History of Astronomy: Then Something Else Happened

The History of AstronomyWell-positioned conjunctions of bright planets are fairly rare.  The recent meeting of Jupiter and Saturn in the evening sky provided a wonderous sight that we won’t see again for many years.  Even though these two planets technically have a conjunction once a year, according to Dr. Patrick Hartigan of Rice University the next Jupiter-Venus conjunction that will be this good will be on November 2, 2039

But other celestial conjunctions will occur.  For example, our next close conjunction of note will be on August 7 when Mercury will be about a half of a degree north of Jupiter.  But Mercury can be difficult to find and it’s not as bright and noticeable as Venus.

Then there are conjunctions that aren’t celestial, when elements in your life come together.  If these elements have a common theme and the theme is sufficiently important or bright, the apparent coincidental meeting can get our attention.

A couple days ago a conjunction happened in my life.  I saw a meaningful TED talk by Kathryn Schulz and finished a small book loaned to me by Dr. Brad Barlow.

In her YouTube video of her TED talk “On Being Wrong” Schulz argues that our human capacity to make mistakes is not a defect.  Since we become obsessed with figuring out our mistakes, we learn and become more successful.  The theme of our stories, the part that keeps us engaged seems to be “I thought this one thing was going to happen, and then something else happened instead.”  Or as Saint Augustine said, “Fallor ergo sum.”

Michael Hoskin’s small book The History of Astronomy: A Very Short Introduction,  describes the stuggles we’ve had to understand the universe around us. In chapter 2 Hoskin reminds us that Ptolemey added equants to Aristotle’s geocentric model to make it more accurate only to find that the addition of equants “seemed to violate the (yet more basic) truth that heavenly motion was uniform.”

Equants were to be a major concern to Copernicus. He began developing equant-free models for the solar system.  Eventually Copernicus found it most elegant to abandon the geocentric model, with or without the equants, and describe his sun-centered solar system.

Ptolemey thought that this one thing was going to happen, then Copernicus questioned the whole heliocentric model because of his concern with the equants.

Thomas Wright of Durham imagined a cosmological model described in chapter 6.  He described a spherical shell of stars orbiting the center of the universe.  This spherical shell was so large that from the perspective of the Earth in that thin shell, the light from the more distant milky way stars would merge and form a circle of light.  Wright thought that this one thing was going to happen, that his model would be confirmed, but then he realized that such a cosmological model did not match observation.

But it was too late.  An edited version of Wright’s book was read by Immanuel Kant, who interpreted the edited description of a disc-shaped collection of stars.

Wright thought that this one thing was going to happen, then Kant took Wright’s mistake and mis-interpreted it so as to describe the shape of the Milky Way as we know it today.

From Tycho to Kant, Hoskin gives us other stories that seem to fit Shulz’s model of “I thought this one thing was going to happen, and then something else happened instead.”  Maybe that’s why astronomy is such an excellent medium for the work of science, what some would call the “Scientific Method.” where making mistakes is the way to learn, and being right just creates an illusion of understanding. Maybe that’s why so many of us are attracted to the wonders of astronomy; grand mistakes can lead to grand understandings.

Check out this video to see how being right might actually inhibit learning.


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