Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Better Science Through Beauty

I reviewed The Book Nobody Read a little while ago, but there's a point in there that I want to publicize in whatever small way. Gingerich describes the Epicycle Myth and debunks it. The Epicycle Myth is a modern scientific myth that the movement of the planets had, by the time of Copernicus, gotten convoluted and weighed down so that, to match observations, the astronomers had to add little "circles within circles," or epicycles, to their circular depictions of the orbits of the planets. Copernius, so the myth goes, devised a model with the sun at the center that did away with all the extra epicycles. Well, to quote George Gershwin, "It ain't necessarily so"! Turns out there's no evidence for proliferation of epicycles right before Copernicus, and when Copernicus proposed his model, it accounted for data about the same as the old model. So at first there was no immediate gain of simplicity or "better fit" to the data. However, Copernicus had the one advantage that it was a beautiful theory. As Gingerich puts it, "Copernicus' achievement was not something forced by fresh observations, but rather was a triumph of the mind in envisioning what was essentially a more beautiful arrangement of the planets." In this case, truth was beauty was truth and Copernicus was right, but that was only evident after the fact. At the time, all you had to go on is that Copernicus gave you a more beautiful universe to live in. The more beautiful universe was the true universe. That tells me that science, as much as it describes the universe as it truly is, is a beautiful thing.

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