity
  • Life as Digital Information
  • Synthetic Biology
  • Life in a Computer
  • Natural Selection
  • Tree Of Life
  • Evolution and Intelligence
  • Culture and Technology
  • The Gaia Hypothesis
  • Life and the Cosmic Environment

Chapter 19
Life in the Universe

  • Life in the Universe
  • Astrobiology
  • Life Beyond Earth
  • Sites for Life
  • Complex Molecules in Space
  • Life in the Solar System
  • Lowell and Canals on Mars
  • Implications of Life on Mars
  • Extreme Environments in the Solar System
  • Rare Earth Hypothesis
  • Are We Alone?
  • Unidentified Flying Objects or UFOs
  • The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
  • The Drake Equation
  • The History of SETI
  • Recent SETI Projects
  • Recognizing a Message
  • The Best Way to Communicate
  • The Fermi Question
  • The Anthropic Principle
  • Where Are They?

Ptolemy and the Geocentric Model


Scientists of the 1500s and 1600s inherited a model of the universe whose basic features had been defined by Aristotle 2,000 years earlier. The idea was simple. Earth was stationary at the center and the Sun, Moon, and other planets all moved around Earth. Each object was fixed to a spinning crystalline sphere. The stars were all fixed to an outermost sphere and were also carried around the Earth in circular orbits. Rest was the natural state of any object, so a mysterious power was required to keep the celestial bodies in motion. Medieval people pictured the whole universe as a set of concentric spherical shells centered on Earth. The "Terra immobilis" is in the center, surrounded by shells of water, air, and fire, with those surrounded in turn by shells that carried the Moon, Sun, planets, and finally the distant stars. This cozy arrangement fits with the powerful idea that humans were at the center of creation.


A simple illustration showing the basic elements of Ptolemaic astronomy. It shows a planet rotating on an epicycle which is itself rotating around a deferent inside a crystalline sphere. The center of the system is marked with an X, and the Earth is slightly off of the center. Opposite the Earth is the equant point, which is what the planetary deferent would actually rotate around. Distances have been exaggerated, as has the simplicity, for the purposes of illustration.

However, the Ptolemy's most successful realization of the Greek model was anything but simple. Motion seen from the center of a circular orbit is uniform. Yet it was known that the planets do not move among the stars at a constant rate. To account for this Ptolemy was forced to hypothesize that the center of the motion was displaced from the Earth, like the eccentric motion of a wheel when the hub is not at the center. Also, it was known that some planets can reverse their steady eastward motions among the stars — a phenomenon called retrograde motion. The Ptolemaic model, therefore, required the planets not only to move in circles around Earth but also to move along smaller circles, called epicycles, around imaginary points along the main circular orbits. Mercury and Venus are never seen far from the Sun so they have a special status in Ptolemy's model. Their epicycle centers must lie on the line connecting the Earth and Sun. The Greeks had used geometry to estimate the distance to the stars as at least a million miles. Therefore the outermost crystalline sphere had to be whirring around at over a million mile per hour!

How good was the Ptolemaic model? Note that we do not call it a theory because it has no physical explanation for how and why the planets move the way they do. Ptolemy himself never claimed that it represented reality, only that it provided a convenient mathematical description to predict the planet positions. Initially, the predictions were accurate to one or two arc minutes (this is about as good as the resolution of the human eye). But the eccentric motions adopted by Ptolemy were just approximations to the true motions of the planets and over the centuries the errors began to accumulate. A small error in a calendar will also accumulate into a serious problem over a span of centuries. By the 13th century, the predictions of the model could be off by as much as one or two degrees, several times the angular diameter of the Moon. Astronomers had to make increasingly complicated adjustments to the model in order to get correct answers. They even had to add tiny epicycles onto the larger epicycles. In 1252, Spain's King Alfonso X funded a special almanac of predicted planetary positions. Watching his astronomers laboriously calculate motions of epicycles upon epicycles, he commented that had he been present at the creation, he could have suggested a simpler arrangement.

This idea of looking for simpler arrangement has become a key element in the scientific method. As early as 1340, the English scholar William of Occam proposed the famous idea that among competing theories, the best theory is usually the simplest theory — that is, the one with the fewest assumptions or the fewest quantities that have to be combined to make a prediction. This principle is known as Occam's razor. Are the simplest and most elegant theories always correct? Or is the belief that the universe is simple merely a human conceit? You can judge for yourself as you study the subject of astronomy.


Author: Chris Impey