History of the Center of the Universe

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Figure of the heavenly bodies — An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), depicting Earth as the centre of the universe.

The center of the Universe is a concept that lacks a coherent definition within modern astronomy; according to standard cosmological theories on the shape of the Universe, it has no center.

Historically, the center of the Universe had been believed to be a number of locations. Many mythological cosmologies included an axis mundi, the central axis of a flat Earth that connects the Earth, heavens, and other realms together. In the 4th century BCE Greece, the geocentric model was developed based on astronomical observation, proposing that the center of the Universe lies at the center of a spherical, stationary Earth, around which the sun, moon, planets, and stars rotate. With the development of the heliocentric model by Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century, the sun was believed to be the center of the Universe, with the planets (including Earth) and stars orbiting around it.

In the early 20th century, the discovery of other galaxies and the development of the Big Bang theory led to the development of cosmological models of a homogeneous, isotropic Universe (which lacks a central point) that is expanding at all points.


Outside of astronomy[edit]

Mount Hermon in Lebanon was regarded in some cultures as the axis mundi.
A 1581 map depicting Jerusalem as the center of the world.

In religion or mythology, the axis mundi (also cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar, columna cerului, center of the world) is a point described as the center of the world, the connection between it and Heaven, or both.

Mount Hermon was regarded as the axis mundi in Caananite tradition, from where the sons of God are introduced descending in 1 Enoch (1En6:6).[1] The ancient Greeks regarded several sites as places of earth's omphalos (navel) stone, notably the oracle at Delphi, while still maintaining a belief in a cosmic world tree and in Mount Olympus as the abode of the gods. Judaism has the Temple Mount and Mount Sinai, Christianity has the Mount of Olives and Calvary, Islam has Mecca, said to be the place on earth that was created first, and the Temple Mount (Dome of the Rock). In Shinto, the Ise Shrine is the omphalos. In addition to the Kun Lun Mountains, where it is believed the peach tree of immortality is located, the Chinese folk religion recognizes four other specific mountains as pillars of the world.

Sacred places constitute world centers (omphalos) with the altar or place of prayer as the axis. Altars, incense sticks, candles and torches form the axis by sending a column of smoke, and prayer, toward heaven. The architecture of sacred places often reflects this role. "Every temple or palace--and by extension, every sacred city or royal residence--is a Sacred Mountain, thus becoming a Centre."[2] The stupa of Hinduism, and later Buddhism, reflects Mount Meru. Cathedrals are laid out in the form of a cross, with the vertical bar representing the union of earth and heaven as the horizontal bars represent union of people to one another, with the altar at the intersection. Pagoda structures in Asian temples take the form of a stairway linking earth and heaven. A steeple in a church or a minaret in a mosque also serve as connections of earth and heaven. Structures such as the maypole, derived from the Saxons' Irminsul, and the totem pole among indigenous peoples of the Americas also represent world axes. The calumet, or sacred pipe, represents a column of smoke (the soul) rising form a world center.[3] A mandala creates a world center within the boundaries of its two-dimensional space analogous to that created in three-dimensional space by a shrine.[4]

In medieval times some Christians thought of Jerusalem as the center of the world (Latin: umbilicus mundi, Greek: Omphalos), and was so represented in the so-called T and O maps. Byzantine hymns speak of the Cross being "planted in the center of the earth.

Center of a flat Earth[edit]

The Flammarion engraving (1888) depicts a traveller who arrives at the edge of a Flat Earth and sticks his head through the firmament.

The Flat Earth model is a belief that the Earth's shape is a plane or disk covered by a firmament contain heavenly bodies.

Most pre-scientific cultures have had conceptions of a Flat Earth.[5][6]

"Center" is well-defined in a flat earth model. A flat earth would have a definite geographic center. There would also be a unique point at the exact center of a spherical firmament (or a firmament that was a half-sphere).

The Flat Earth model gave way to an understanding of the Spherical Earth. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) provided observational arguments supporting the idea of a spherical Earth, namely that different stars are visible in different locations, travelers going south see southern constellations rise higher above the horizon, and the shadow of Earth on the Moon during a lunar eclipse is round, and spheres cast circular shadows while discs generally do not.

Eratosthenes (276–194 BCE) estimated the spherical Earth's circumference by measuring the different angles cast by shadows in different locations. He had heard that in Syene the sun was directly overhead at the summer solstice whereas in Alexandria the sun cast a shadow. Using the angles the shadows made as the basis of his trigonometric calculations, Eratosthenes obtained a relatively accurate estimated the size of the Spherical Earth.

Earth as the center of the universe[edit]

In astronomy, the geocentric model (also known as geocentrism or the Ptolemaic system), is the superseded theory that the Earth is the center of the universe, and that all other objects orbit around it. This geocentric model served as the predominant cosmological system in many ancient civilizations such as ancient Greece. As such, most Ancient Greek philosophers assumed that the Sun, Moon, stars, and naked eye planets circled the Earth, including the noteworthy systems of Aristotle (see Aristotelian physics) and Ptolemy.[7]

On 7 January 1610 Galileo observed with his telescope what he described at the time as "three fixed stars, totally invisible[8] by their smallness", all close to Jupiter, and lying on a straight line through it.[9] Observations on subsequent nights showed that the positions of these "stars" relative to Jupiter were changing in a way that would have been inexplicable if they had really been fixed stars. On 10 January Galileo noted that one of them had disappeared, an observation which he attributed to its being hidden behind Jupiter. Within a few days he concluded that they were orbiting Jupiter:[10] He had discovered three of Jupiter's four largest satellites (moons). He discovered the fourth on 13 January.

His observations of the satellites of Jupiter created a revolution in astronomy: a planet with smaller planets orbiting it did not conform to the principles of Aristotelian Cosmology, which held that all heavenly bodies should circle the Earth,[11] and many astronomers and philosophers initially refused to believe that Galileo could have discovered such a thing.[12]

Sun as center of the universe[edit]

The heliocentric model from Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium

Heliocentrism, or heliocentricism,[13] is the astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around a relatively stationary Sun at the center of our Solar System. The word comes from the Greek (ἥλιος helios "sun" and κέντρον kentron "center"). Historically, heliocentrism was opposed to geocentrism, which placed the Earth at the center. The notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun had been proposed as early as the 3rd century BC by Aristarchus of Samos,[14] but had received no support from most other ancient astronomers.

Archaic theories of Heliocenterism held that the Sun itself was the center of the entire universe. As it is modernly understood, Heliocenterism refers to the much narrower concept that the sun is the center of the Solar System, not the center of the entire universe.

Newton made clear his heliocentric view of the solar system – developed in a somewhat modern way, because already in the mid-1680s he recognised the "deviation of the Sun" from the centre of gravity of the solar system.[15] For Newton, it was not precisely the centre of the Sun or any other body that could be considered at rest, but rather "the common centre of gravity of the Earth, the Sun and all the Planets is to be esteem'd the Centre of the World", and this centre of gravity "either is at rest or moves uniformly forward in a right line" (Newton adopted the "at rest" alternative in view of common consent that the centre, wherever it was, was at rest).[16]

In 1750 Thomas Wright, in his work An original theory or new hypothesis of the Universe, correctly speculated that the Milky Way might be a rotating body of a huge number of stars held together by gravitational forces, akin to the solar system but on a much larger scale. The resulting disk of stars can be seen as a band on the sky from our perspective inside the disk.[17] In a treatise in 1755, Immanuel Kant elaborated on Wright's idea about the structure of the Milky Way.

Milky Way's galactic center as center of the universe[edit]

Great Andromeda Nebula by Isaac Roberts (1899)

The Galactic Center is the rotational center of the Milky Way galaxy.

In 1917, Heber Doust Curtis observed a nova within the "Andromeda Nebula". Searching the photographic record, 11 more novae were discovered. Curtis noticed that novas in Andromeda were drastically fainter than novas in the Milky Way. Based on this, Curtis was able to estimate that Andromeda was 500,000 light-years away. As a result, Curtis became a proponent of the so-called "island universes" hypothesis, which held that spiral nebulae were actually independent galaxies.[18]

In 1920, the Great Debate between Harlow Shapley and Curtis took place, concerning the nature of the Milky Way, spiral nebulae, and the dimensions of the universe. To support his claim that the Great Andromeda Nebula (M31) was an external galaxy, Curtis also noted the appearance of dark lanes resembling the dust clouds in our own Galaxy, as well as the significant Doppler shift. In 1922 Ernst Öpik presented a very elegant and simple astrophysical method to estimate the distance of M31. His result put the Andromeda Nebula far outside our Galaxy at a distance of about 450,000 parsec, which is about 1,500,000 ly.[19] Edwin Hubble settled the debate in 1925 when he identified extragalactic Cepheid variable stars for the first time on astronomical photos of M31. These were made using the 2.5 metre (100 in) Hooker telescope, and they enabled the distance of Great Andromeda Nebula to be determined. His measurement demonstrated conclusively that this feature was not a cluster of stars and gas within our Galaxy, but an entirely separate galaxy located a significant distance from our own.[20]

The nonexistence of a center of the universe[edit]

The Copernican principle, named after Nicolaus Copernicus, states that the Earth is not in a central, specially favored position.[21] Hermann Bondi named the principle after Copernicus in the mid-20th century, although the principle itself dates back to the 16th-17th century paradigm shift away from the Ptolemaic system, which placed Earth at the center of the Universe.

The cosmological principle is an extension of the Copernican principle which states that the universe is homogeneous (the same observational evidence is available to observers at different locations in the universe) and isotropic (the same observational evidence is available by looking in any direction in the universe). A homogeneous, isotropic universe does not have a center.[22]

The shape of the universe[edit]

The "intergalactic starship" is a thought experiment that is used to explain the concept of "shape of the universe". (It is not actually believed to be possible under modern understandings of physics.)[clarification needed]

Supposed an immortal observer left Earth and traveled off into space, traveling continuously in a perfectly straight line. There are two main possibilities for what that observer might experience: The observer could experience an infinitely-novel voyage, never seeing the same place twice, or the observer could, despite traveling in a straight line, eventually return to a place that they had previously visited.

By analogy, consider a person on the surface the earth trying to decide between a flat earth and a spherical earth. In the flat earth model, if they travel indefinitely in a straight line, they would never retrace their steps. In a spherical earth model, a person traveling in a "straight" line would eventually return to a place they have visited before.

An infinite flat universe[edit]

If the imaginary "intergalactic starship" could travel forever in a straight line without visiting the same place twice, that would be consistent with a universe that is infinitely large, perfectly flat, and homogenous. In an infinitely large universe, there is no "center point", just as there is no "center number" between 1 and infinity. In a perfectly flat universe, parallel 'straight lines' never intersect, so there would be no single point that could be called a geometric center. In a homogenous universe, matter is distributed roughly uniformly through all parts of the universe. In such a universe, there is no center of mass.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kelley Coblentz Bautch (25 September 2003). A Study of the Geography of 1 Enoch 17-19: "no One Has Seen what I Have Seen". BRILL. pp. 62–. ISBN 9789004131033. Retrieved 28 June 2011. 
  2. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Willard Trask). 'Archetypes and Repetition' in The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton, 1971. p.12
  3. ^ Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. Editions Robert Lafont S. A. et Editions Jupiter: Paris, 1982. Penguin Books: London, 1996. pp.148-149
  4. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. p.52-54
  5. ^ Footnote: including Greece until the classical period, the Bronze Age and Iron Age civilizations of the Near East until the Hellenistic period, India until the Gupta period (early centuries AD) and China until the 17th century.[citation needed] It was also typically held in the aboriginal cultures of the Americas, and a flat Earth domed by the firmament in the shape of an inverted bowl is common in pre-scientific societies.
  6. ^ "Their cosmography as far as we know anything about it was practically of one type up til the time of the white man's arrival upon the scene. That of the Borneo Dayaks may furnish us with some idea of it. 'They consider the Earth to be a flat surface, whilst the heavens are a dome, a kind of glass shade which covers the Earth and comes in contact with it at the horizon.'" Lucien Levy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality (repr. Boston: Beacon, 1966) 353; "The usual primitive conception of the world's form ... [is] flat and round below and surmounted above by a solid firmament in the shape of an inverted bowl." H. B. Alexander, The Mythology of All Races 10: North American (repr. New York: Cooper Square, 1964) 249.
  7. ^ Lawson, Russell M. (2004). Science in the ancient world: an encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 29–30. ISBN 1851095349. Retrieved 2 October 2009. 
  8. ^ i.e., invisible to the naked eye.
  9. ^ Drake (1978, p.146).
  10. ^ In Sidereus Nuncius (Favaro,1892, 3:81(Latin)) Galileo stated that he had reached this conclusion on 11 January. Drake (1978, p.152), however, after studying unpublished manuscript records of Galileo's observations, concluded that he did not do so until 15 January.
  11. ^ Linton (2004, pp. 98,205), Drake (1978, p.157).
  12. ^ Drake (1978, p.158–68), Sharratt (1994, pp. 18–19).
  13. ^ Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science (National Academy of Sciences, 1998), p.27; also, Don O' Leary, Roman Catholicism and Modern Science: A History (Continuum Books, 2006), p.5.
  14. ^ Dreyer (1953), pp.135–48); Linton (2004), pp.38–9). The work of Aristarchus's in which he proposed his heliocentric system has not survived. We only know of it now from a brief passage in Archimedes's The Sand Reckoner.
  15. ^ See Curtis Wilson, "The Newtonian achievement in astronomy", pages 233–274 in R Taton & C Wilson (eds) (1989) The General History of Astronomy, Volume, 2A', at page 233.
  16. ^ Text quotations are from 1729 translation of Newton's Principia, Book 3 (1729 vol.2) at pages 232–233.
  17. ^ Evans, J. C. (1995). "Our Galaxy". Retrieved 25 April 2012. 
  18. ^ Curtis, H. D. (1988). "Novae in Spiral Nebulae and the Island Universe Theory". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 100: 6. Bibcode:1988PASP..100....6C. doi:10.1086/132128. 
  19. ^ Öpik, E. (1922). "An estimate of the distance of the Andromeda Nebula". Astrophysical Journal 55: 406–410. Bibcode:1922ApJ....55..406O. doi:10.1086/142680. 
  20. ^ Hubble, E. P. (1929). "A spiral nebula as a stellar system, Messier 31". Astrophysical Journal 69: 103–158. Bibcode:1929ApJ....69..103H. doi:10.1086/143167. 
  21. ^ H. Bondi (1952). Cosmology. Cambridge University Press. p. 13. 
  22. ^ Livio, Mario (2001). The Accelerating Universe: Infinite Expansion, the Cosmological Constant, and the Beauty of the Cosmos. John Wiley and Sons. p. 53. Retrieved 31 March 2012.