Going Around In Elipses

Plymouth Sunrise, by Donna Eby

In the 4th century BCE, the Pythagoreans proposed a radical idea: the Earth was not stationary, but moving. In the 3rd century BCE, Aristarchus of Samos proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system: the sun as the center point, and the Earth moving around it in circles.

Ptolemy proposed a geocentric model, and he worked out the math to accompany it. It was a complex system, but was the predominant one for hundreds of years. This was the model incorporated into theology – humanity as the focus of all creation, living on the unmoving center of the entire creation.

Fast forward to the 1500’s, and Renaissance mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus proposes the Heliocentric Model once again. Then come Kepler and Galileo. Based on what is mathematically simpler and more elegant, Kepler proposes elliptical orbits rather than circular ones; Galileo comes along with supporting evidence seen through his telescope. In spite of theological objections and suppression, the geocentric model is eventually rejected. In spite of preconceived notions, observational data and advanced mathematics displace Earth from the center of all things to its current position: orbiter around a sun, and one planet among billions.

Humanity no longer inhabits the immovable center of creation, and the universe does not revolve around humanity’s home. Such displacement isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of a new perspective on a much larger reality – one that incorporates our particular species on our small planet without pretending it’s the only reason the entire cosmos came into being. As a species, it’s similar to the shift that children have when they realize that their parents had lives before and beyond their own.

What a wonderful, big idea: that the universe is about more than just one particular part, and that its mystery and majesty are not limited to human knowledge or imagination. God’s creation is not governed by human preference for circles rather than ellipses, but governed by its own internal structure.

I think going around in ellipses rather than living on an immovable focal point is endlessly interesting. I love the fact that I am a part of something so big, something that has made room for me and every other life form. Just because the world doesn’t revolve around any one of us doesn’t mean we aren’t valuable – it just means everyone else is valuable, too.

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