408 years ago today, Galileo’s discovery changed our understanding of the solar system forever. His astronomical observations irrefutably confirmed the hypothesis formulated by Copernicus 100 years earlier that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system. This was an Earth-shattering discovery.
Between 7th and 13th January 1610, Galileo discovered and observed the four Moons orbiting Jupiter and put the nail in the coffin of 2000 years of Aristotelian cosmology.
The overweening Roman Catholic regard for Aristotlian authority held up Christian theology and scientific progress for a long time. The mold was broken by the 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Europe.
Copernicus was persuaded by Rheticus, a mathematician from the new Lutheran University of Wittenberg, where Luther introduced the European Reformation, to publish his early thoughts on the Sun being at the centre of the solar system. Reluctantly, because of fears of papal reprisals, he finally published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, his 70th year and the year of his death.
Copernicus was not the first with this hypothesis, and Aristarchus of Samos in Greece, living in the third century BC, is usually credited with being the first to advance the opinion that the Earth orbits the Sun, although extant Sumerian clay tablets show a heliocentric solar system at a much earlier date. Copernicus knew about Aristarchus’ opinion but it is difficult to prove if he was dependent upon him for the idea or not. At least, Copernicus is credited with popularising and breaking the paradigm in European thought, just as Martin Luther broke through the religious paradigm in Roman Catholic Europe at the same time.
In the medieval world, Aristarchus’s Heliocentrism was not well-known—just as in our day biblical teaching is not well-known. Long before Aristarchus of Samos, the prophet Isaiah in the 8th century BC told us that:
‘God sits above the circle of the Earth, Who stretches out the heavens as a curtain and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in’ Isa 40:22.
As far as written records can inform us, most people believed in terra firma in ancient times, that the Earth was fixed and immovable. Upon such an opinion the geocentric hypothesis had been developed and held sway for thousands of years.
One may wonder nowadays why intelligent people could not see that the heavens were not turning but that the Earth was turning. Possibly they did – but the significant point is who wrote it down? Possibly Isaiah did, and he was probably not alone in thinking so. It is common for people who are unfamiliar with the Bible to think that the ancient Hebrews were an unscientific people. In fact, the most scientific book in the Bible is its oldest book, the book of Job, which is based in the Mesopotamian civilisation where the Babylonians were intimately involved in mathematics and astronomy and followed the Sumerian civilisation, where a heliocentric model was known. The Hebrews were not themselves involved in astronomy, which was often associated with false religion in those times, but this did not mean that they were ignorant and unscientific. The Hebrews had the book of Job as part of their Scriptures and had their own views of the natural heavens. Possibly Isaiah and his contemporaries understood that the Earth was revolving, and not the visible heavens.
Some academics know so little about the Bible, its teaching and its history that they repeat the academic mantra that Herodotus is ‘the father of history’. As he lived in the 5th century BC, during whose lifetime the Hebrew Old Testament was being completed, this title suggests to the popular mind that the biblical narratives are not history, which is indeed the poorly informed opinion of some academics. However, this story will need to wait for another blogpost.