Not with a bang but a whimper

Ethan Siegel is an astrophysicist, but he is better known as a highly successful science populariser, who even has his own Wikipedia page.  He first rose to fame as the author of the blog Starts With a Bang, which he launched in 2008. He expanded his brand, with the publication of popular books on physics. He expanded still further, making podcasts and writing posts under his brand name on MediumForbes, and Big Think. He is today one of the biggest names on the Internet in popularisation of physics. Here I’m going to look at his latest publication on Big ThinkBig Think is a multiplatform, multimedia Internet organisation who in their own words state: 

Our mission is to make you smater, faster.  At Big Think, we introduce you to the brightest minds and boldest ideas of our time, inviting viewers to explore new ways to work, live, and understand our ever-changing world. 

“Big Think challenges common sense assumptions and gives people permission to think in new ways.”

I’m sorry, but to my ears that sounds like those windy ads on the Internet that say, “Take our three-week course of our seminars once a week and you will be earning $100,000 a month within a year!”

So, what is the post of Dr Siegel on Big Think that has attracted the attention of The Renaissance Mathematicus and why? Our intrepid astrophysicist and physics populariser has decided to try his hand at history of science and has written a post about Johannes Kepler, Why Johannes Kepler is a scientist’s best role model. After all our author is a scientist and a successful science populariser, who has even won prestigious awards for his work, what could possibly go wrong, when he tries a bit of history of science? Unfortunately, as with other scientists and science populariser, who think they can do history of science, without investing serious time and effort in the discipline, almost everything.

Johannes Kepler unknown artist 1620

So why does Siegel think that the good Johannes should be every scientist’s role model? He tells us in his lede:

  • The annals of history are filled with scientists who had incredible, revolutionary ideas, sought out and found the evidence to support them, and initiated a scientific revolution. 
  • But much rarer is someone who has a brilliant idea, discovers that the evidence doesn’t quite fit, and instead of doggedly pursuing it, tosses it aside in favor of a newer, better, more successful idea. 
  • That’s exactly what separates Johannes Kepler from all of the other great scientists throughout history, and why, if we have to choose a scientific role model, we should admire him so thoroughly.

He then delivers four examples of famous scientists, who could not admit they were wrong:

  • Albert Einstein could never accept quantum indeterminism as a fundamental property of nature.
  • Arthur Eddington could never accept quantum degeneracy as a source for holding white dwarfs up against gravitational collapse.
  • Newton could never accept the experiments that demonstrated the wave nature of light, including interference and diffraction.
  • And Fred Hoyle could never accept the Big Bang as the correct story of our cosmic origins, even nearly 40 years after the critical evidence, in the form of the Cosmic Microwave Background, was discovered.

I already have a couple of comments here. Niels Bohr is on record as saying that Einstein through his intelligent, astute, and penetrating criticisms of quantum theory that demanded answers contributed more to the development of that theory than almost anybody else. Not least Bell’s theorem, one of the key developments in quantum theory, was based on his analysis of the Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen paradox. Opposition to theories based on knowledge are important to the evolution of those theories. 

Newton did in fact reject a wave theory of light in favour of a particle theory. However, he was able with his theory to explain all the known optical phenomenon. Moreover, when Hooke rejected his theory of colour saying that it wouldn’t work in a wave theory, Newton developed a wave theory, that was more advanced than those of Hooke and Huygens, to show that his theory of colour did work in a wave theory. Lastly, as I love to point out, Einstein won the Nobel Prize for physics, not for relativity, but for demonstrating that light consists of particles, so Newton wasn’t so wrong after all.   

More generally, there is a famous quote from Max Planck about the development of new theories in science:

A new scientific truth does not generally triumph by persuading its opponents and getting them to admit their errors, but rather by its opponents gradually dying out and giving way to a new generation that is raised on it.

He then goes on to tell us why Kepler was a spectacular exception. First, we get a popular rundown of the observable phenomena of the cosmos and why that led to a geocentric model. On the whole OK but littered with small errors. For example, he tells us:

The Earth was big, and its diameter had been measured precisely [my emphasis] by Eratosthenes in the 3rd century B.C.E.

This is, unfortunately, typical of Siegel’s hyperbolic style. Depending on which value for the stadium one takes, Eratosthenes’ estimate of the size of the earth was relatively close to the real value but by no means precise. Also, in antiquity no one knew how correct it was and most people actually accepted other values.

We then get a description of the deferent/epicycle model for the planets and Siegel tells us that Ptolemy made the best, most successful model of the Solar system that incorporated epicycles. Nothing to criticise here but there follows immediately a small misstep, he writes:

Going all the way back to ancient times, there was some evidence — from Archimedes and Aristarchus, among others — that a Sun-centered model for planetary motion was considered. 

First off you really shouldn’t use an expression like “ancient times.” We know that both Archimedes and Aristarchus lived and worked in the third century BCE, so we can say that. The expression “there was some evidence from Archimedes and Aristarchus, among others” is a load of waffle, which doesn’t actually tell the reader anything. According to a couple of secondary sources Aristarchus of Samos devised a heliocentric system. We don’t have anything about it from Aristarchus himself. Archimedes is one of the secondary sources but not in a work on astronomy or cosmology. Archimedes wrote a work on calculating and expressing large numbers, The Sand Reckoner, in which he calculated the number of grains of sand needed to fill the cosmos. He used Aristarchus’ heliocentric model, which he only mentions in passing, because the heliocentric cosmos is considered to be larger the than the geocentric one.

Siegel now moves onto Copernicus and once again delivers up historical rubbish:

Copernicus was frustrated to discover that his model gave less successful predictions when compared against Ptolemy’s. The only way Copernicus could devise to equal Ptolemy’s successes, in fact, relied on employing the same ad hoc fix: by adding epicycles, or small circles, atop his planetary orbits!

As stated, this is rubbish. From the very beginning Copernicus used deferent/epicycle models for the planetary orbits. He didn’t add epicycles as an ad hoc solution because his model gave less successful predictions when compared against Ptolemy’s. In fact, Copernicus didn’t produce any planetary tables before he died in the year that his De revolutionibus was published, so he couldn’t know about the comparative predictive powers of his and Ptolemy’s system. When Erasmus Reinhold (1511–1553) did produce his Prutenic Tables (1551), the first ones based on Copernicus’ model, it turned out that in some cases the predictions were better than in tables based on Ptolemy and in some cases worse. This was because Copernicus used the same, in the meantime corrupted through frequent copying, basic data for his models as Ptolemy. This problem was recognised by Tycho Brahe, which is why he set up his massive astronomical observation programme, on the island of Hven, in order to provide new basic data. It is to Tycho that Siegel now turns.

Tycho Brahe, for example, constructed the best naked eye astronomy setup in history, measuring the planets as precisely as human vision allows: to within one arc-minute (1/60th of a degree) during every night that planets were visible towards the end of the 1500s. His assistant, Johannes Kepler, attempted to make a glorious, beautiful model that fit the data precisely.

This is Siegel’s introduction to Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum published in 1596, four years before he even met Tycho and began to work with him! Siegel now gives a brief description of the model presented in the Mysterium Cosmographicumand follows it up with a pile of absolute garbage.

Maybe our astrophysicist author has slipped into a parallel universe because what he presents here is hyperbollocks, an assorted collection of made-up “facts” thrown together in a narrative that bears absolutely no relation to what really happened in history. As a Kepler fan when I read this and the following paragraphs eight days ago, I began banging my head against the wall and haven’t stopped since. No pain can blot out the stupidity presented here. 

Kepler formulated this model in the 1590s, and Brahe boasted that only his observations could put such a model to the test. But no matter how Kepler did his calculations, not only did disagreements with observation remain, but Ptolemy’s geocentric model still made superior predictions.

Tycho made no such boast, that is simply made up and in fact he was not in any way interested in Kepler’s model. Kepler wanted to work with Tycho to get access to his data to fine tune his model, Tycho wanted to employ Kepler to do the mathematics necessary to turn his data into models for the planets orbits in his own geo-heliocentric model. When Kepler arrived in Prague, Tycho refused him access to the data he wanted out of fear of being plagiarised. Instead, he set Kepler to write a paper proving that Ursus had plagiarised him. The resulting essay is brilliant, was however first published in the nineteenth century, and has been described by Cambridge historian of science, Nicholas Jardine as The Birth of History and Philosophy of Science (CUP, 2nd rev. ed. 1988). Following this he was given the task of determining the orbit of Mars using Tycho’s data, to which I will return in a minute. 

At this point in his life Kepler made no attempt to improve his geometrical model. The phrase, Ptolemy’s geocentric model still made superior predictions is quite simple mind boggling for anybody who knows what they are talking about. The geometric model that Kepler presents in his Mysterium Cosmographicum is his answer to the question, why are there exactly six planets? Kepler argues that his completely rational God, who is a geometer, designed his cosmos rationally and geometrically and there are exactly six planets because there are only five regular Platonic solids to fill the spaces between them. Not our idea of rational but Kepler was mighty pleased with his “discovery.” This model makes no predictions of any kind!

Now we get to the crux of Siegel’s whole argument, Kepler admitting he was wrong:

In the face of this, what do you think Kepler did?

  • Did he tweak his model, attempting to save it?
  • Did he distrust the critical observations, demanding new, superior ones?
  • Did he make additional postulates that could explain what was truly occurring, even if it was unseen, in the context of his model?

No. Kepler did none of these. Instead, he did something revolutionary: he put his own ideas and his own favored model aside, and looked at the data to see if there was a better explanation that could be derived from demanding that any model needed to agree with the full suite of observational data.

Kepler didn’t tweak his model, at this time, attempting to save it, he certainly didn’t mistrust Tycho’s data, and he didn’t at this time add any postulates. He did put his model aside but not to look at the data to see if there was a better explanation that could be derived from demanding that any model needed to agree with the full suite of observational data. He was too busy doing other thing, things that served other purposes. 

If only we could all be so brave, so brilliant, and at the same time, so humble before the Universe itself! Kepler calculated that ellipses, not circles, would better fit the data that Brahe had so painstakingly acquired. Although it defied his intuition, his common sense, and even his personal preferences for how he felt the Universe ought to have behaved — indeed, he thought that the Mysterium Cosmographicum was a divine epiphany that had revealed God’s geometrical plan for the Universe to him — Kepler was successfully able to abandon his notion of “circles and spheres” and instead used what seemed to him to be an imperfect solution: ellipses.

Here without explicitly naming it, Siegel is referencing Kepler’s work on the orbit of Mars that he published in his Astronomia Nova in 1609. It was during the many years of his “War with Mars”, his own description, that he finally discovered his first two laws of planetary motion: 1: Planetary orbits are ellipses with the Sun at one focus of the ellipse 2: A line from the Sun to the planet sweeps out equal areas in equal periods of time. For a good description of the route to the Astronomia Nova, I recommend James R. Voelkel’s excellent The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia nova (Princeton University Press, 2001). 

Siegel apparently thinks that this refutes Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum, it doesn’t. The Mysterium Cosmographicum doesn’t deal with the shape of orbits at all. His model has the Platonic solids filling the spaces between the spheres. In the Ptolemaic deferent/epicycle system the orbits are not simple circle because of the epicycle. Ptolemy in his Planetary Hypothesis embedded the deferent/epicycle in a sphere but the book that got lost and was only rediscovered in the 1960s in a single Arabic copy. However, Peuerbach (1423–1461) revived this model in his Theoricae Novae Planetarum (written in 1454, published by Regiomontanus in 1472), which is almost certainly based on a now lost copy of the Planetary Hypothesis, with illustrations. 

Peuerbach’s illustration of a sphere containing a deferent/epicycle Source: Wikimedia Commons

Copernicus’ heliocentric system, which also uses the deferent/epicycle models would suffer from the same problem and it is between these spheres that Kepler places his Platonic solids, irrespective of the orbit inside the sphere. The system would work equally well for elliptical orbits, so Kepler’s discovery of them had no effect on his Mysterium Cosmographicum

Siegel gives a table of Tycho’s Mars observations with the following caption:

Tycho Brahe conducted some of the best observations of Mars prior to the invention of the telescope, and Kepler’s work largely leveraged that data. Here, Brahe’s observations of Mars’s orbit, particularly during retrograde episodes, provided an exquisite confirmation of Kepler’s elliptical orbit theory. [my emphasis]

Kepler used Tycho’s Mars data to derive his first two laws, so they can’t be used by him as confirmation. In fact, at the beginning he didn’t actual confirm his theory, simple assuming it applied to all the planets. It wasn’t until his Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae published in three volumes from 1618 to 1621, after he had discovered his third law and done a substantial amount of the work reducing Tycho’s observational data to planetary tables, the Rudolphine Tables published in 1627 and on which he had begun to work as Tycho was still alive, that he demonstrated all three laws for all the known planets.

I will now return to that third law and the Harmonice mundi (1619) in which it first appeared. Kepler had already suggested the possibility of fine tuning the Mysterium Cosmographicum model with the Pythagorean concept of a harmony of the spheres and this is what his magnus opus Harmonice mundi was. He had already conceived it in the late 1590s but because of other commitments didn’t actually get round to writing it until the second decade of the seventeenth century. 

Having created his harmony of the spheres, in 1621 Kepler published an expanded second edition of Mysterium Cosmographicum, half as long again as the first, detailing in footnotes the corrections and improvements he had achieved in the 25 years since its first publication, so far from abandoning his first theory to produce his elliptical orbits as Seigel claims, Kepler spent his whole life working to improve it.

What is truly bizarre is that Siegel appears to be aware of this fact. He writes:

It cannot be emphasized enough what an achievement this is for science. Yes, there are many reasons to be critical of Kepler. He continued to promote his Mysterium Cosmographicum even though it was clear ellipses fit the data better. He continued to mix astronomy with astrology, becoming the most famous astrologer of his time.

As already explained in detail, he didn’t just promote his Mysterium Cosmographicum, he worked very hard for many years to improve it. The statement, becoming the most famous astrologer of his time is another example of hyperbollocks. Kepler was a well-known astrologer in Southern Germany and Austria but the most famous astrologer of his time I hardly think so. I would also note that the modern astro-scientists disdain for astrology, as displayed here by Seigel, displays their ignorance of the history of their own discipline. Astrology was the driving force behind the developments in astronomy for its first three thousand years of its existence. 

Siegel, like many scientists, who think they can write history of science without doing the detailed research, has taken a set of half facts, embroidered them with stuff that he simply made up and created a nice fairy tale that has very little to do with real history of science. A fairy tale that will be swallowed by his large fan base, who will believe it and make life difficult for real historians of science. 


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

26 responses to “Not with a bang but a whimper

  1. lizandmike

    I think you are missing the word “NOT” in this sentence of yours Thony: “He then delivers four examples of famous scientists, who could NOT admit they were wrong:”

  2. As usual, a good rebuttal!

    Typo: ration —> rational.

  3. brodix

    If you want a pulpit to preach start your own blog

  4. Grooze

    Is he not simply retelling the story exactly as it was told by Carl Sagan in Cosmos?

  5. Newton developed a wave theory, that was more advanced than those of Hooke and Huygens, to show that his theory of colour did work in a wave theory.

    Where can I read more about this?

    Lastly, as I love to point out, Einstein won the Nobel Prize for physics, not for relativity, but for demonstrating that light consists of particles, so Newton wasn’t so wrong after all.

    I have to say, this rubs me the wrong way. It strikes me as the sort of facile remark you take such justified pleasure in shredding.

    Once one has said that quantum theory and Newton’s corpuscular theory both give light periodic and particulate properties, you have said everything that they have in common. Newton’s “fits of easy refraction” were not waves. Photons are not particles in anything like the classical sense. The experimental and theoretical reasons that led Einstein to make his quantum proposal had nothing in common with Newton’s reasons for preferring corpuscles. Finally, the conceptual structure of quantum theory is utterly different from Newton’s theory. If QM were as readily visualized or understood, we wouldn’t have had nearly a century of wrangling over its interpretation.

    • It just occurred to me—when you refer to Newton’s wave theory, do you perhaps mean his fits of easy transmission and fits of easy reflection?

    • “I have to say, this rubs me the wrong way. It strikes me as the sort of facile remark you take such justified pleasure in shredding.”

      Yes, you are quite right here Michael. Newton’s “fits of refraction and reflection” are nothing more than a ‘hand-waving explanation’ of interference effects that fall naturally out of the wave theory of light. Newton based his particle theory on the rectilinear propagation of light; the diffraction effects that were there could not be seen using the inadequate optical instruments of his day. Newton’s particle theory also made a wrong prediction (it predicted the speed of light in denser materials like water or glass to be higher than in air, rather than lower as predicted by the wave theory of Huygens) and did not explain effects like double refraction, first discovered by the Danish scientist Rasmus Bartholin in 1669, 35 years before Newton published his work on Optics. Fermat’s principle, which provides a natural explanation of both reflection and refraction at a surface between two media, was even earlier in 1662 and was given a physical basis by Huygens’ wavelets in 1678. Sadly, this idolisation of Newton damaged British scientific work in optics as it did in calculus.

      • Thanks for providing further details.

        I guess the main issue for me is, this sort of remark suggests that Newton had some mystical premonition of QM. Not his style at all. Let Newton be Newton, not Nostradamus!

        I can recall two other comparisons of this ilk, cherry picking features of historical theories out of context. People sometimes say that Aristotle’s physics was right after all, since it applies to objects in a fluid with high Reynolds’s number (e.g., balls falling in oil). And that Ptolemy was basically doing Fourier analysis.

        James Blish, the sf writer, in an appendix to his novel Doctor Mirabilis, claimed that Roger Bacon anticipated general relativity!

  6. The reason Einstein got his Nobel for photons rather than relativity is rather droll. He’d been nominated repeatedly, starting in 1910. By 1921, the failure to award him the prize was becoming embarrassing. In that year, the opthamologist (!) Allvar Gullstrand, at the committee’s request, prepared a highly critical report on relativity. No prize that year. The next year, despite increasing pressure, Gullstrand stuck to his guns, but was ok with a prize for the photoelectric effect. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to think that Einstein’s work on light appealed to an opthamologist.

    Pais’s classic bio Subtle is the Lord gives full details in chapter 30. (Also see Gullstrand, Einstein, and the Nobel Prize.) His summary: “It is understandable that the Academy was in no hurry to award relativity before experimental issues were clarified, first in special relativity, later in general relativity. It was the Academy’s bad fortune not to have anyone among its members who could competently evaluate the content of relativity theory in those early years.”

    Einstein’s acceptance speech, by the way, was on “basic ideas and problems of the theory of relativity”.

    • From your link:

      ‘However, Einstein was a theoretical physicist, and by the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will, the prize was to go for works of proved, not theoretic, value to humanity. Nobel, who had died in 1896, left a will that stated the proceeds “shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”‘

      A reason why Nobel prizes are often awarded so many years after the initial publication. In the case of the Higgs boson, it took a very long time from the initial prediction of a boson linked to a quantum field causing particle rest masses to the confirmation of its existence at the LHC (which is rather tough on the theorists as there are no post-mortem Nobel awards). Alfred Nobel as the inventor of dynamite, which for the first time stabilised the explosive nitroglycerine and made its use in mining practical (although his later invention gelignite was more important), naturally concentrated on practical applications.

      • lizandmike

        I was in the Nobel library in Stockholm many years ago doing some research (the part only open to researchers). I got a brief tour at that time and was told that Einstein’s Nobel speech was the only one that was not contained in their collected Nobel speech books because he did not talk about the topic he received the Nobel for (as mentioned above – Photoelectric Effect), but he opted for Relativity. That tells you where his priorities lay!

      • Also a good point, although by 1921 there was good experimental evidence for special relativity, at least. As for “useful to mankind”, the committee has always interpreted that very liberally.

        Of course, Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect was well worthy of the prize. Asking whether his contributions to QM or to relativity were more significant, is like asking whether Newton’s work in math or in physics was more important.

      • Giulio

        Definitely Newton’s work in physics is (far) more important than his in math.

      • @Giulio A tightly reasoned response! 🙂

  7. “Astrology was the driving force behind the developments in astronomy for its first three thousand years of its existence”.

    Thony, I’m not clear how you define ‘astronomy’ to allow this statement to be true, nor which particular “three thousand years” you mean. Or, come to think of it, whether you assume that all religious practice and thought, if directed towards the stars, is to be defined as astrology?
    (I tried following that link, but the “read more…” opened nothing more.

    Taken at face value, though, I’d have to say I differ and that the driving force behind accurate and repeatable observation of the night sky was a desire to know time and direction.

    • Babylonian astronomy was driven by their belief in omen astrology, the Greeks took over their astronomy from the Babylonians and every significant Greek astronomer was first and foremost an astrologer. The first Greek scientific texts translated by the Islamic scholars were astrological and they then translated the maths and astronomy texts in order to be able to practice astrology. The same happened during the translation moment from Arabic into Latin in the High Middle Ages. Up till the seventeenth century almost every astronomer was a practicing astrologer and almost always employed first and foremost as an astrologer.

      BTW the link just worked for me!

      • I see. You are treating the history of astronomy from the perspective of ‘How did we – modern western scientific types – get to where we are now?’ It’s a perfectly valid type of history, so no objections there. On the other hand, if you look treat history as ‘how were things done back then?’ a different story and a different time-line applies, one without any necessary connection to the history of astrology, though one might reasonably say it’s part of the history of humanity’s history of astronomy. I think it’s notable that so many ancient literatures say the stars were made for the benefit of people like shepherds (migratory) and seamen – and none says they were made for aastrologers. 🙂 But ok – your focus is on how modern western science came to be what it is – fair enough. (Do you think that guy will now re-brand as the Un-Bang?)

        PPS – I left that link open and went back to it just now and yes, it works now.

      • @O’Donovan I don’t really follow you. Of course the stars were used for navigation and time telling, and to mark the seasons, from ancient times. But I don’t see much impact on the development of astronomy. The Babylonians concerned themselves with the predictions of eclipses and the positions of the planets. So did Ptolemaic astronomy. How does this help with navigation and time telling?

  8. CMitch

    “Instead, he set Kepler to write a paper proving the Ursus had plagiarised him.” Who is “the Ursus”?

    • Thanks for spotting the typo, it should of course read “that Ursus.”

      Ursus was the German mathematician and astronomer, Nicolaus Reimers Baer (1551–1600), known as Reimarus Ursus in Latin. Baer or Bär is the German for bear, which is Ursus in Latin.

  9. If that is Siegel’s idea of an excellent scientist, he might read about Riccioli’s experimental study of how bodies fall: our Jesuit went as far as informing a pupil of Galileo that he was wrong while the late Tuscan was right.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s