Our Place in the Universe

How did you first picture the universe? Before being taught in school or at home what the universe was like, we often start to wonder about the world around us. This phase in a child’s life often leads to parents being questioned about almost everything. Questions range from why the sky is blue, why is candy unhealthy, how hot is the sun, to even how far the stars are. These questions are often formed because our young minds are attempting to make sense of the mysteries surrounding us. Today we are surrounded by technology and are able to observe the universe around us with incredible accuracy, allowing us to use science and reasoning to piece together how things work. We weren’t always so well equipped to answer these questions, but not having the right tools didn’t stop ancient thinkers from asking or trying to answer questions about the universe.

Ancient Greece is given a large amount of credit for starting what we call modern science. Ancient Greece is renowned for its philosopher, who were among the first to publicly try to understand how things work without using supernatural or religious ideas. The origin of Greek science is attributed to Thales, who believed that the universe was mostly water, and the Earth was a flat disk floating in an infinite ocean. This idea didn’t catch on, but it suggested that the universe was comprehensible. This likely motivated others after him to continue theorizing our place in the universe. Thales did, however, theorize and predict that a solar eclipse would occur. He did not give a prediction date, but his grasp on the universe was ahead of many around him.

The Greeks largely believed in the geocentric model, which means they thought the Earth was the center of the universe. The Earth being the center of everything played an integral role in Aristotle’s physics. When explaining how elements work, he used their behavior in relation to the Earth to explain their “natural motions.” This lead him to saying that Fire moved away from the Earth, earth returned to Earth, water naturally goes towards Earth, and air rises away from Earth.

A German artist’s interpretation of Aristotle’s ideas

Aristotle’s physics and the geocentric model was widely accepted for a hundreds of years until the Copernican Revolution. Copernicus, Tycho, and Kepler would all contribute to a more modern understanding of the universe and a transition from the geocentric model to the heliocentric model. The heliocentric model is what we use today, and places the Sun in the center of the solar system.

The left shows a heliocentric model while the right shows a geocentric one.

We haven’t always had the answers to questions like what is our place in the universe, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to reason and theorize answers. Even with all our modern day tools and techniques we still can’t answer every question we have. Topics like dark energy still puzzle us, leading to attempts to theorize and reason what it is or how it works. Maybe one day we’ll have the proper technology to observe it, and we will look back on contemporary theories the same way we look at Ancient Greek Philosophers today.

Published by fermifurby

Vanderbilt student currently in ASTR2110, excited to learn!

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