Why do we believe the Earth goes round the Sun?

One week Sam’s history teacher is on a course and while she is away they have a supply teacher called Mr Carpenter. He is telling them about the Renaissance, and says “At the beginning of the 17th century everybody stopped believing that the Sun went round the Earth and started believing that the Earth went round the Sun.”

Katie asks “Why?”, but it is obvious from his reply that he really does not have a clue - children are not fools. Eventually Katie says “Why don’t you ask Sam?”

Actually Sam does not know - very few people living in the 21st century do. So he keeps his mouth shut. Mr Carpenter gets very angry and he shouts at both Katie and Sam. After School Sam comes to see me. He is still very upset, but I am able to tell him that Mr Carpenter has been asked not to come back. But then Sam does something that I had hoped he would not do: he repeats Katie’s question. But “Why did ordinary people start to believe that the Earth goes round the Sun, when everyone who has ever lived can actually watch the Sun going round the Earth, and why did it start to happen then?” is a question very seldom asked by 21st century people, adults or children, and even more seldom correctly answered. I tell him that it is not easy to explain in a way which a twelve year old child, particularly a 21st century child, can understand, you need a good knowledge of science and history and maths and human nature and lots of other things, and it’s a long story, but he just asks me to try.

He likes my explanation and and asks me to share it with his friends. If you like my explanation I would love to hear from you.

Astronomy after Copernicus is the answer to Sam’s question.

Mr Carpenter’s statement which sparked Katie’s question presents both the astronomers and the ordinary people who lived at any time before the 17th Century CE, before Galileo pointed his telescope at the sky, as ignorant people just waiting for the right person to enlighten them, and Galileo was the right person. But this is totally wrong!

A Note mainly for Parents and Teachers

Astronomy after Copernicus is my attempt to answer Sam’s very specific question about the behaviour of ordinary people during the seventeenth century, and are not therefore in any sense a History of Astronomy, only an explanation of how ordinary people came to their understanding of the Earth and Sun and Moon and Planets and Stars. For the same reason I do not mention any of the religious conflicts of the time, either between Christians and Moslems or between Catholics and Protestants or between the leaders of the Catholic Church and the followers of Copernicus. It is of course important that today’s children do learn about these things in their ordinary lessons, but what they are taught in these lessons comes nowhere near answering Sam’s question, a question which, as I have said earlier, is very seldom asked, even less frequently answered correctly, and never, to my knowledge, examined at anything less than university level.

Nor I have said anything about Australian, pre-Columbian American, sub-Sahara African, Polynesian and Maori astronomy, not because it did not exist before the “White Man” came but because it plays no part in the answer to Sam’s question. But they also built temples aligned to the solstices and equinoxes, and the Polynesians could navigate by the stars over huge distances of ocean, in fact they used the same word for astronomer and navigator! The Maya people of Mexico had a very advanced astronomical calendar and mathematical system, but the Spaniards who came after Columbus systematically destroyed it all because it was non-Christian.

Because of the nature of my target readership I have not included sources or references but I am happy to provide them on request.

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© Barry Gray November 2021