Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Central Question

Posted by Michal Meyer on 08/11 at 12:19 PM

I’m interested in how people reinvent the past to justify present-day assumptions or to push an agenda. At the recent 3-Society Meeting in Philadelphia Mike Keas spoke about how certain self-serving myths had made their way into astronomy textbooks from the 19th century. Specifically, how Copernicus’ replacement of the earth-centered cosmos by a sun-centered one demoted us humans from our lofty position at the very center of the cosmos. Well, it sounds convincing—who wouldn’t want to be the center of attention?

But this perceived loss of status turns out to be more attuned to modern sensibilities that to 16th century ones. Our modern story is one of increasing insignificance in the universe. First our planet is not at the center of everything and then our sun gets demoted to the far corner of the galaxy. Astronomy has progressively shown us our littleness.

When in the 17th century Johannes Kepler published the first modern astronomy textbook did people rejoice at the end of superstition and the earth-centered cosmos? Did they declare it was time to get over their superiority complex and find their proper place in the universe? Well, without a time machine all we have are interpretations of the past based on the documents, instruments, and so on that the people we study left behind. Our knowledge is always incomplete, and so the answers to the questions we come up with must also be incomplete. But in this case enough evidence exists to answer, “Hell, no.”

And the answer in a way does turn on hell. As Keas said in his talk, the 16th century and much of the 17th were crystal clear on the meaning of the earth’s central position. It was at the bottom of the cosmos and, with the exception of hell, the least desirable real estate. In effect, Copernicus promoted the earth, moving us to a better neighborhood. The old explanation was theologically and scientifically satisfying to its holders. Kepler found the new Copernican system also theologically and scientifically satisfying because he understood the center, where the sun now stood, in a different way. 

So, what’s the big deal about tweaking this bit of ancient history? Well, Keas argues that the tweaking turns out to be important to a particular modern narrative of science, one often held by scientists (or at least by astronomy textbook writers). I may be reading too much into Keas’ presentation, but to me this narrative is one where heroic science congratulates itself for dragging us out of our ignorance. If nothing else, it’s arrogant. And it’s a refusal to take the past on its own terms.

(I was sad to learn that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson also believes this myth of our self-demotion. Michael Barton wrote recently that Tyson will be involved in remaking Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which I thought wonderful news. I hope Tyson involves a historian or two in the project.)

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Comment posted by Paul Halpern on 10/14 at 06:54 PM

Fascinating piece.  It sounds like the self-demotion idea was part of the process of promoting 19th century ideas by re-interpreting events of the 17th century.

Comment posted by Michal Meyer on 10/15 at 06:35 AM

That’s certainly the sense I got from Mike Keas’ talk. It’s a powerful narrative of science taking us from ignorance to knowledge, but without bothering to look at what actually happened.
I spent a wonderful day at the air and space museum yesterday with a couple of friends. That place inspires in me almost religious feelings of awe and wonder. On the other hand I was mildly irritated by watching and listening to a movie presentation of how we’ve seen our place in the universe change. It followed the typical narrative of decreasing significance and of learning our place in the world. I thought the room on the history of the telescope was much better historically.

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