Ancient theory: dynamics proved the Earth was stationary!

Aristotle was one of the greatest minds of all times, but when he came to formulate his theories of dynamics, he got it all wrong. What I find interesting is why he went wrong, and the answer is surprising: he failed to follow his own methodology! Why was that? The reason may be a little mundane, and that is, his book Physica was apparently one of the first he wrote, and he may not have developed his method of logic properly by then. If so, why did he not correct it later? In my view, probably because he was not that interested in physics. Even now, the fraction of the population who find physics interesting is probably rather small. One of the most important features of Aristotle, though, is that he really did believe that experiment and observation were the key, and only theories that complied with observation were valid.

The first problem might be called sloth. He was not one of the most active experimenters, and in fairness to him, much of which he should have done would have been very difficult to do with the very limited equipment that was available. Nevertheless he could have done better in many ways. His first problem was that believed things like energy “came into being and passed away”. For example, suppose you throw a stone up in the air. It starts moving rapidly, then it slows, stops at the top, then turns around and comes back down. What happened to the initial energy when it reached the top? He said, it had passed away. We say the kinetic energy is turned into potential energy, but you cannot see potential energy. We have it because otherwise the law of conservation of energy would be falsified, but who says energy is conserved? (There are very good reasons for why it must be, but these would be beyond Aristotle’s ability to see, bearing in mind what information was available to him.)

The next problem lay in the theory of contraries, which was established before Aristotle. Thus cold was a material that was the contrary of heat. What Aristotle failed to see was that the contrary was the opposite or absence of the other, thus cold is the absence of heat, and this is odd because Aristotle did recognize that dark was the absence of light. When we got to motion, Aristotle failed to see that the contrary of a force was another force in the opposite direction. Instead, he believed that bodies contained their own internal contrary to motion, thus if you had a cart, you needed a horse continually pulling on it to overcome the contrary inherent in the cart. Why was it inherent to the cart? Because different carts would require different forces to keep them going. See the way you can fall into a trap? He just did not carry his thoughts further. The problem was probably the cart, as everybody knew it would stop unless pulled. Nevertheless, had he used his fabled logic, he would have arrived at the correct conclusion. As I put it in my ebook novel, Athene’s Prophecy, what he had to say was, either the contrary was the property of the body, or it was the property of its environment. Back to the cart, it is a lot easier to pull it on a stone road than on boggy earth. He should have been able to identify restraining forces, but he did not.

An even worse problem lay in the assertion that heavy things fall faster than light things. The problem here lay in the contraries. Had he recognized that air provided a restraining force, which he could have determined by watching wind blow leaves, he could drop different weights that were compact. He did not, because to him, the answer was “obvious”. Just because it is obvious does not make it right!

Why was this important? Apart from the fact that it strangled the development of the theory of mechanics, which in turn placed limits on what could be invented, it also provided proof that the Earth did not orbit the Sun. Can you see why? The answer lies in the nature of orbital motion. The ancient Greeks realized that orbital motion required the earth to move sideways, but fall back towards the Sun, and thus stay at the same distance as it went around. If it falls, since heavier things fall faster than light ones, the Earth would fall to pieces, or at the very least, light things would form a stream towards the rear. This was not observed, so the Earth did not move. Simple really, but a wrong premise led to the wrong conclusion.


12 thoughts on “Ancient theory: dynamics proved the Earth was stationary!

  1. The Aristotle the great got it all wrong about the physics because the common sense and pure observation, and commonly believed “facts” where not sufficient to explain the substance behind the physical being. The Epicureans got it much farther, but their knowledge was almost wiped out by the Platonist-Aristotelians and mainly the Catholic church for more than 1000 years. The Greeks were very close to the scientific and technological breakthrough, yet they did not do it. If they would, we could have been by now maybe out of our galaxy. Interestingly the Muslim Arab world, that uncovered the old Greek knowledge and preserved it, did not find way to develop it to the modern science. I wonder why was it. Probably it has to do something with their strong belief in Monotheism.

    • In my opinion, Aristotle got it wrong in physics because he did not use his own methodology. He believed in experiment, he had developed this concept of contraries, he worked out that dark was the absence of light, he knew about wind, so he should have realized that very light things might have resistance. But he never tested the concept of friction, and he never thought to drop two objects of different weights, but where wind could be ignored. In my ebook, Athene’s Prophecy, I fictionally show how someone might have done it, but nobody actually did.

      • But what about the Epicureans? Why they did not make the breakthrough? And the latter intellectuals from Alexandria? Wasn’t Roman Empire opened to technological changes?

  2. EugenR, I think the problem is partly psychological. Once you think someone with a great reputation has solved a problem, and the solution looks reasonable, most people do not think any more about it, on the grounds, “That is solved, move on!” Roman science, in my opinion, tended to be constrained first to making things that worked, in other words they focused on applied science, and they made some wonderful devices, but they also generated the attitude that, if you could not use it, it was not that important.

    Also, I am a scientist and have made some proposals that challenge existing theory or assumptions. If you do not have a big name, you tend to get ignored. This is a much worse problem now, I believe, because when scientists have to go for funding, the last thing they want to do is to annoy whoever will read their funding proposal, so the system is designed to make them fit in.

    • Yes, but it seems Epicureans where kind of mainstream in Rome. The prove are the scrolls in Heraculaneum. Most of the scrolls discovered where Epicurean. And the library get funding from Julius Caesar’s wife’s father.

      • The most famous Epicurean was probably Lucretius. One of the problems of Lucretius was that he seemed to be more interested in writing good verse than in clearly explaining things, but from what I can make out he was only peripherally interested in cosmology. Again, it seems he was reasonably convinced that the Earth was fixed, but he also proposed a vacuum in space, and argued that the bodies moved in it. He was mainly interested in atomism, and came pretty close to proposing a genetic code, arguing that the characteristics of animals were determined by the array of atoms joined into some unit carried by the egg. Again, I think the answer to your question was that they believed the issue was closed, so they did not try.

  3. The Greeks since the fifth century had the tools and capacity and philosophical sophistication to introduce scientific revolution. All we know about their knowledge is probably only a fraction of what they knew.
    Why Archimedes couldn’t be the ancient Galileo? Archimedes did not have problem to fight church to distribute his knowledge. He knew mathematics at least as good as Galileo. And he has done many technological inventions. Was it because of lack of printing machine that Galileo used so successfully? Even if murdered by Romans, they were interested in his knowledge, and most probably he had followers who were aware of his findings and his books where in their disposition. If Eutocius of Ascalon wrote about his work more than 700 years latter, his work had to been far from forgotten. And it is well known, he was not the only great mathematician and inventor of the classical world, far from it.
    Lucretius poem of “On the Nature of Things”, amazing as it can be, may be only fraction of what the Greeks discovered by system of meditation and deductive reasoning. And yet they had not done it into the modernity.
    The claim that in society of slaves there is no need for technological inventions seems to me folly. If not for economic reasons, the Roman war machine and probably also the Greek one needed military technology as much as we do. In contrary, Roman society, was free enough to support technological initiative, definitely more than the renaissance society in western Europe.

    If there is any answer to the question why the Greeks and Romans did not do it to the modernity, even if they had almost 1000 years from the first philosophers until the Christianity closed on their knowledge, it seems to me modern scientific technological development was a pure accident. Several factors came together in the right time, somewhere in the mid thirteen century, which started with the black death plague decimation of European population, that brought huge social and economic upheavals. Then the Mongol invasion weekend the Muslim world and reduced the military pressure from the Christian Europe, at the same time the classic philosophers following the christian conquest of Spain was rediscovered. Exactly in these years Fibonacci introduced mathematical revolution partly imported from the Arabs and partly developed by him. Some importance played probably the fact that Italy was a country of competing city states rather than one autocratic statehood, as was the Roman empire. Add to it the new Gothic architecture just recently introduced, invention of perspective and some more major events that i haven’t mention and you have completely new tools to judge the reality of the being. The result is new European perspective of understanding the earthly reality and the way to the new knowledge was opened for the scholars and intellectuals, Yet these new discoveries could go easily down of the drainage of the history, if not the patronage of Medici and some other Italian rulers, who competed with each other on prestige, but non of them had the absolute power to overcome the others. Probably without this, these very first discoveries wouldn’t continue to thrive.

    Many start the modern way of thinking with Copernicus. I don’t agree with them. The idea of heliocentric world was probably quite widespread in the classical world. Even if Copernicus ideas helped to shake the dogmas of the church, it couldn’t make a scientific revolution by itself. To my opinion after Galileo and Kepler, who both connected mathematics to empiric data, the road to the modern scientific method was paved. So the question remains, how come, the Greeks did not succeed to produce within a whole millennia, what the Europeans had in few hundred years? And lets not forget that the renaissance scholars needed to overcome the burden of religious dogmatic thinking tradition, the classical Greeks did not had to cope with?

    As to the findings of Kepler, they happened because of several fortunate sequential events. Brahe Tycho had to die, so Kepler could inherit his observations. If not he would remain probably with his esoteric theory of perfect spheres of planet movements. Also he needed a crazy king like Rudolph II, who was rather strange for a catholic emperor of holly Roman Empire. Then you had the accidental discovery of telescope, Galileo copied and redeveloped. There had to be such an arrogant self possessed man like Galileo, who so strongly believed, that the circumstantial evidence is verified proof for heliocentric planetary system, that he opposed all the Catholic establishment. Someone less self possessed wouldn’t do it all the way.

    Modern science is based on connection and verification of philosophical (mainly ontological) understandings derived from rational reasoning with the empirical evidence, translated to practical technological achievements. The Greeks did not make this two necessary step far enough, and this is the source of their failure. Why they have not done it, this still has to be answered.

    • My response to my initial topic is that the Greeks and Romans could not prove the heliocentric theory because the only way they could was through the tides, and where they lived, the tides were trivial. In the more general sense, I think you are correct in that they had got about as far as they could with what they had. They needed some serious advances, and in my view the two biggest problems were first their number system, which made calculations somewhat difficult, and secondly they had not, for some reason, thought out algebra. The ability to replace a sentence with a symbol is critical. Thus I argue that Aristotle actually discovered discrete mathematics, but because everything is written in sentences, most people do not recognize that.

      With those, it is still difficult, and in some ways I think Newton was critical to establishing the scientific way of going about things. But his work could only arise through the astronomical data available to him, which, as an aside, was not as robust as we might think. Luck certainly played its part. Had there not been a plague at the time, newton would not have gone to the country and with nothing else to do, have started thinking about physics. Newton actually spent more time during his life on chemistry than physics, and he made almost no progress, and there is some evidence that he took teh inverse square law of gravity from Hooke, but it was his mathematics that made it believable. I guess the reason the ancients could not advance any further was they hit a road block that needed further tools to get through, and there were not enough of them interested to hit on the key parts.

  4. Pingback: Ancient theory: dynamics proved the Earth was stationary! | EugenR Lowy עוגן רודן

  5. You say the problem was that they did not know Algebra,and i would add zero, the Hindu-Arabic numeric system, etc. Of course they needed to discover these things to make farther advance in sciences, but this is exactly the point why they did not discover them? And then there is the other question, why the Arab scientists did not do the scientific breakthrough to modern sciences? Hard to believe to the claim that it was due the Islam. After all, faith in one God and the Bible did not prevent from Galileo or Newton to make their scientific breakthrough.

    • You are quite correct that assigning zero into the number system is important. For the Greeks, the problem, in my opinion, was their theory of contraries. Had they recognized that the contrary was the same thing, only negative, they would presumably have realized they needed a zero, which represents neither. Certainly, Islam was not the problem for making discoveries. I think that the heliocentric theory is critical, because it leads to developing a correct theory of mechanics, and the scientific method. The most advanced Islam astronomical facility I know of was due to Ulug Beg, who built a most impressive observatory at Samarkand. (I have seen what remains of it, and it must have been impressive.) But again, the easiest way to prove the heliocentric theory requires observing tides, and Samarkand was not well situated either. As another aside, under the reign of Timur the lame, you did not harass scholars, unless you wanted your head to be added to a pile of skulls. In those days, the scholar was respected. There was actually another way of proving the heliocentric theory, and that involved Ptolemy’s equant. Essentially, Kepler’s data showed the way, but only by focusing on teh orbit of Mars. Had he focused on anything else, it would not have worked. Ironically, it was the Roman catholic church that eventually proved Ptolemy’s equant produced results out by a factor of 2. But I think that was too much to ask of the Greeks because there simply were not enough of them thinking about this problem.

    • Lately i started to think, maybe there is a system of thought we never discovered, based on different elements than numbers, geometrical shapes or worlds, that if discovered it could uncover us completely new knowledge. Also i asked myself in what field of knowledge we failed to find sufficient useful rules which could help us to overcome the most important problems of the humanity. My conclusion obviously was the political sciences. It is enough to remain to ourselves, that the democratic US could easily decide to start in the last decade two wars, but it couldn’t decide to reduce energy-consumption, in-spite of the danger, that the current state of economic development trends and energy consumption obviously endangers the human civilization.

      It is obvious, that the democratic political system, its basic ideas were created by Greeks, and today is perceived as the most efficient political system, has no answer to the problems of modern world. Today’s democratic system is based on competition between political fractions to be in favor of intellectually the lowest level of population, whose perspective and memory is short term. But the problems of the modern world, are all long term and need certain level of sophistication to be understand.

      And how all this is connected to the subject of Greek failure to cross the Rubicon of scientific knowledge?
      I wonder, maybe there is some kind of a-priory analytic system of knowledge, that is beyond our understanding, that if we would be aware of (just like if the Greeks knew Algebra, Zero and Hindu-Arabic numbers), we could find the essences of the rules that govern the societies, human behavior and politics. If we would find this tool, it could maybe help us to solve the most acute human problems of today, the social-political problems, just as mathematics helps us to uncover the essence of the physical world.
      This analytic a-priory system of understanding the reality, has to have its autonomous existence and principles without any connection to the physical reality, yet it has to have the capacity to define the character of connection between different events, just like mathematics helps physicists to explain these connections in the physical world.

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