Posts Tagged ‘Copernicus’

In June 2012 I travelled to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia to observe the 2012 Transit of Venus, the last one until December 2117. But, my reason for wanting to see this event was not just because they are incredibly rare. It was also because of their historical importance. They provided the first reliable method astronomers had for measuring the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

Over the next several weeks I will blog the slides from a lecture I put together back in 2004 (when we also had a Transit), explaining how a Transit of Venus can be used to measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun. I also provide some of the historical background to early observations of transits, including the heroic efforts undertaken by scientists in the mid 1700s.

This is the first part of the lecture, taking us from early Geocentric models of the Solar System to Galileo’s evidence that the Sun (and not the Earth) was at the centre of the Solar System, and up to the first ever predicted Transit, which was in 1631, although as far as we know no-one observed it.

This is a lecture I gave in Mongolia the night before the June 2012 Transit of Venus, but it is based on a talk I gave to schools and the public in 2004.

This is a lecture I gave in Mongolia the night before the June 2012 Transit of Venus, but it is based on a talk I gave to schools and the public in 2004.


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A few weeks ago I showed a photograph an an Analemma. As the Analemma in the photograph was vertical, I explained that it must have been taken at midday. Here is the photograph again, just to remind you.

A Solar analemma. Because it is vertical, this analemma was taken at midday.

In part 1 of my series on the Analemma, I also explained how the North-South motion of the Sun in the photograph was due to the changing elevation of the Sun at midday. This is, of course, due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis, as explained in this video below.

But, what about the East-West (left-right) motion? What is this due to?

It turns out that the East-West motion is due to two effects. One is the same inclination of the Earth’s axis in its orbit around the Sun which produces the North-South variation in the Sun’s elevation at different times of the year. I will explain how this affects the East-West position of the Sun at midday in part 3 of this blog.

But, the second effect is unrelated to this, it has to do with the details of the Earth’s path around the Sun.

The Heliocentric Universe

When Copernicus suggesed in 1547 that the Earth and the other planets went around the Sun, he argued that they would do so in perfect circles. He was, in fact, not the first to suggest that the Sun and not the Earth was at the centre of things. Aristarchus had suggested the same thing in the 3rd Century B.C., but his work had been largely ignored in preference to the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, who firmly held that the Earth was the natural centre of all things.

Building on Aristotle’s Geocentric Universe model, the Greek-Roman astronomer Ptolemy developed a sophisticated model of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars orbiting the Earth. This model was incredibly successful, and able to predict the positions of the celestial objects to a good degree of accuracy for some 1500 years.

In Copernicus’ 16th Century model, the planets orbited the Sun in circles. In the latter part of the 16th Century, the greatest observational astronomer was a Danish man, Tycho Brahe. Brahe had his own Observatory and research institute, Uraniborg, on the Danish (now Swedish) island of Hven, with a Royal patronage to fund his observing programme.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601)

Brahe produced the most accurate observations of the planetary positions, and he found he got better agreement with Ptolemy’s geocentric model than he did with Copernicus’ heliocentric one. Towards the end of his career, a young mathematician by the name of Johannes Kepler came to work with him.

A very particular kind of curve

After Brahe’s death, Kepler set about seeing whether he could get a heliocentric model to agree with the observations. After over a decade of trial and error, he eventually found that, if he allowed the planets to move in ellipses rather than perfect circles, that very good agreement could be obtained. As Richard Feynman once said, “an ellipse is a very particular kind of curve”. To be more precise, it is the curve obtained when one passes a string about two drawing pins (“thumb tacks” as Americans call them) and draws the ensuing locus of points.

How to draw an ellipse

Kepler’s 2nd law states that a planet will “sweep out equal areas in equal times” in its orbit. What this means is that it will speed up when near the Sun (perihelion) and slow down when further from the Sun (aphelion).

Part of the East-West motion of the Sun in the Analemma is due to Kepler’s 2nd law, the fact that the Earth changes its speed of orbit as it goes around the Sun. The Earth moves quicker when it is closer to the Sun (perihelion), and slower when it is further from the Sun (aphelion). Kepler did not know why this happens, but it is a natural consequence of Newton’s law of gravity.

A mean Solar day

How do we measure the length of the day? It seems like a simple question. Surely, the answer is that it is the time it takes for the Earth to turn once on its axis. This is, in fact, the wrong answer. The time it takes for the Earth turn once on its axis is the sidereal day, and this is not how we measure our day. Why? The diagram below explains it.

The Earth has to turn a little bit extra for the Sun to cross the local meridian. We call this the Solar day. The sidereal day is the time for the Earth to rotate 360 degrees.

Because the Earth moves about the Sun in its orbit, the Earth has to rotate a little bit extra for the Sun to cross the local meridian on two successive occasions. This is how we define 24 hours, the solar day. But, there is an additional complication; because the Earth’s speed of orbit changes, the extra angle the Earth needs to turn to bring the Sun back over the meridian also changes. As the Earth approaches perihelion (closer to the Sun), it speeds up and so moves through a larger angle each 24 hours than when it is further from the Sun.

Of course, we cannot keep changing the length of the day, we fix it at 24 hours, which is what we call the mean solar day. This is the midday our watches will show. But, near perihelion, the Earth has to turn that little bit extra as I’ve explained, so when our watches say it is midday the Sun will still be to the East of the local meridian. So, if we were taking a photograph of where the Sun was at midday as shown by our watches, the Sun would have shifted eastwards of the mid-point.

The opposite effect happens near aphelion, when the Earth is moving more slowly in its orbit. This time, the Earth moves slightly less in 24 hours than it does in other parts of its orbit, and so the Earth does not have to turn through such a large angle to bring the Sun back over the local meridian. When our watch says midday, the Sun will have gone past the local meridian, and be to the West of it.

Hopefully, this now explains why there should be some East-West motion in the Solar Analemma. However, it turns out that there is a second effect which also causes an East-West motion, the tilt of the Earth’s axis in its orbit. I will explain this component and how it affects things in part 3 of this series.

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