My new holiday: Kepler’s Day

1859 engraving of Johannes KeplerI am so very tired of anti-reason, anti-science, anti-logic, anti-reality attitudes that I need to treat myself to a bit of celebrating of the very opposite.  I’m sick and tired of people who form a world view and then cherry pick and distort everything they hear and see to support that world view.

These people can be recognized by the fact that there is nothing that we can do or say, no amount of evidence that can suffice to convince them to alter their opinion.  They may change their soda preference or opt for a different vacation spot next year and hold that as proof that they do change and can be open-minded, but they never, ever actually change their mind in regard to their cherished beliefs.

For example, exactly what kind of evidence would convince a birther that Barack Obama was born in a hospital in Honolulu in 1961?  What would convince a New Ager that astrology signs mean butkus?  What would convince a fervid religious practitioner that his or her religion is not, in fact, correct?

These, and a number of popular beliefs rely on conspiracy theories that require both extensive cover-ups to suppress evidence (e.g. UFOs, JFK, 9/11, vaccination, fluoride) and arcane, intricate setups to manufacture false evidence (e.g. climate change, theory of evolution, Moon landing) in order to mollycoddle their cherished world view.  They happily go through insane mental gymnastics to avoid seeing what threatens that same world view.

I ran into one example yesterday, continuing on today, and it drives me up the walls because it’s so very basic, it’s a very frequently repeated piece on nonsense, and the long-winded defence of it boils down to “If we assume that I’m right…” while completely ignoring the actual world.

So as a means of cleansing my brain, allow me to engage in a little bit of hero-worship and create a new holiday for myself, by celebrating one of the most intellectually courageous and honest men I ever heard about: Johannes Kepler.  I was discussing this with Edmund and I gave him the example of Kepler as someone who gave up on a cherished, deeply held world view because it didn’t fit the observable world.

Kepler (December 27, 1571 – November 15, 1630) was a German scientist: mathematician, astronomer, and also astrologer because in those days the latter two were not yet sorted out.  He was trying to explain the movement of the bodies of the Solar System — sun, planets, moons, comets, etc.  In the early 1590s, he had attended the University of Tübingen, where he had learned about both the then-classic model of a solar system where everything revolved around the Earth (Ptolemaic or geocentric) still supported by the Catholic Church and most Christian authorities, and the new sun-centred system (Copernician or heliocentric) embraced by more and more scientists at the time.

Based on the data available, carefully made observations of the positions of celestial bodies against the night sky, Kepler rapidly came to support the heliocentric model.  But the old, Earth-centric model had a certain comforting value: it placed us humans at the centre of things, made us important, with a God watching over us and creating all this for our benefit.  The sun-centred model relegated Earth to being one planet among many, and us to being fleas on this dog.

Kepler was a religious man — he had originally intended on becoming a minister — and more than that, he was deeply committed to the idea that the cosmos not only made sense, it made beautiful sense.  He was searching for God’s mind in the way the heavens moved.  So base on the same data that brought him to reject geocentricism, he elaborated a theory that explained the exact distances and periods of the various planets of the Solar System.

Kepler's Platonic solid model of the Solar system from Mysterium Cosmographicum (1600)His new model required a complex arrangement of Platonic solids, or perfect polyhedra, which would be nested inside one another and each encased by invisible spheres, on which each planet’s orbit would run.  He managed to find a sequence arranging all these solids which produced values that were close enough to explain astronomical observations within the error margin of the time.  He even found a formula relating the size of each planet’s sphere to the length of its orbital period: from inner to outer planets, the ratio of increase in orbital period is twice the difference in orb radius.  It looked like his beautiful, intricate, mathematically elegant model was a winner.

Except that Kepler was not satisfied with the small amount of error remaining.  You see, the model did not exactly match the data; the obvious answer to this lay in the amount of error in observations.  Kepler set out to obtain ever better observations and measurements of planetary positions to clear up this matter.  He went to meet with the astronomer known for producing the most accurate observations at the time, Tycho Brahe.  He spent months serving as Tycho Brahe’s assistant, night after night, in order to get high-quality observations, impressing the older astronomer with his skill and dedication and eventually receiving full access to all his accumulated data.

And here was the rub: the new, more exact observations still did not match the model.  He spent enormous amounts of time and effort, and still did not manage to make his beautiful model and reality meet fully.  So he did a thing of enormous integrity and courage: he went with the data.  No matter how in love he was with his elegant model of the heaven — and to his dying day, he hoped to find a way to reconcile it with the observations — he admitted that it must be his ideas that needed work.  The facts were the facts.

Many a scientist, then and since, has faced the temptation to sweep the discrepancies under the rug, put them down to instrument error even as the nagging voice of doubt whispered on, and go forth to build a career based on manufactured success.  Some succumb to the temptation, but in the end the facts are the facts, and sooner or later the truth shines through.

Kepler was too honest to do this: he knew how good the instruments and observations were, and he knew they reflected something real.  Therefore, it must be the model that needed to be changed.  By continuing careful observations and looking for rules, patterns, and constants in the mass of numbers, he discovered laws of planetary motion we still call “Kepler’s laws.”  These would later be supported and expanded by Sir Isaac Newton’s work.

Kepler was brave enough to turn away from his cherished beliefs and go with reality, and in the end his work was so much greater for it.  Since I first heard of his story in my early teens, I have carried tremendous admiration for his integrity.  In fact, the older I get, the more awed I am as I realize better how hard the choice must have been.

So in this season of holidays largely celebrating the victory of light over darkness, I think I shall create my own: for December 27, I shall celebrate Kepler’s birthday.  When I get together with my friends for our holiday mashup (we certainly aren’t going to pass by the Pastafarian Holiday’s meal, the Airing of Grievances for Festivus, nor the delicious pies for Hogswatchnight — OK, nor the presents), I will add a libation for Johannes Kepler.  And maybe a geometric cake.

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