Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Harvard string theorist Lisa Randall is plugging her new book here (and also here and PBS Charlie Rose):
But I wanted to do more than just summarize the physics. The second important category of ideas I wanted to address has to do with the nature of science itself, and how active scientists go about advancing their field. ... The ideas that underlie science are critical to rational thinking in general and should be widely known ...

The underlying ideas here are the notions of “scale” such as energy or distance scales, and what it means to be right and wrong -— both themes that resonate in other topics I’ll later address. ...

The first section also expands on the nature of science, taking Galileo, whose work recently held its four hundredth birthday, as a departure point. Given my book’s title, I figured I also had to address the relation of religion and science (though that is not what the title really refers to).
It is embarrassing for a physicist to be lecturing us on "the nature of science itself" and "right and wrong", using Galileo as the prime example in his dispute with the Catholic Church over the Copernican revolution.

She explains that Galileo had 3 arguments for the Copernicus model: 4 Jupiter moons, Moon topography, and Venus phases. As she correctly says, he found these with his telescope and immediately published his observations in a 1610 book. As she also says, these were accepted by the Church and everyone else without much controversy.

The trouble with explanation is that the leading geocentric model of the day was Tycho's, and those Galileo observations were not contrary to Tycho's model at all. Galileo's main argument against geocentrism (and for the motion of the Earth) was based on an entirely fallacious theory of the tides. The Church scientists had correctly refuted his tidal theory, and the dispute was only about whether his arguments disproved geocentrism. On that point, the Church was correct.

Nevertheless, Randall makes a big point out of saying that Galileo was right, Tycho was wrong, and modern physics should learn from their examples. She is more evidence of How Einstein Ruined Physics.

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