A Source Book in Greek Science

Author: Claudius Ptolemy

The Absolute Immobility of the Earth1

Ptolemy, Almagest I. 7. Translation of T. L. Heath, Greek Astronomy

In the same way as before it can be proved that the earth cannot make any movement whatever in the aforesaid oblique direction, or ever change its position at all from its place at the centre; for the same results would, in that case, have followed as if it had happened to be placed elsewhere than at the centre. So I, for one, think it is gratuitous for any one to inquire into the causes of the motion towards the centre when once the fact that the earth occupies the middle place in the universe, and that all weights move towards it, is made so patent by the observed phenomena themselves. The ground for this conviction which is readiest to hand, seeing that the earth has been proved to be spherical and situated in the middle of the universe, is this simple fact: in all parts of the earth without exception the tendencies and the motions of bodies which have weight—I mean their own proper motions—always and everywhere operate at right angles to the (tangent) plane drawn evenly through the point of contact where the object falls.2 That this is so makes it also clear that, if the objects were not stopped by the surface of the earth, they would absolutely reach the centre itself, since the straight line leading to the centre is always at right angles to the tangent-plane to the sphere drawn through the intersection at the point of contact.

All who think it strange that such an immense mass as that of the earth should neither move itself nor be carried somewhere seem to me to look to their own personal experience, and not to the special character of the universe, and to go wrong through regarding the two things as analogous. They would not, I fancy, think the fact in question to be strange if they could realize that the earth, great as it is, is nevertheless, when compared with the enclosing body,1 in the relation of a point to that body. For in this way it will seem to be quite possible that a body relatively so small should be dominated and pressed upon with equal and similarly directed force on all sides by the absolutely greatest body formed of like constituents, there being no up and down in the universe any more than one would think of such things in an ordinary sphere. So far as the composite objects in the universe, and their motion on their own account and in their own nature are concerned, those objects which are light, being composed of fine particles, fly towards the outside, that is, towards the circumference, though their impulse seems to be towards what is for individuals "up," because with all of us what is over our heads, and is also called "up," points towards the bounding surface; but all things which are heavy, being composed of denser particles, are carried towards the middle, that is, to the centre, though they seem to fall "down," because, again, with all of us the place at our feet, called "down," itself points towards the centre of the earth, and they naturally settle in a position about the centre, under the action of mutual resistance and pressure which is equal and similar from all directions. Thus it is easy to conceive that the whole solid mass of the earth is of huge size in comparison with the things that are carried down to it, and that the earth remains unaffected by the impact of the quite small weights (falling on it), seeing that these fall from all sides alike, and the earth welcomes, as it were, what falls and joins it. But, of course, if as a whole it had had a common motion, one and the same with that of the weights, it would, as it was carried down, have got ahead of every other falling body, in virtue of its enormous excess of size, and the animals and all separate weights would have been left behind floating on the air, while the earth, for its part, at its great speed, would have fallen completely out of the universe itself. But indeed this sort of suggestion has only to be thought of in order to be seen to be utterly ridiculous.

Certain thinkers,2 though they have nothing to oppose to the above arguments, have concocted a scheme which they consider more acceptable, and they think that no evidence can be brought against them if they suggest for the sake of argument that the heaven is motionless, but that the earth rotates about one and the same axis from west to east, completing one revolution approximately every day, or alternatively that both the heaven and the earth have a rotation of a certain amount, whatever it is, about the same axis, as we said, but such as to maintain their relative situations.

These persons forget however that, while, so far as appearances in the stellar world are concerned, there might, perhaps, be no objection to this theory in the simpler form, yet, to judge by the conditions affecting ourselves and those in the air about us, such a hypothesis must be seen to be quite ridiculous. Suppose we could concede to them such an unnatural thing as that the most rarefied and lightest things either do not move at all or do not move differently from those of the opposite character—when it is clear as day that things in the air and less rarefied have swifter motions than any bodies of more earthy character—and that (we could further concede that) the densest and heaviest things could have a movement of their own so swift and uniform—when earthy bodies admittedly sometimes do not readily respond even to motion communicated to them by other things yet they must admit that the rotation of the earth would be more violent than any whatever of the movements which take place about it, if it made in such a short time such a colossal turn back to the same position again, that everything not actually standing on the earth must have seemed to make one and the same movement always in the contrary sense to the earth, and clouds and any of the things that fly or can be thrown could never be seen travelling towards the east, because the earth would always be anticipating them all and forestalling their motion towards the east, insomuch that everything else would seem to recede towards the west and the parts which the earth would be leaving behind it.

For, even if they should maintain that the air is carried round with the earth in the same way and at the same speed, nevertheless the solid bodies in it would always have appeared to be left behind in the motion of the earth and air together, or, even if the solid bodies themselves were, so to speak, attached to the air and carried round with it, they could no longer have appeared either to move forwards or to be left behind, but would always have seemed to stand still, and never, even when flying or being thrown, to make any excursion or change their position, although we so clearly see all these things happening, just as if no slowness or swiftness whatever accrued to them in consequence of the earth not being stationary.1

1 Comparison of the account given here with the passage from Aristotle (p. 143) will indicate that the basic view of the universe is the same in both the Aristotelian and the Ptolemaic or Hipparchan systems, despite the difference in the method of resolving geometrically the motions of the heavenly bodies. [Edd.]

2 Cf. p. 146. [Edd.]

1 I.e., the boundary of the universe. [Edd.]

2 E.g., Heraclides of Pontus (p. 105). [Edd.]

1 With the apparatus available to him Ptolemy could not observe deviations due to the earth’s rotation. Modern ballistics, of course, takes account of them. [Edd.]


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Chicago: Claudius Ptolemy, "The Absolute Immobility of the Earth," A Source Book in Greek Science, trans. T. L. Heath in A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. Morris R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 125–127. Original Sources, accessed February 20, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=P4FIRYS4T3XQ8PT.

MLA: Ptolemy, Claudius. "The Absolute Immobility of the Earth." A Source Book in Greek Science, translted by T. L. Heath, Vol. I, in A Source Book in Greek Science, edited by Morris R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1948, pp. 125–127. Original Sources. 20 Feb. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=P4FIRYS4T3XQ8PT.

Harvard: Ptolemy, C, 'The Absolute Immobility of the Earth' in A Source Book in Greek Science, trans. . cited in 1948, A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.125–127. Original Sources, retrieved 20 February 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=P4FIRYS4T3XQ8PT.