Thursday, April 21, 2005

On Fighting Ignorance

There's a person named Cecil Adams who writes a column for the Chicago Reader called "The Straight Dope." The motto of his column is "Fighting Ignorance Since 1973."

I think fighting ignorance is a wonderful thing. It's one thing to disagree on facts, but to remain willfully ignorant when proofs stare you right in the face is downright wrong.

I'm currently engaged in a discussion with some folks on ChabadTalk.com. The discussion really got underway in this thread (note: the discussion was started in a different thread and then continued in this thread with post 50.

What's interesting is that my disputants are maintining their position in spite of the evidence that I've brought. One main point of contention seems to be the Rambam's description of the solar system in Hilchos Yisodei HaTorah, Chap. 3. He writes (sorry, I don't know how to encode the original Hebrew into HTML -- if anyone would be willing to drop me an email and let me know how, I'd be grateful!) in the first section:

There are nine gilgulim [which I'll translate as spheres for now, even though that may not be accurate]: The closest sphere [to the earth] is the sphere of the moon. The second, which is higher than that is that of the star called Cochav. The third, which is higher than that contains Nogah. The fourth sphere contains the Sun, the fifth sphere contains Ma'adim, the sixth sphere contains Cochav Tzedek, the seventh sphere contains Shabtai, the eighth sphere contains all the other stars that appear in the heavens, and the ninth sphere rotates every day from east to west.

It's fairly obvious that what the Rambam is describing here is an Ptolmaic system of the solar system. Indeed, you can easily pick out some of the planets names: Ma'adim = Mars (which is red), Nogah = Venus (as it shines brighter than any other star), Shabtai = Saturn. The Rambam didn't use the Roman mythological names for the planets, but it's pretty clear that he's describing the solar system as had been held for over a thousand years before his time.

One of the proofs that I brought to show that this model was incorrect was a photo taken from Mars showing Mercury passing in front of the Sun. Now, if Mercury is in an inner orbit from the Sun and Mars is in an outer orbit, then how could Mercury pass in front of the Sun (as seen from Mars). To use a heliocentric comparison, that's like Jupiter passing between the Earth and the Sun (can you imagine what that kind of an eclipse would look like!).

I also brought our experiences with astronomy and sending out other spacecraft as proof of the correctness of the heliocentric system.

I'm still waiting to hear back from my disputants, but I'm sure that they will respond. I don't think that they'll back out of an argument.

Using this information, I argued that the Rambam was (as most of us recognize) flat out wrong with regard to the solar system. If you are going to posit that there is a mesora which cannot be wrong, then you also must posit that the Rambam was writing from his scientific knowledge of the day, and not from the mesora.

I find it interesting that my disputants are stubbornly holding on to this idea (geocentrism) which is really not an ikkur of our emunah. It's not like I'm arguing against creation ex nihilo, or against Torah MiSinai or against Yetzias Mitzrayim. It's a simple scientific matter that is perfectly compatible with the Torah.

I'll continue my dispute over there as long as I can. Fighting ignorance is tough work.

(Note: If any of the ChabadTalk.com folks find their way here, feel free to comment on the post, but let's leave the actual scientific debate over there).

The Wolf

9 comments:

Ilana said...

May I recommend the book "Mind Over Matter"? Have you heard of it?

BrooklynWolf said...

No, I haven't, Ilana. Who's the author?

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

Fighting ignorance in general is a good thing, the question is what is ignorance and ignorance of what...

sattvaman said...

The following article by Amiel Rossow discusses the application of Relatively to the issue. He critiques the Chabad physicist Branover. Enjoy


The article by Professors Ruvin Ferber and Herman Branover (from now on to be referred as FB) is titled The Observer and the System of Reference: A Unified View.

FB's presentation consists of two very different parts. The second part, titled The Changing Views of Science, could be a separate article written on a good (although popular) scientific level, wherein the main thesis, although it could be disputed (and I intend to dispute it in this review) is a legitimate subject of discussion wherein FB are entitled to their interpretation of the relativity of motion. I believe his interpretation is wrong, but it is far cry from unsubstantiated ruminations we find in the articles by Poltorak, Rabinowitz, or some other authors. At least FB talk in that part of their article only about subjects relevant to their topic - the interpretation of relativity of motion.

Unfortunately, the first part of the article looks like ransom paid to a religious agenda. Take, for example, the sections titled The Rebbe's view and The Wager wherein FB refer to the opinion of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson in regard to relativity of motion and the alleged equivalence of Ptolemy's and Copernicus's models of the solar system.

Viewing the esteemed late Rebbe as an authority on scientific problems sounds like a joke. Schneerson never took part in any scientific activity and did not even have sufficient education in any area of science, but apparently liked to indulge in discussing scientific questions in all areas of knowledge. The amateurish level of his judgments was, for example, illustrated at Challenging the Challenge .

It is hard to comprehend how a well qualified physicist like Professor Ferber could feel proper to lend his signature to these ridiculous sections of the article in question.

Let us talk now about the real thesis of FB's presentation.

On page 45 we read, "One of the conclusions of the theory of relativity is that when there are two systems, or planets, in motion relative to each other - such as the sun and the earth in our case - either view, namely the sun rotating around the earth, or the earth rotating around the sun, has equal validity."

Professors Ferber and Branover, you should know better.

First, when you mention the theory of relativity, it is advisable to specify whether you mean the special theory of relativity (STR) or the general theory of relativity (GTR).

However, whichever theory of relativity you have in mind, neither asserts the "equal validity" of the two mentioned models of the solar system. FB's statement is nothing more than their personal interpretation of both STR and GTR rather than a straight conclusion of either of the two theories.

Before discussing in detail FB's arguments, let us briefly review in layman's terms what STR and GTR indeed say about the problem at hand.

I'll show that from the viewpoint of STR Ferber-Branover's position is wrong. From the viewpoint of GTR, while not plainly wrong, their position is just their preferred interpretation of the GTR rather than an uncontroversial conclusion.

Start with STR. This theory asserts that all inertial frames of reference are equivalent. The term inertial denotes such systems (i.e. physical bodies) which move without acceleration (i.e. with a constant velocity; velocity itself has no absolute value-it depends on which frame of reference is chosen as being "at rest"-so the velocity of the system in question is measured relative to the chosen frame of reference). The choice of the frame of reference (i.e. of a body which is agreed to be viewed as being at rest) is arbitrary. Hence, within the framework of STR only inertial systems are equivalent, while systems (i.e. bodies) which have acceleration (i.e. are non-inertial) are not equivalent and can be distinguished unequivocally from inertial systems and from each other by detecting their accelerations. Acceleration, unlike velocity, is, within the framework of STR, absolute and does not depend on the frame of reference.

Apply the above to the solar system. The central body (the sun) has no acceleration. Every planet moves on an elliptic orbit wherein it has acceleration. The main component of the acceleration is the centripetal acceleration caused by the gravitational attraction of the planet to the sun. This component of acceleration makes the planet's velocity turn toward the sun, thus forcing the planet to circle the sun on an elliptical path. Planets also have a longitudinal acceleration due to the deviation of their elliptical orbits from a perfect circle. Hence planets are not inertial systems and therefore not equivalent to the central body-the sun. Therefore, if we limit ourselves to the tenets of STR, there is no equivalence between Ptolemy's and Copernicus's models. The sun is the only body in the solar system which has no acceleration, all planets do have one. The sun occupies a unique position in the solar system. Copernicus was right and Ptolemy (and with him the Judaic, Christian, and Muslim religions) was wrong.

So from the viewpoint of STR the question about the alleged equal validity of two models is answered unequivocally and easily in favor of Copernicus's heliocentric system.

From the standpoint of GTR, however, the answer is not that simple and plain and FB take advantage of the complexity of the position based on GTR to offer their interpretation according to which the two models are, after all, equally valid. Let us see if their argument is convincing enough to assert that the model of the sun rotating around the earth is as valid as the heliocentric model is.

GTR is a complex scientific theory which can be rendered in various forms. For the purpose of this discussion (and having in mind that it is for an ordinary reader rather than for the mathematically sophisticate) it seems convenient to present the main point of GTR as follows:

While STR is the mechanics of inertial systems, GTR is the mechanics of non-inertial systems. This is, though, only one aspect of GTR. It also is a theory of gravitation and as such it asserts equivalence of gravitational and inertial forces. Based on that concept, FB announce the equivalence of heliocentric and geocentric models of the solar system, which serves their purpose of substantiating the Torah's assertion that the earth is the center of the universe and the sun (and the rest of the universe) is rotating around the earth. To be sure, FB only suggest that the heliocentric system is no more reasonable from a scientific viewpoint than the geocentric system of the Torah, so there are no scientific reasons to reject the Torah's model. They do not insist that science directly supports the Torah's model.

However, it can be shown that GTR actually provides reason to prefer Copernicus's heliocentric system to Ptolemy's geocentric one (supported by the Torah). To this end let us consider another rendition of GTR which can be offered without resorting to mathematical equations. One of the easily visualized renditions of GTR tells us that space does not exist by itself but must be viewed as an attribute of matter. Wherever there is a clump of matter it makes space around it curved. The sun makes space around it curved, and so does the earth. However, since the sun has an immensely larger mass than the earth (or than any other planet in the solar system) the curvature of space caused by the sun is immensely stronger than the curvature caused by the earth. There is no equivalence between the effects of space curving caused by the sun and by the earth. The model according to which the planets move on elliptical orbits, their path determined by the curvature of space caused by the immense mass of the sun, is plainly preferable to the model in which the sun, with its much larger mass moves on a path curved by the much smaller mass of the earth (or of the other planets).

Furthermore, if we consider the motion of the sun and of the earth relative to the rest of our galaxy, it is much more reasonable to view the solar system as a whole as such wherein there is a central body (the sun) and a family of planets orbiting the sun on simple elliptical paths rather than the earth as the center of that system and everything else rotating around the earth on fancy convoluted paths.

The theory of relativity, either special or general, provides no support whatsoever for the Torah's geocentric picture, regardless of how strongly FB and their co-believers would like us to believe.

(Besides their main thesis of the equivalence of Ptolemy's and Copernicus's models, the article contains a number of sections dealing with quantum mechanical theory of measurement including von Neumann's ideas of the role of an observer, as well as their further discussion by Wheeler and Wigner; the Copenhagen interpretation of the quantum mechanics; Mach's principle attributing the inertial forces to the overall effect of the galaxies, etc. All this material, interesting in itself, would be appropriate for a semi-popular article for laymen interested in learning about some theories discussed in modern science, or for a teaching aid for a freshman class in physics, but it does not offer any material which would be the authors' original contribution to the subject. It is not clear why such a brief narrative about well known problems of science was thought to be a proper contribution to a conference where the relation between science and the Torah was to be discussed. The only point which went beyond just one more rendition of the stuff elucidated many times before was FB's assertion of the equal validity of Ptolemy's and Copernicus's models of the solar system wherein the two professors strived to show that the Torah's story does not contradict scientific data.)

Lion said...

I am very surprised at him, as he makes it sound like it is a "chidush" of the Lubavicher Rebbe or FB that the theory of GR applies here when in fact it is not, hence his claim that they did not understand it.

In fact this very observation was made in the Philosophy of Time by Hans Reichenbach ( a disciple of Einstein if you will [You can google him and you should find his papers]).

He should have known better.

some thoughts said...

chabadtalk folks concluded that you are lost

BrooklynWolf said...

To be perfectly honest, I don't blame them... I did leave in the middle of the argument.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), my job and family life have kept me very busy the last few weeks. I do fully expect to get back to it, IYH.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

The lubavitcher rebbe did have scientific training. I believe he was trained as an engineer.

BrooklynWolf said...

Wow! I hadn't expected to receive a comment on this more than four years after I originally posted it.

Being trained as an engineer does not make one an astronomy expert -- no more than a trained astronomer is qualified as a research chemist.

The Wolf