The Science of Existence (18-1) History

Our solar system closely resembles other observable planetary systems within our galaxy. ~ Dutch astronomer Martin Bizzarro

For millennia, most humans thought themselves at the center of the universe: the Earth stationary, while celestial bodies moved through the sky. Ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos first speculated that the Earth orbited the Sun.

As Christianity became the dominant European religion, church authorities estimated Earth’s age by counting the number of generations since Adam made his appearance in the biblical book of Genesis. The answer: Earth got its start between 4000–7000 bce.

Then there was the issue of Earth being the center of the universe. The Catholic Church had no doubt of it (faith and doubt being antithetical). Looking into the heavens with a more open mind led to a different conclusion.

1,800 years after Aristarchus, Copernicus developed his heliocentric system in 1513, with the Earth revolving about the Sun. Given what was not known at the time, the Copernican notion seemed ridiculous.

The size of the Earth was known. Nothing could explain the power it would take to make such a massive orb move.

Conversely, the motion of celestial bodies was easily explained. They were stirred by swirling aether, a substance not found on Earth. No less an authority than Aristotle had stated such in the 4th century bce, and Aristotle was esteemed by the Church at this time.

What Copernicus proposed had profound implications for the size of the cosmos, and even of individual stars.

Stars look to have fixed widths. Both ancient Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy and Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had measured them with their naked eyes.

Knowing nothing about optics or the nature of light, stars under the Copernican conception would be absurdly enormous, and the girth of the universe unimaginably ample.

Early supporters of Copernicus felt compelled to invoke God in his defense.

Grant the vastness of the Universe and the sizes of the stars to be as great as you like – these will still bear no proportion to the infinite Creator. ~ German mathematician and astronomer Christoph Rothmann in the late 16th century

The day soon came when God and Copernicus were not so aligned in the sights of Catholic authorities. Italian astronomer-mathematician Galileo Galilei was convicted of being “vehemently suspect of heresy” by the Catholic Church in 1633 for buying into Copernicus’ heliocentricity, forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Compared with others, he got off lightly.

The Catholic Church amassed quite a track record of solemn folly when it came to science. Into the 17th century, Christendom regarded fossils as images of God’s creation, put on Earth for man’s admiration: God the decorator; nice touch.


It was not until the 17th century that the mathematics of the planets orbiting the Sun were worked out. Isaac Newton mathematically described gravity from an everyday point of view. A couple of centuries later, Einstein suggested a radical view of gravity: as an entropic distortion rather than a fundamental force. Einstein’s gravitational theory changed astrophysics to a degree greater than Einstein himself was able to accept.