Objections to Copernicus: some were valid science objections.

This short article in Scientific American is very interesting (it is behind a paywall).

But this is the idea: it took science a long, long time to accept Copernicus’ heliocentric astronomy. True, Galileo saw the phases of Venus and the moons around Jupiter which blew conventional geocentric astronomy out of the water, but there was a “every planet except the earth orbits the sun” model which kept earth fixed.

Why the fixation on keeping the earth fixed? Yes, there were religious objections, but there were scientific objections as well:

1. The earth was known to be massive and scientists at the time knew that it was difficult to move heavy objects. What in the world could move something as massive as the earth?

2. Instruments of the time couldn’t detect stellar parallax. This meant that the stars were a huge distance away. But notice that the stars appear to have a measurable width to them; in fact they should be a “point” of light but that light is smeared out into a disk. At the time, this effect was NOT understood. Hence, a star that was so absurdly far away (as to not show parallax) that appeared to be that wide would have to be absurdly huge, even when compared to our sun.

How do you resolve these two “facts”: great distance and huge size?

Even when heliocentric astronomy became accepted, scientists admitted that there were other problems that cropped up; these problems were not to be resolved until much later.

So, the push-back against Copernican astronomy was NOT entirely religious; scientists of the day had reasonable objections to the theory, and defenders of the then-new theory resorted to….well…appeals to the supernatural and to philosophy to explain away the difficulties.


I admit that I cringed when I saw the title of the article and started to read it. Yes, it was a well written, very intelligent article. And yes, I’ll gladly recommend it to my smarter, more scientifically minded and interested friends. But….there is this…..

“SEE, Science is wrong all of the time!”

(uh, on the whole, science eventually gets it right….you are seeing this on a computer, aren’t you? )

“Hey, they laughed at Einstein”

(uh, as a unknown graduate student, Einstein got his work published in a top flight peer reviewed physics journal; in fact he got 4 of them. Where are your peer reviewed publications? Besides those who came up with the big new ideas are intellectual outliers who completely understood science and the then current theories. You are not one of those, and no, having a good SAT score, passing an undergraduate course or even getting a Ph. D. doesn’t make you that sort of outlier.)

“My ideas are new and radical”

(yes, and most non-mainstream ideas are completely wrong; it is just that we never hear about the vast majority of the wrong ones. What reason have you given for anyone to take the time to listen to you?).

Bottom line: established scientific ideas are sometimes overthrown or superseded or modified, but only rarely and only after a LOT of difficult checking and cross checking by a LOT of smart people ….and they find the new idea promising enough to give in a thorough examination.


January 7, 2014 - Posted by | astronomy, physics, science |

1 Comment »

  1. […] made me think of my post about Copernicus and the scientific objections to the Copernican theory of heliocentric […]

    Pingback by Tribalism, values, philosophy and what science you accept…. « blueollie | January 7, 2014 | Reply

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