Jul 8, 2009

Thinking outside the sphere

Before there was management-speak about thinking outside the box (long before), there was a time when greatest thinkers on the planet debated whether the world was geocentric or heliocentric. Keenest among these, Kepler inherited Martian orbit data from Tycho, thinking he'd soon unlock the secret to planetary motion. Instead, in Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris relates how Kepler struggled to find an answer for eight years. Ferris also relates Kepler's reflections on his own mistakes (Ch. 6): "My first mistake was having assumed that the orbit on which planets move is a circle. This mistake showed itself to be all the more baneful in that it had been supported by the authority of all the philosophers, and especially as it was quite acceptable metaphysically." Kepler is talking about the fact that it was something of an accepted wisdom, an axiom almost, that man was at the center of the universe. No one really seriously challenged the notion for almost two thousand years since Aristotle.

Kepler apparently tested seventy circular orbits against Tycho's Mars data. Then, he imagined himself on Mars, and realized that earth's orbit would trace the same trajectory across the sky. There it was: earth revolves around the sun.

I don't think it's necessary to conclude anything based on this story. It's just a neat reminder that for the most part, we have no idea what we are talking about, and it takes an enormous effort and insight to rid ourselves of our ignorance.

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