The Copernican Revolution

A set of computer simulations and curricular materials for teaching the history of astronomy from Ancient Greece to Isaac Newton.


Todd Timberlake
Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy
Berry College
Mount Berry, GA

[Overview] [Projects] [Simulations] [Activities and Labs] [Textbook] [Credits] [Terms of Use] [Presentations]


This page contains curricular materials that I have developed for a course on the Copernican Revolution. The course is intended to satisfy a science requirement for non-science majors. The course explores the historical development of astronomy from the Ancient Greeks to Isaac Newton. The main purpose of the course is to use early modern astronomy as an example for illustrating how scientific theories are developed and tested and how scientific knowledge changes over time.

I teach the course using interactive methods. Students work in small groups to complete worksheet-based activities. Most of the activities involve using computer simulations. Some of the activities make use of free planetarium software (Stellarium). Most activities use computer simulations that I have created using the Easy Java Simulations (EJS) package. These simulations are part of the Open-Source Physics (OSP) project and are available for free using the links below, along with all of the worksheets for the activities. Interested faculty may also be able to get a pre-publication version of a textbook for this course.

For a more detailed description of the course see You can also download my most recent course syllabus.


The course is primarily built around several individual student projects. The projects give students the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the course. Projects focus on tracking the sun, observing planetary motions, constructing Ptolemaic and Copernican solar system models based on observational data, using Kepler's laws to predict the motion of a comet, and examining arguments for and against the Copernican theory. All but the last of the projects are based on simulated observations that students make from a planet in a fictitious solar system. Students must take what they have learned about our solar system and apply it to understanding their new home planet and its environs. Each student (up to 30 students) receives two individualized computer simulations that they use to make the required observations (one for the motion of the Sun, another for the motion of the planets). The observational data they collect is then used to construct models of the solar system and answer various other questions. The individualized simulations are available below.

Individualized Simulations

Project Handouts, Etc.

The list below provides links to the handouts and grading rubrics (if available), data files (in MS Excel format), and a listing of the relevant activities and labs, for each project.

Computer Simulations

The computer simulations come packaged in the form of a single Java executable file (JAR file). The programs should run on any computer with Java 1.5 (or newer) installed. All of the simulations were created using Easy Java Simulations (EJS) and are open-source, so you are free to alter and redistribute them (but please see the Terms of Use before doing so). You are free to use the simulations any way you wish, but I have developed a series of worksheet-based activities that use the simulations (as well as some commercial software and some physical equipment) guide students through an exploration of this material. The worksheets are available below.

Activities and Labs

The table below contains a list of topics (arranged into 7 groups) that students explore in my Copernican Revolution course. For each topic I provide a link for downloading the corresponding worksheet (in pdf format), a list of the simulations related to that topic (all simulations are contained within the CopernicanRevolution.jar package linked above), and a list of any other materials needed to complete the activity. The worksheets designated with "(A)" are activities designed to be used in a single 75 minute class period (with some time left over for a short lecture review). The worksheets designated with "(L)" are laboratory exercises designed to be used in a single 120 minute laboratory period. Ideally these materials should be used in the order in which they are listed, but there is some flexibility (especially with some of the labs).

You are free to use (and even change) the worksheets, but please see the Terms of Use before doing so. If you wish to edit the worksheets, and you know how to use LaTeX (or are willing to learn), you can download a package containing all the .tex files and other necessary files (images, etc.) for all of the worksheet. To download this package click the link below: (2.9 MB).

If you would like to edit the worksheets but need them in a different format please email me ( and I may be able to accommodate you.

Please watch out for typos and other errors in these handouts. I cannot guarantee that they are without flaws - but the handouts posted here are all materials that I have used in my own class. Please work carefully through the exercises yourself before you give them to your students!

Group Topic Worksheet Simulations Other Materials
Science The Game of Science (A) none none Game of Science Materials
Observations The Dome of the Sky (A) 2SkyDome.pdf Stellarium none
Motion of the Sun (A) 3SunMotion.pdf Stellarium none
The Celestial Globe (L) lab1_cglobe.pdf LocalCoordinates, EquatorialCoordinates, CelestialGlobe a celestial globe
The Zodiac and Precession (A) 4TheZodiac.pdf Stellarium, CelestialGlobe none
Shadows and Gnomons (L) lab2-shadows.pdf Gnomon none
Two Sphere Universe (A) 5TwoSphere.pdf Stellarium none
Eratosthenes Measures the Earth (L) lab4-eratosthenes.pdf AngularSize, Stellarium, Eratosthenes none
The Moon (A) 6TheMoon.pdf Stellarium none
Phases and Eclipses (L) lab2-moon.pdf MoonPhases, SolarLunarEclipse nighttime observations
The Planets (A) 7ThePlanets.pdf Stellarium none
Ancient Greeks Aristotle's Physics (A) 8AristotlePhysics.pdf none steel ball, graduated cylinder, pennies, book
Spheres of Eudoxus (A) 9Eudoxus.pdf SpheresOfEudoxus, SuperiorPtolemaic, InferiorPtolemaic none
Ptolemy's Syntaxis (A) 10Ptolemy.pdf Eccentric, EpicycleEccentric, Equant, SuperiorPtolemaic, InferiorPtolemaic none
Ptolemy's Universe (L) lab5-ptolemy.pdf SuperiorPtolemaic, InferiorPtolemaic none
Copernicus Motions of the Earth (A) 11EarthMoves.pdf DailyRotation, EarthOrbit none
Copernicus' Theory of the Planets (A) 12CopernicusPlanets.pdf CopernicanSystem none
The Scale of the Universe (A) 13ScaleOfUniverse.pdf CopernicanSystem, EarthOrbit none
Tycho The Tychonic System (A) 14TychoSystem.pdf CopernicanSystem, PtolemyCopernicusTycho none
Parallax (L) lab6_parallax.pdf Parallax2D, Stellarium none
Size of Stars (L) lab7_starsize.pdf none none
The Comet of 1577 (A) 15TychoComet.pdf none Starry Night or other commercial software that shows comets
Kepler Kepler's Mysterium (A) 16Mysterium.pdf MysteriumCosmographicum2D, MysteriumCosmographicum3D shapes for building Platonic solids
The Species Motrix (A) 17SpeciesMotrix.pdf KeplerAstronomiaNovaOrbits, SpeciesMotrix, KeplerInertia none
Earth's Orbit: Kepler's Second Law (A) 18EarthOrbit.pdf SecondLawCircle compass, straight edge
Mars' Orbit: Kepler's First Law (A) 19MarsAttack.pdf KeplerAstronomiaNovaOrbits none
Harmonices Mundi (A) 20HarmonicesMundi.pdf none none
Kepler's Laws (L) lab7_kepler.pdf KeplerSystem ruler
Galileo Sunspots and Solar Rotation (L) lab8_sunspots.pdf GalileoSunspots ruler
Message of the Stars (A) 21SideriusNuncius.pdf GalileoMoonMountain, VenusPhases none
Falling Bodies (A) 22FallingBodies.pdf InclinedPlane lead ball, wood ball
The Moons of Jupiter (L) lab9_jupitermoons.pdf Revolution of the Moons of Jupiter CLEA program none
Neutral Motions (A) 23NeutralMotions.pdf InclinedPlane, ProjectileMotion none
Freefall: Aristotle vs. Galileo (L) lab10_freefall.pdf none Free Fall apparatus (Pasco, Cenco, etc)
Newton Newton's Laws of Motion (A) 24NewtonsLaws.pdf CorollaryOne none
Centripetal Forces (A) 25CentralForces.pdf CentripetalForce, InverseSquare none
Universal Gravitation (A) 26UniversalGravitation.pdf NewtonsMountain none


Paul Wallace and I have written a textbook for the Copernican Revolution course that we have taught at Berry College. Although the textbook is not yet ready for publication, interested college faculty or high school teachers may be able to obtain a pre-publication version of the text for review and possible use in a college or high school astronomy course. Please contact Todd Timberlake ( if you are interested in receiving an electronic copy of the textbook for review.


Terms of Use

All of the materials on this page are available free of charge. Feel free to download the materials and explore them with no obligation whatsoever. However, if you use any of these materials in a class please contact me ( to let me know. I would like to receive feedback on the simulations and the worksheets (especially if you find an error!) and I would like to keep track of where they are being used. If you make any modifications of the simulations or worksheets I would like to know about it (if you made it better then I want to use your improved version!).

The Java programs in the CopernicanRevolution.jar package are Open Source Physics (OSP) programs that were created using Easy Java Simulations (EJS) and are freely distributable under the GNU GPL license. For more information about the Open Source Physics project visit

Creative Commons License
All of the curricular materials (including the narratives in the Launcher package) are copyrighted by Todd Timberlake and/or Paul Wallace and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. You may modify and redistribute these materials for non-commercial use as long as you clearly cite the original author (Todd Timberlake for all simulations materials and the activity handouts, Paul Wallace and Todd Timberlake for the lab handouts) and release the materials under the same license.

Presentations On This Material

I have given a few presentations on this material and the links below provide access to my presentation materials.

Todd K. Timberlake (