Great misconceptions

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“Copernicus first demonstrated that the earth goes round the sun”

Very shortly before his death in AD 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus finally published his radical De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, outlining a heliocentric model for the solar system. A revolution, not just in astronomy but philosophy, was ushered in and his name went down in history. But he was not the first to understand that the earth went round the sun.

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In the original manuscripts for his book he makes mention of another more ancient tome, The Sand Reckoner by Archimedes, which itself contains a clue to the real father of heliocentrism. Archimedes himself was not impressed with the idea of a sun-centred solar system but he does mention in passing another book long since lost. In this he notes that a man called Aristarchus, in the third century BC, proposed that “the fixed stars and the sun remain unmoved, that the earth revolves about the sun on the circumference of a circle.”

Like Copernicus after him, Aristarchus was faced with a barrage of criticism for daring to remove the earth from its privileged position. Indeed Plutarch claimed that Cleanthes, who wrote an impassioned essay Against Aristarchus, asked for the astronomer to be charged with impiety, although we don’t know if he ever was. We do know that his idea never caught on and he had only one recorded follower in the ancient world.

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Even when Copernicus published De Revolutionibus, Aristarchus was once again denied. No mention of The Sand Reckoner or Aristarchus made it from the manuscripts to the final printed edition. And so it is perhaps ironic that Aristarchus is sometimes now referred to as the ‘Greek Copernicus’ when in fact it is Copernicus who should perhaps be referred to as the ‘Polish Aristarchus’.