Thursday, July 12, 2007

“One Of The Hardest-To-Imagine Tenets Of Ptolemaic Astronomy”

When I read stuff like this I always have to take a time out:

5. Whatever motion appears in the firmament arises not from any motion of the firmament, but from the earth’s motion. The earth together with its accompanying elements performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, while the firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.

This axiom, which marks what is usually called the rotation of the earth, dealt a coup de grâce to one of the hardest-to-imagine tenets of Ptolemaic astronomy: the claim that the entire immense stellar sphere makes a full revolution every twenty-four hours.

Dennis Danielson

If something is “hard to imagine” should we find it suspect? Should we seek to replace it with something that isn’t hard to imagine?

Is this a general principle?

If we accept this even as a working principle and use it to weed out kook-ish beliefs—like geocentricity—what happens when modern science itself is measured against it?
  • If I put my Sea Monkeys in a box and cover the box, is it easy to imagine the shrimp enter a state of quasi-existence, neither dead nor alive, until I lift the cover and look at them? Does any book about physics not try to ‘wow’ people with a discussion of Schrödinger’s Cat?

  • What about tunneling? Is it easy to imagine that a particle can be here and then—magically—be over there?

  • What about relativistic time dilation? Is it easy to imagine that a particle’s half-life correlated to higher energy levels is equivalent to time itself slowing down?

  • And entanglement? Is it easy to imagine that a photon three thousand miles away will become polarized if this photon in front of me passes through a filter?

  • Is there anything at all easy to imagine about arbitrary dimensions and branes and other string theory kinds of thoughts?
Kook-ish beliefs often involve one or two howlers, bizarre aspects which must be accepted on faith, but then they typically surround those bits of the bizarre with rigorously logical and acceptable, common-sense thinking. “Mainstream” science in the modern world, however, seems almost entirely composed of howlers, with none of that messy “common” sense to trouble it.

It’s interesting that the Establishment—whatever and whenever that is—always seems to create a fringe, a kind of conceptual Siberia, defined largely by appeals to common sense and the every day imagination of the hoi polloi. But at the same time that Establishment always expects everyone to clearly understand that its own activities, its own pronouncements, its own conclusions, must never be judged by common sense or the imagination of the masses or any other such bourgeois triviality ...

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