"In the Middle Ages, people still believed that the earth was a disk. Scientists who claimed otherwise came into conflict with the church" – This statement is heard again and again, and even in schools it is sometimes taught that the astronomer Copernicus rebelled against the world view of the church with his theory that the earth was round. In fact, in the Middle Ages, only a few people believed in the model of the Earth as a disk. Even the church was convinced that the earth was spherical. How did this popular myth come about, and what is it about Copernicus’ research, which completely contradicted the world view of that time??
Only very few people in the Middle Ages believed that the earth was a disc. (source: Wikipedia)
The image of the earth as a disk was widespread in early cultures, for example among the ancient Egyptians thousands of years ago. In their imagination, the earth consisted of three levels: In the underworld were the deceased, in the middle lived the people of this world – above this lay the heavenly "place of the gods". The people at that time were afraid that one could speak of the "end of the world" could plunge into the underworld. By observations of the earth and the universe however with the time fewer and fewer humans believed in the disk-shaped model of the earth.
Especially among the ancient Greeks, many scholars came to the conclusion that the earth must have a round shape. Aristotle, for example, who in 4. The Greek, who lived in the sixth century before Christ, derived this from the observation that the mast was always the first thing visible on the horizon when ships approached – regardless of which direction they came from. In addition, he noticed that during a lunar eclipse, a circular shadow appeared on the moon. During a lunar eclipse the earth is always exactly between the moon and the sun, the three celestial bodies are thereby on a line. If the earth had the shape of a disc, it could not cast a round shadow on the moon. Aristotle was convinced that the earth must be spherical. Even among the clergy of the Middle Ages – such as the theologian Thomas Aquinas – the idea of a globe was already widespread.
How did it come to the myth of the "backward" earth? Middle Ages?
Also wrong is the today widespread assumption, Christopher Columbus would have delivered 1492 with its discovery journey to America the proof for the model of the terrestrial globe. (Source: Library of Congress )
Also wrong is the widespread assumption that Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery to America in 1492 would have contributed decisively to the clarification that the earth is spherical. In order to deliver a sure proof in this way, he would have had to circumnavigate the world completely. For the first time this succeeded the Portuguese navigator Fernando Magellan in 16. Century. However, hardly anyone believed that the earth was a disk even in Columbus’ time – certainly not the scholars.
The fact that the idea of the disk-shaped Earth would have been prevalent in the Middle Ages was disseminated only subsequently. There are different starting points for the origin of this popular myth. It is assumed that the assertion was made around the middle of the 19th century. This theory was put into the world at the end of the 18th century in order to make the strongly ecclesiastically influenced Middle Ages as particularly "hostile to science", "primitive" and "superstitious to let appear. The scientifically oriented "enlightened age was considered to be "far superior" and "highly educated presented.
The church at that time was already convinced of the model of the spherical earth, but in fact rejected many scientific theories and findings. Some researchers whose teachings contradicted the Church’s view were persecuted and punished.
What was the groundbreaking theory of Copernicus?
Copernicus searched for proofs for his assumption that not the globe but the sun was in the center of the earth. However, this theory was already more than 1000 years old at that time.
Even in the late Middle Ages, people still believed in the approximately 1.500 years old world view of the Greek Ptolemy, according to which the earth represented the center of the universe – and all other planets circled around it. The astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who was born in 1473 in the Polish city of Thorn, searched for proof for his assumption that not the earth, but the sun was in the center of the planetary system.
However, this thesis did not come from Copernicus, but already existed: The Greek mathematician Aristarchus of Samos, with whose records Copernicus was occupied, had already come to the assumption more than 1000 years before that the sun stood in the center and the planets circled around it. Copernicus saw in the results of his own investigations and calculations confirmed that the planets moved in circular orbits around the sun. The eminent astronomer, however, feared that his research would be met with scorn from other scholars and rejection from the church, and initiated only a few people into his groundbreaking studies of the solar system.
From "blasphemy to the decisive insight of the enlightened world
The title page of Galileo’s work "Dialogue on the two world systems" represents a discussion between Aristotle, Ptolemy and Copernicus. (source: Wikipedia )
The famous scientist Galileo Galilei, who lived from 1564 to 1642, continued the research of Copernicus and provided the world with physical evidence for the orbital movements of the Earth. At first he believed to be able to convince also the church of his sensational researches. However, the doctrine of earth movement has been called "absurd" and "erroneous was called and considered "blasphemy". Galileo was forced to renounce his convictions and was put under arrest for life.
Johannes Kepler found in the 17. The correct mathematical model for Copernicus’"new worldview" in the seventeenth century. The British scientist Isaac Newton (1643-1727) provided the final proof of Copernicus’ theory with the law of gravity.
Galileo, by the way, was not rehabilitated by the Vatican until 1992. This means that the Church officially restored his prestige, which it had stripped from him more than 350 years ago because of his teachings on the solar system.
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