Great Errors of Great Minds – Geocentrism

Education is the pursuit of knowledge, but sometimes those seeking education can find knowledge that’s not only wrong, but sometimes even harmful.  In this series, we take a look at some of the leading beliefs of the learned minds of the past that turned out to be completely, utterly and even humorously, wrong.

For a learned and wise mind of the ancient world it all seemed so simple.  Gazing up at the heavens at night, astronomers, sages and laymen alike could clearly see the stars in their courses circling high, high above the world of men.  Even the mighty sun, whose light brought life to their crops moved from east to west. 
So it was that the belief in Geocentrism existed.  A theory and model of the universe that stated that the sun, stars, moon and other planetary bodies all orbited around the earth.  This was of course in marked opposition to the heliocentric model accepted almost exclusively nowadays where the earth orbits the sun.  But heliocentric theory is a relatively new idea that only began to gain adherents in the last few centuries.

Originating in ancient Greece, the beliefs behind Geocentrism came with the endorsement of influential figures such as Plato and Aristotle, which helped in no small part to build up credibility for the idea which would endure for millennia.  Indeed many early attempts to understand the nature of the heavens were built upon the works of ancient Greek scholars.
Geocentrism was further reinforced in the second century AD by the noted thinker Claudius Ptolemy, who developed a system, named after himself through his great work, the Almagest, which was the culmination of the observations and theories of known lands at the time.  It, and the Ptolemaic system it outlined, would become the defining understanding of astronomy in the Roman world, up into the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, these systems were unsuccessful in being able to determine exactly where the planets and stars were going to be or go on any given night with any accuracy.  But rather than seek alternative understandings as to why, exactly, the heavens didn’t seem to go by the rules, the wise men of the ages continued to press ahead with their old beliefs.  For example, the Maragha school of Islamic astronomy would, a thousand years after Ptolemy, attempt to correct the mistakes of the earlier systems.  Their new calculations would prove far superior for the locating and prediction of heavenly bodies, and their work would later be seen to resemble that of Copernicus. Yet they still operated from a position of geocentrism and never made the paradigm leap to accept a Heliocentric world view.

It was not until Nicolaus Copernicus, a polish Astronomer who challenged the existing system in 1543, that the Geocentric world view would meet its first challenge.   Though largely dismissed at the time, his work would inspire later astronomers, such as Galileo, who, with the newly invented telescope of the 17th century, sought to further develop the theories around Heliocentrism and would be subsequently denounced as a heretic by the powerful church of the time and forced to recant his claims.

Nevertheless, they would live on and, despite fierce resistance by those who believed in the existing system, further research by scientists and astronomers would vindicate fully the claims of the Heliocentrics such that today any discussion of a geocentric world view is generally met with scepticism if not ridicule.




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