Interpreting Observations

The ancients, with a few exceptions, thought the Earth was the centre of the Universe and everything rotated around it, thus giving day and night. Contrary to what many people think, this was not simply stupid; they reasoned that it could not be rotating. An obvious experiment that Aristotle performed was to throw a stone high into the air so that it reached its maximum height directly above. When it dropped, it landed directly underneath it and its path was vertical to the horizontal. Aristotle recognised that up at that height and dropped, if the Earth was rotating the angular momentum from the height should carry it eastwards, but it did not. Aristotle was a clever reasoner, but he was a poor experimenter. He also failed to consider consequences of some of his other reasoning. Thus he knew that the Earth was a sphere, and he knew the size of it and thanks to Eratosthenes this was a fairly accurate value. He had reasoned correctly why that was, which was that matter fell towards the centre. Accordingly, he should also have realised his stone should also fall slightly to the south. (He lived in Greece; if he lived here it would move slightly northwards.) When he failed to notice that he should have realized his technique was insufficiently accurate. What he failed to do was to put numbers onto his reasoning, and this is an error in reasoning we see all the time these days from politicians. As an aside, this is a difficult experiment to do. If you don’t believe me, try it. Exactly where is the point vertically below your drop point? You must not find it by dropping a stone!

He also realised that Earth could not orbit the sun, and there was plenty of evidence to show that it could not. First, there was the background. Put a stick in the ground and walk around it. What you see is the background moves and moves more the bigger the circle radius, and smaller the further away the object is. When Aristarchus proposed the heliocentric theory all he could do was make the rather unconvincing bleat that the stars in the background must be an enormous distance away. As it happens, they are. This illustrates another problem with reasoning – if you assume a statement in the reasoning chain, the value of the reasoning is only as good as the truth of the assumption. A further example was that Aristotle reasoned that if the earth was rotating or orbiting the sun, because air rises, the Universe must be full of air, and therefore we should be afflicted by persistent easterly winds. It is interesting to note that had he lived in the trade wind zone he might have come to the correct conclusion for entirely the wrong reason.

But if he did he would have a further problem because he had shown that Earth could not orbit the sun through another line of reasoning. As was “well known”, heavy things fall faster than light things, and orbiting involves an acceleration towards the centre. Therefore there should be a stream of light things hurling off into space. There isn’t, therefore Earth does not move. Further, you could see the tail of comets. They were moving, which proves the reasoning. Of course it doesn’t because the tail always goes away from the sun, and not behind the motion at least half the time. This was a simple thing to check and it was possible to carry out this checking far more easily than the other failed assumptions. Unfortunately, who bothers to check things that are “well known”? This shows a further aspect: a true proposition has everything that is relevant to it in accord with it. This is the basis of Popper’s falsification concept.

One of the hold-ups involved a rather unusual aspect. If you watch a planet, say Mars, it seems to travel across the background, then slow down, then turn around and go the other way, then eventually return to its previous path. Claudius Ptolemy explained this in terms of epicycles, but it is easily understood in term of both going around the sun provided the outer one is going slower. That is obvious because while Earth takes a year to complete an orbit, it takes Mars over two years to complete a cycle. So we had two theories that both give the correct answer, but one has two assignable constants to explain each observation, while the other relies on dynamical relationships that at the time were not understood. This shows another reasoning flaw: you should not reject a proposition simply because you are ignorant of how it could work.I went into a lot more detail of this in my ebook “Athene’s Prophecy”, where for perfectly good plot reasons a young Roman was ordered to prove Aristotle wrong. The key to settling the argument (as explained in more detail in the following novel, “Legatus Legionis”) is to prove the Earth moves. We can do this with the tides. The part closest to the external source of gravity has the water fall sideways a little towards it; the part furthest has more centrifugal force so it is trying to throw the water away. They may not have understood the mechanics of that, but they did know about the sling. Aristotle could not detect this because the tides where he lived are miniscule but in my ebook I had my Roman with the British invasion and hence had to study the tides to know when to sail. There you can get quite massive tides. If you simply assume the tide is cause by the Moon pulling the water towards it and Earth is stationary there would be only one tide per day; the fact that there are two is conclusive, even if you do not properly understand the mechanics.

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