Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Copernicus story on the radio

NPR radio had a story on Copernicus this morning:
In the year 1500, every learned person in Europe knew one thing for absolutely certain: The sun and the planets travel around Earth. All astronomy texts said so. The Bible said so. There was no doubt.

Oh, sure, there were a few bits of conflicting evidence. For example, the planets seem to move first one way and then the other in the sky. But never mind that. Earth was at the center of the universe. Period.

And then came Copernicus.
I am not convinced that Copernicus was so important. His book was widely read among astronomers, but few were convinced.

The next big advance was by Tycho, and he used a geocentric model. Then Kepler discovered a much better heliocentric model, but he built on Ptolemy and Tycho, and rejected the uniform circular orbits and epicycles of Copernicus.
Westman says any sophisticated scientific argument that seems to defy common sense will be hard for nonscientists to accept. Take the strange weather patterns we're beginning to see around the world. How does a nonscientist decide if that's related at all to climate change?

"It depends on which authorities you trust," says Westman. "If you trust the scientific community, then you might be willing to say it has something to do with global warming. But it's not because you go to your laboratory and do experiments."

While the public debate over global warming continues, the debate over Copernicus' theories is long over.
These science lessons are dubious. The scientific community rejected Copernicus. It is not hard to accept the idea that strange weather patterns are related to climate change. I think he is trying to say that we should believe in climate change because Copernicus was right, but the argument does not make any sense.

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