Kepler's move from orbs to Orbits: Documenting a revolutionary scientific concept

Bernard R. Goldstein, Giora Hon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study of the concept of orbit is intended to throw light on the nature of revolutionary concepts in science. We observe that Kepler transformed theoretical astronomy that was understood in terms of orbs [Latin: orbes] (spherical shells to which the planets were attached) and models (called hypotheses at the time), by introducing a single term, orbit [Latin: orbita], that is, the path of a planet in space resulting from the action of physical causes expressed in laws of nature. To demonstrate the claim that orbit is a revolutionary concept we pursue three lines of argument. First we trace the origin of the term; second, we document its development and specify the meaning of the novel term as it was introduced into astronomy by Kepler in his Astronomia nova (1609). Finally, in order to establish in what sense the concept is revolutionary, we pay attention to the enduring impact that the concept has had on the relevant sciences, in this case astronomy and indeed physics. We claim that orbit is an instance of a revolutionary concept whose provenance and use can provide the insights we are seeking.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)74-111
Number of pages38
JournalPerspectives on Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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