Sunday, February 17, 2008

When Night Falls

Even if today’s astronomers knew nothing of the solar system, they would likely reject the Ptolemaic model on the grounds of its unnecessary complexity. And for all of its intricacy, the Ptolemaic model was not a particularly accurate predictor of astronomical phenomenon. Indeed, the errors in the model became more glaring when better data on planetary positions (from Tycho Brahe and others) became available.

A love of elegant simplicity also characterized the classical world, but Ptolemy’s era was already falling away from classical elegance and toward the cobwebbed mysteries that so appealed to people in the Dark Ages, when complexity and obscurity, not simplicity and clarity, were taken as the hallmarks of truth. Besides, Ptolemy’s model, while highly imperfect, agreed pretty well with actual observation; it kept Aristotle safely on his pedestal, and it let humankind stay right where the Church said that God had intended: at the center of everything.

There were others who came after Aristotle and before Ptolemy, most notably Aristarchus of Samos (310–230 B.C.E.), who actually proposed that the earth and the planets orbit the sun. But Aristotle, Ptolemy, and common sense drowned out such voices that, for some thirteen centuries, few wanted to hear. For the light of classical learning had been dimmed, and the spirit of scientific inquiry muffled (at least in the West) in a long age of orthodoxy and obedience.

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