Copernicus was wrong (maybe)

The Hubble Deep Field South looks very similar...
The Hubble Deep Field South looks very similar to the original HDF, demonstrating the cosmological principle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses and decided the Sun moves around the Earth (but here is a pop quiz for all of you laughing at that idea – can you think of a simple experiment that would prove to a 10-year-old that the Earth moves around the Sun?).

In fact the issue here – the so-called Copernican Principle, or in its grander form the Cosmological Principle – was almost certainly not Copernicus’s view at all. But his paper – De Revolutionibus – opened the door to it, and indeed to the positivist idea of science in general.

The Copernican Principle states that there is nothing special about the position of Earth, the grander Cosmological Principle states that, at a sufficiently large scale, the universe looks the same in all directions – including (and this is important for what is coming) from where we are. In other words not just Earth is nothing special, but nowhere is anywhere special.

But what is that is all wrong? A fascinating article in this week’s New Scientist looks at just this.

That there are limits to the Cosmological Principle is obvious – the world is not smooth, even at some very large scales (look at the night sky – most of it is dark).

The standard scientific response to this is to state that at a sufficiently large scale – around 400 million light years – the matter density between galaxies and the inter galactic void evens out. But that assumption is based on our observations of our locality: yet what if, actually, we were in an atypical part of the universe? The atypicality could even be meta-typical (in other words we could have a super-Cosmological Principle but accepted that the universe was lumpy.)

This matters because our cosmological models are based on the assumption that the Cosmological Principle is correct and that therefore we are typical observers of the universe: hence the phenomena we see are ones that would be seen by any observer and are therefore artefacts of the universe’s physical nature and not our observational position.

So, for instance, we have data that appear to show that the expansion of the Universe is speeding up. We do not know why this is, so we call it “Dark Energy“. But what if the apparent speed up was because, actually, the universe was not isotropic (did not look the same in all directions) and the additional mass in one direction was impacting on the perceived rate of expansion of the universe?

The beauty of this question is that asking it does not mean challenging Einstein’s General Relativity – it’s not an exercise in metaphysical speculation but an argument firmly within the positivist realm bequeathed to us by Copernicus in the first place.

And finally…It is actually quite tough to devise a simple experiment to show that the Earth revolves round the Sun – but the orbits of Venus and Mercury are probably the best examples: these planets are never in opposition to the Sun. Though binoculars to observe the planets’ phases are probably needed to fully escape any Ptolemaic theories’ grasp.

Finally, finally… this book – Can You Speak Venusian? A Trip Through the Mysteries of the Cosmos – was very funny when I read it about 35 years ago, whether it has stood the test of time I am not sure.

Author: Adrian McMenamin

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