Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

The Heliocentric Theory: 1

Before Christmas, I raised the question, how could the ancients have proven the Earth goes around the sun? I guess it is about time to get started on answering it. The first task was to review the literature. It then becomes obvious that you have to overturn Aristotle. There are various places where one can start, but one is to decide why we have day and night. Let us use Aristotle’s own methodology, which is to break the issue down into discrete issues. Thus we say, either the Earth is fixed and everything rotates around it, or everything is more or less fixed, and the Earth rotates. Aristotle had reached that step, and had “proven” that the Earth did not rotate. Therefore the day/night must occur through the sun orbiting the Earth. The heliocentric theory, despite its advantages, is falsified.
 
At this point, we should examine the methodology of the experiment. It is important to recognize that Aristotle was very clear on one point, and he has been badly misrepresented on this ever since. Aristotle clearly asserted that logic must be applied to experimental observations, and that observation alone was critical. So, what was his experiment? Aristotle argued that if you threw a stone vertically into the air, it always came back to the same place. Had the earth been rotating, the path length of a rotation increased with height, in which case the stone should drag back westwards. It did not, so the earth did not rotate. Note that at this point, Aristotle was effectively arguing for the conservation of angular momentum, or even better, the principle of least action. I wonder how many of my readers would recognize that, and know why it is so significant? Before reading any further, what do you think about Aristotle’s experiment? What is wrong, and how would you correct it, bearing in mind you have only ancient technology?
 
In my ebook, Athene’s Prophecy, my protagonist dismisses the experiment by arguing that vertical is defined as the point where the stone falls back to the same place. By defining the point thus, if the stone does not come back to the same place, it was not thrown vertically. He then criticizes Aristotle by arguing that the correct way to do the experiment is to simply drop the stone from a high tower. The reason is that while Aristotle would be correct in that there should be a drag to the west going up, exactly the opposite should occur on the way back down. What should happen if dropped from a tower is that the stone would strike the ground slightly to the east of the vertical position, and in Rhodes, where this was being discussed, also slightly to the south. Can you see why?
 
What happened next is that my protagonist refused to carry out the experiment. This is a somewhat difficult experiment to carry out, but in my opinion, it might be of considerable interest to senior school students, and it introduces them to many of the issues of science that still apply. They need a high tower (or some equivalent), and the first problem is to define the exact vertical spot below it. This is difficult enough to do today with modern surveying equipment, but in those days, the error range is likely to exceed the effect. The school could set this up, with the help of external surveyors, or even physicists if they can find any. The students have to select the right material (a small lead cone, dropped point down without tumbling would probably be optimal) and correct for wind speed. This experiment, more than any other I can think of that is suitable for schools, introduces the concept of experimental error, and they can get illustrations of this because the experiment, in theory, besides proving the Earth rotates, with a little mathematics permits two measurements of the size of the Earth. The answers are likely to be hilarious, unfortunately, once the student confronts the issue of required accuracy. The problem is the difference between the height and the earth's radius, but it may give a new appreciation to the extreme requirements of the large hadron collider, where protons (look up their size) circle a 26 km loop and collide.
Posted by Ian Miller on Mar 2, 2014 8:20 PM Europe/London

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