(Submitted February 18, 1998)
My question for you is this: Throughout the better part of the 20th
century people have always believed that the earth remained stationary.
I would like to know who the first person was to prove that the earth
does in fact spin around its axis, and by what means did he/she use to
come to this conclusion. Was it a tangible experiment?
Thank you for contacting our Ask an Astrophysicist service. It has
been generally accepted that the earth is not stationary for hundreds of
I suppose the first tangible proof that the earth rotates was provided by
Jean-Bernard-Leon Foucault in the nineteenth century. He found that if a long
pendulum with a heavy bob was set swinging, the plane in which it was
swinging would appear to rotate.
The plane of a Foucault pendulum only rotates with a period equal to
the Earth's sidereal period (23hrs 56min) at the poles. At lower latitudes,
the period is (23h 56m)/sin(latitude), and at the equator, the plane doesn't
rotate at all.
There is no reason why the pendulum's plane should rotate. It just
appears to rotate because the ground under it is rotating. If you do a
web search on "Foucault pendulum" or "Foucault's Pendulum" you should find
lots of links.
Variations in gravity due to centrifugal force have been measurable for
some time. There is also the subtle Sagnac effect (now the principle of
operation of optical gyroscopes) that causes a phase difference in light
moving in opposite directions along the components of a path parallel to
the direction of rotation. Specs for the Canterbury Ring Laser based on
this principle are described in
Some commentators attempt to find some contradiction of Einstein's
predictions here; but in fact it is a general relativistic effect due to
the rotation frame of reference, which is precisely why it is evidence in
situ that the Earth rotates.
We won't discuss what astronauts have seen, because that might be a matter
of perspective... but the equatorial bulge of the Earth, and the measured
Doppler shifts from opposite sides of spiral galaxies and various disks
viewed edge on certainly provide strong evidence that other things in the
universe rotate. We could in principle measure such a Doppler shift of the
Earth from space, using lasers... at least from the Moon.
Damian Audley, Mark Kowitt, Eric Christian, John Cannizzo and Kevin Boyce
for Ask an Astrophysicist