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400 years ago today. Heliocentrism took a knock.

March 26, 2016


A place for everything and everything in its place.   You knew where you were in a Ptolemaic Universe.  But, oh no, a bunch of trendy young people who thought they knew better than their parents had to change everything and confuse the old folk.

Well, 400 years ago today, good old fashioned geocentrism got a bit of a respite as it was communicated to Galileo Galilei that he was to henceforth cease and desist from promulgating the notion that the earth goes round the sun.

Today also makes me think of Thomas Kuhn of course, and the nature of scientific revolutions.  Kuhn took a lot of flack himself of course (though nothing compared to Galileo or Bruno), and he was accused of encouraging the notion that science is no better than cultural relativism.  Kuhn did not mean any thing of the kind of course, though some of his clumsier supporters didn’t help.  All Kuhn was trying to suggest is that it’s actually very difficult to “think out of the box”.  Perhaps we can’t think without boxes.  Perhaps data itself is impossible to define or contain without a box to put it in.

There comes a sort of tipping point.  In the field of astronomy, the tipping point is sometimes literal as orreries can no longer stand upright under the weight of all those brass rings denoting compensatory epicycles.

We’re doing no disservice to those martyrs of science if we also try to reconnect with a sense of just how desperately people clung to geocentrism.  Not all geocentrists were foaming religious maniacs desperate to incinerate the heterodox.  Most geocentrists simply needed a sense of themselves in the universe and could not imagine a different shaped box for their thoughts about Divine purpose.  Indeed, if we sneer too hard at people who are unable to think outside the box, then we’ll fail to discern the frontiers of the boxes we inhabit and cherish.

March 26 was a bad day for Galileo Galilei, but apparently everything was handled very politely.  And Galileo had a sensible concern for his own skin.   He lived long enough (just) to meet John Milton, which must have been one of the more interesting meetings of the seventeenth century.




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