Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Actually, the sun does revolve around the earth

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  As I write this, I am holed up in my bedroom due to some sort of muscular injury that is causing partial numbness in my leg (all the time) and pain when I stand or sit, which is terribly inconvenient for doing any sort of anything except sleeping.

The social media is all a-twitter (pardon the pun) about a new "documentary," narrated by Kate Mulgrew, erstwhile Star Trek captain Kathryn Janeway (my least favorite Janeway), in which the central premise, supposedly, is that Galileo was wrong and the earth is the center of the universe.

Apparently, this film, which was produced by an ultra-conservative Holocaust denier and scientific skeptic,* features interviews with a number of noted scientists on this subject, some of whom have been rather quick to deny, variously, (a) that they believe in a geocentric universe, (b) that they intended to appear in a film of this nature, or (c) that they appeared in it at all.

* - Unlike most of the time, when I use the term "scientific skeptic" in this sense, I am referring to people who are skeptical of science, not people who, based on science, are skeptical of supernatural phenomena.

I know how they feel.  I am continually plagued by film producers who put me into their projects without my knowledge or intent.

But I will leave others to comment on the absurdity of such a view.  I mean, everybody knows that the earth revolves around the sun.  In fact, although I do not often write about science in this blog, I have written about this very topic.  Indeed, the story of how we came to heliocentrism is more about breaking down paradigms than about the actual science behind it.

Which is why I'm going to surprise you (I hope) and explain how it is that the sun really does revolve around the earth.

Wait, what?

Yeah.  It does.  To help you understand why, a story:  In 1998, my wife and I moved to the Washington, D.C., area so that I could go to law school at Georgetown.  We packed up our material possessions, loaded them into a large truck, loaded a car onto a tow rig, and drove the entire thing from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to our new home.

At one point, I pulled this giant rig--a 28-foot truck pulling a 20-foot trailer--into a rest area and parked it among the semis.  I was sitting in the cab waiting for my wife to return from the restroom, engine off, when suddenly, as I looked out my side window, I became aware that the rig was moving.  And I didn't like that, because we were in the Tennessee mountains and the parking space looked out over a rather high embankment.  I stepped on the brake, mashing it down as hard as I could, but we were still moving.

I was panicked.  I couldn't turn the steering wheel (because the engine was off, which locked the steering wheel) and I couldn't stop the truck.  But as I looked out my side window, I could clearly see how I was moving along in comparison to the truck that was parked next to me, pointed in the opposite direction.

It was only when my window cleared the back of that truck that I realized that I had been stationary all along.  It was the truck next to me that was moving in the opposite direction.

When my wife came back to the truck, we had a good laugh.

As any physics student can tell you, and I was one once upon a time, in classical mechanics, you cannot describe how two objects move with respect to each other, just by observing them, without having a frame of reference to compare them to.  When I was in that truck, all I could see was the other truck, so I couldn't tell the difference between my movement and the other truck's, since I lacked a frame of reference.  Once the other truck moved past my window, and I could see the rest of the parking lot, it became clear that the other truck was moving, and I was stationary.

In ancient times, when we lacked such modern technology as telescopes and calculus, we lacked an independent frame of reference to help us understand whether we're moving or the sun is.  From our perspective, the earth feels firm and unmoving.  The sun appears to move across the sky through the day.  A geocentric perspective is not unreasonable.  In fact, it was probably the only thing that ever occurred to anyone.  (Even Galileo didn't realize it until he looked through his fancy telescope and discovered the moons of Jupiter.)  And, perhaps more importantly, if you are only talking about the sun, and perhaps the moon and those planets that can be seen with the naked eye, it really doesn't matter which way you describe it.

Consider for a moment that wherever you are, reading this, you probably feel stationary.  (You might be in a car, but humor me.)  I know I'm stationary right now, because it hurts to move.  But even when you are completely still, you're riding along as the earth spins** at perhaps 800 miles per hour, give or take depending on your latitude.  And the earth is hurtling through space at 66,600 miles per hour as it orbits the sun.***  And the whole thing--sun, earth, moon, and the other planets--are orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy at a speed of approximately 447,000 miles per hour.****  And none of this takes into account the expansion of the universe.

** - Or does it?
*** - Or does it?
**** - Maybe.

But you feel like you're standing still.  And I'm just lying here on my back.

None of this means that Galileo was wrong.  There are 500 years' worth of science, plus the onset of the general theory of relativity, that demonstrate beyond any doubt that the earth orbits the sun, and not the other way around.*****

***** - But there is a conclusion that can be drawn from all of this.  If you recall in my prior post on this subject, the Bible is quite clear about how the earth "be not moved."  See, e.g., I Chron. 16:30; Ps. 93:1; Ps. 96:10; Ps. 104:5; see also Eccl. 1:5. ("The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose").  If it turns out--and it does--that the earth actually does move, what conclusion might we draw about the Bible?  Perish the thought. *wink*

What it means is that the frame of reference matters.

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