Ptolemy's Universe

Claudius Ptolemy explained the sky. He was an Egyptian who wrote in Greek in the Roman empire, in the time of emperors like Trajan and Hadrian. His most famous book was called by its Arabic translators the Almagest. He inherited a long ancient tradition of astronomical science going back to Mesopotamia, but he put his name and imprint on the most successful and so far longest-lived mathematical description of the working of the skies.

Ptolemy's geocentric universe is now known mainly as the thing that was rightly abandoned by Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein, in progressive waves of the advancement of modern science, but he deserves our deep admiration. Ptolemy's universe actually made sense. He knows the difference between planets and stars and he knows that the planets take some explaining. (The Greek word 'planet' means wanderer, to reflect ancient puzzlement that those bright lights moved according to no pattern that a shepherd or seaman could intuitively predict, unlikely the reassuringly confident annual march of Orion or the rotation of the great bears overhead.) So Ptolemy represents the heavenly machine in a complex mathematical system most notorious for its "epicycles"—the orbits within orbits, so to speak, by which the planets, while orbiting the earth, spun off their orbits in smaller circles that explained their seeming forward and backward motion in the night sky.

We should admire Ptolemy for many reasons, but chief among them is this: he did his job seriously and responsibly with the tools he had. Given what he knew, his system was brilliantly conceived, mathematically sound, and a huge advance over what had gone before. His observations were patient and careful and as complete as could be, his mathematical calculations correct. More, his mathematical system was a complicated as it needed to be and at the same time as simple as it could be, given what he had to work with. He was, in short, a real scientist. He set the standard.

It took a long time and there were some long arguments before astronomy could advance over what he offered—and that's a sign of his achievement. But when advance was possible, Ptolemy had made it impossible for advance to come through wishful thinking, witch doctors, or fantasy. His successors in the great age of modern astronomy had to play by his rules. They needed to observe more carefully, do their math with exacting care, and propose systems at the poise point of complexity and simplicity themselves. Ptolemy challenged the moderns to outdo him—and so they could and did. We owe him a lot.