Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Triumph of Science over science

February the 17th, 2017 marks the 417th anniversary of the death of Giordano Bruno. I know that many of my ardent readers are still trying to get over that.

Giordano Bruno's rather angelic looking Senior picture

Aristotle taught that the Earth is the center of the Universe. His proclamation cemented this idea into Western thought for almost 2,000 years. This is just one of the many examples of things that Aristotle said that mere observation would readily demonstrate to be just flat out wrong. Aristotle did lower-case science by decree. His attitude was that if reality disagrees with what he says, then reality is wrong.

Giordano Bruno challenged the idea of geocentricity (Earth being the center of all things) by proclaiming the heretical notion that the Earth travels around the Sun, rather than the other way around. He also proclaimed that the stars are just Suns like our own, but are just really darn far away. And (get this) Bruno said that those distant suns might have planets of their own, complete with living beings.

His challenge to conventional thought didn’t go over so well. He was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600.

My attempts at marketing BBQ sauce have not proven successful

If Pew or Gallup were to do a poll asking people about Bruno, I’m gonna take a wild guess that most people would identify him as a pro wrestling promoter. Even if one were to restrict the poll to the scientifical and intellectual cream of the crop (which is to say, those people who regularly read my blog posts) I am gonna take another wild guess that a pretty small percentage would recognize the name Giordano Bruno. Yes, even the seven of you dear readers who have read more than one of my blogposts might say “who?”

But I should add that Bruno does have a crater on the Moon named after him. Kind of a small consolation what with his untimely death and all. I doubt if I ever get that honor. But if I do, I promise to look surprised.

Giordano Bruno, the lunar pimple

Some historians of science see Bruno as a martyr to the cause of Science. Perhaps he was killed for refusing to recant his beliefs about the universe?  But, perhaps not. I didn’t mention that he said quite a few nasty things about religion. More pointedly, he questioned some of the core beliefs of Christianity. The tamest of these was that the Bible is all about morals and stuff like that, and shouldn’t be treated like a textbook on astronomy. I’m not gonna get into all the other stuff that rankled the leaders of the church. Suffice it to say that his pontifications on religion were likely enough for the Inquisitors to get out their book of matches.

I think that explanation for his martyrdom is quite likely, but I’m going to make a different argument about why I don’t think Bruno was a martyr for Science. I argue that what he did wasn't Science. Bruno had some brilliant hypotheses that were way ahead of his time, but he didn’t do a lot of testing of those hypotheses. Testing of hypotheses is at the crux of Science. 


Bruno was not the first person to talk about the Earth revolving around the Sun. Artistarhcus of Samos proposed this in 270 BC. An astronomer from India by the name of Aryabhata claimed this around 400 AD. The first person in “modern” times to make such a claim was Nicholas of Cusa in the early 1400’s. This time period was the start of the Renaissance, when people started questioning the dogma that Aristotle had left us with. (Note the forming of a theme here concerning Artistotle.)

Show of hands… Who remembers Aristarchus or Aryvhata? Anyone? Who remembers sending out Nicholas-of-Cusa-Day cards? He was the guy who updated the Alfonsine astronomical tables? Yeah, I didn’t think you remembered him either.

This is not one of the Alfonsine Tables

How about another Nick… Nicolaus Copernicus? Ahhh… now I am seeing some name recognition. I think a lot of people who paid attention in Science class will at least vaguely remember the name. Something to do with the Solar System and planets and stuff? Yup. That’s the guy. A few people reading this may actually remember some self-proclaimed math guy who blogged about Copernicus.

Copernicus was a true Scientist, with a capital S. Aristotle and Giordano Bruno and Nicholas of Cusa? They were all scientists of the lower case variety. They were pontificators. They had an interest in Science, and pontificated about it. They had great intuition. With the exception of Aristotle, their intuition often proved correct. (Yet another subtle jab at Aristotle.)

But they weren’t capital S Scientists in that they didn’t follow the scientific method. They got the first part of the method: observe some junk and hypothesize about an explanation. Then they went forth and pontificated on their hypotheses. That might be lower case s science, but it’s not upper case S Science.

Copernicus took it to the next step. He also pondered on the possibility of a Solar System with the Sun at the center, but he went out and found data. In this case, it was largely data about the positions of the planets that was consolidated a zillion years ago by Ptolemy. Copernicus demonstrated in his posthumous book (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, 1543) that “the Earth and the Planets travel around the Sun, and the Moon travels around the Earth” provided a simple explanation that fit the data.

This was how Science is supposed to work. It's all about data and hypothesis testing. When observations contradict a theory, the theory doesn't get all defensive and call the data a loser. The theory is rejected. And when a hypothesis arises that is simpler but provides as good of an explanation of the data, the older hypothesis is moved to the side. 

By the way, Copernicus also has his own crater on the Moon and one on Mars. Two heavenly spots for vacation homes.

Copernicus' summer home is the large complex in the center of the crater

As a side note… I have a big pile of files on my computer that contain books that I almost finished writing, one of which is a history of science. In order to find what I had previously written about Copernicus, I used a program to search my computer that is ironically named Copernic. True story. Good program, by the way.

A few more Scientists

It can also be said that Ptolemy (around 200 AD) did some Science. He started with a hypothesis, Aristotle’s geocentric universe, collected a lot of data, and found a mathematical explanation of the data. This is the way Science is supposed to work.

But much to the detriment of Western thought, Ptolemy went through gyrations (quite literally Spirographic gyrations) to describe the various motions in terms of Aristotle’s geocentric universe. He built an overly complicated model based on the assumption that Aristotle's tweets about the Universe were infallible, but I would still argue that Ptolemy was doing capital S Science, what with all the hypothesis testing and real data stuff.

Ptolemy's explanation of the course of the planets 

(I want to point something out here, just to make sure I haven’t been too subtle. Aristotle is the bad guy in this blog post. I also heard that he has small hands.)

Galileo also did capital S Science. You will likely remember Galileo for doing a bunch of stuff with pendulums and rolling balls down inclines. You might also remember that bit about when his press agent told everyone that he leaned over and dropped some balls onto a tower of pizzas. Don't always believe press agents! But I want to point out some Science of his that did not get as much press.

Galileo had heard of Copernicus’ work. He was taken by the idea of a heliocentric solar system. When he came upon the first telescope in 1609, he anxiously built one, and pointed it to the skies to look for evidence. He used the telescope to observe many things that the Roman Catholic church did not want to hear: the moon has craters (and was not perfect), the Sun had spots (and was not perfect), the planet Venus has phases (so it must rotate around the Sun), and Jupiter has bodies revolving around it (rather than all bodies revolving around the Earth). These ideas all went against the accepted doctrine of the time.

This was capital S Science, where observational data trumps hypotheses.

All great Scientists have beards. I have a beard. Draw your own false syllogisms.

And by golly, did the whole Inquisition crowd get ticked off when Galileo published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems! Galileo wasn’t invited to a barbecue like Bruno was, but he was put under permanent house arrest. I am happy to report that the Catholic church quickly reversed this. It took them a mere 325 years to pardon Galileo.

Ironically, this guy who discovered the craters on the Moon -- Galileo -- doesn’t have a single crater named after him. All the rest of his gang got one. The injustice! All he got was "a large, dark surface feature" on Ganymede, one of Jupiter's moons. If ever there was an example of Stigler's law of eponymy, Galileo's craters are it.

Johannes Kepler is another guy who did capital S Science. He looked at data on the positions of Mars and deduced that the orbit of Mars around the Sun is elliptical. He also developed some laws regarding the speed thatplanets move around the Sun. Data and theory going hand-in-hand. Capital S Sceince.

Does Kepler have a lunar crater to call his own? Ya, you betcha. And the obligatory second one on Mars, and then gobs of other stuff in outer space.

How about Isaac Newton? No question about it, he did some capital S Science, in a large and bolded font. Newton took Kepler’s laws and had the Greatest Synthesis of All Science – he determined that Kepler’s laws were a consequence of the inverse square law of gravity, and vice versa. In other words, a simple rule about the relationship between distance and gravity replaced Ptolemy's Spirograph set as an explanation of how the celestial bodies move. And he invented calculus just to figger that out! Data begets a simple theory to explain a whole lotta stuff. Science don’t get no better’n that.

Newton got a crater on the Moon, and also one on Mars, just like Copernicus and Kepler. It's a shame though, that he didn't get a few asteroids and exo-planets. Newton doesn't even have is very own disambiguation page on Wikipedia like Kepler.

The triumph

This story has a happy ending. In the end, Science has triumphed over some smarty-pants guy who spouted off about a lot of bogus stuff that he just made up. Granted, it wasn't so happy along the way for some of the courageous people who challenged alternative facts with gosh darn real facts. But in the end, we wound up with Science that truly explains how the world really is. And there are no craters (that I know of) that are named after Aristotle.

Let us hope that we have the wisdom to let facts and data guide our course in the future.

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