I was over at Bad Astronomy checking up on the comet I haven't been able to see due to storm clouds in our area, and I stumbled upon one of the classic "scientific debunkings" of our time.
At issue: a YouTube video. Well, two of them, actually. One showed the video artist's rendering of his interpretation of the motion of the sun and planets in the solar system -- a helical motion or a vortex, he said, not the stately clockwork of Copernicus, et al; the other depicted the motion of the helical solar system in orbit around the galactic center.
My, the Scientific Outrage!!!™
Over a couple of videos? Really? What was going on?
Well, it appears these videos have been seen by plenty many people. 700,000 and change in the case of the Solar System video; 150,000 in the case of the galaxy video. They are darned nice. Very well done, by someone who clearly has high caliber video animations skills.
And these videos have led to questioning the Standard Model of the Solar System, the heliocentric model of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Newton and the rest, who, after long cogitation on the mighty problem of the motion of the spheres came to the startling conclusion that the Sun must reside at the center of the Solar System and the planets must make stately progress around the Sun year by year. Like clockwork.
Indeed, the clockwork model of the Solar System is still with us, though long ago rejected in the planetary sciences, because we always see the Solar System depicted thus:
|The Wikipedia solar system diagram at several scales|
In the Standard Diagram, the sun is stationary at the center of the planetary system, the planets "circle" the sun in a counter clockwise direction, and the whole is enveloped in spherical ball of comets called the Oort Cloud.
The video artist attempted to demonstrate that essentially none of this is true or factual. First of all, the Solar System is not horizontal like a dinner plate with reference to the galactic plane, it is tilted at a severe angle -- which he depicts at ninety degrees in the solar system video, sixty degrees in the galaxy video. The sun is not stationary but is moving quite rapidly in orbit around the galactic center, and thus the planets cannot and do not orbit in neat (and ever-so-tight) little ellipses, very nearly circular, as is always depicted in Solar System diagrams. Their orbital motion is helical around a moving target, if you will. All of which has long been known to planetary science, but it is rarely depicted, partly because diagramming it is difficult (though Sky and Telescope Magazine somehow manages to do so every month in its sky charts) and partly because doing so can mess with people's innate understanding or what they've been taught about the way things are.
The dinner plate/clockwork diagram has sufficed for hundreds of years, anyway, so why upset the apple cart? We're just getting past the notion that the interiors of the Outer Planets are "icy," after all.
Where the video artist commits heresy, however, (at least as stated by Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy) is in his depiction of the sun leading the planets in their helical journey through space, and in his outrageous claim that heliocentrism is itself in error.
Heresy! Burn him!
How many people, after all, went to the stake because they believed in heliocentrism? Well, at least one.
So clearly, anyone who would dispute this fundamental of planetary science after such sacrifice should go to the stake himself. Burn him!!!
This tendency for scientists to become overwrought when their supposed fundamental beliefs are challenged, especially by untrained and probably unwashed people outside the field, has long been one of the least appealing behaviors of those in scientific practice. It suggests a violent streak on the one hand, and very tightly closed minds on the other, both of which, unfortunately, strongly resemble the mindsets of deeply religious and even cultic Believers.
As he explains in his blogpost responding to his Bad Astronomy thrashing, what he calls "heliocentrism" is the Standard Diagram, which literally everyone learns is the way the Solar System works, and it's wrong. Simply wrong.
That is not the way the Solar System works. True enough. Every planetary scientist will acknowledge as much. Well, they would, except many of them won't in this case, not because they don't know the difference between the Diagram and the reality, but because an upstart outsider has made point -- rather stunningly and beautifully, too -- that they themselves feel little or no obligation to bother with from their own scientific perspective.
As many commenters say to the debunkers, "If the artist's rendering of the actual motion of the Solar System is so very 'wrong,' why don't you depict it correctly?" This they will not do, no way, no how. Not their job. Their rejoinder is, "Why doesn't the artist get it right in the first place? Harrumph!" As they flounce off to their enervating projects -- not necessarily what they want to do, but what they have to do to maintain standing in the field. Harrumph! Indeed.
How dare he?!
That's the basic attitude on display. It's highly evocative of the attitude of Ptolemyists toward Galileans back in the day. "Everyone knew" the geocentric model proposed by Ptolemy was correct, and these snotty upstarts putting the sun in the center were simply out of touch and out of their league. How dare they?!
In this case, though, the issue is a relatively minor one of definition of terms and accuracy of animation, not "fundamentals."
So the big deal that is being made of it is somewhat, shall we say, manufactured?
DjSadhu is objecting to the diagram of the Solar System that everyone learns. He is calling it "heliocentric" -- which it is -- and is objecting to "heliocentrism" as depicted in the diagram. His alternative vision, as illustrated in his animations, are far closer to the reality than the heliocentric diagram is, but they are still not quite right according to findings of scientists -- oh, and good luck finding those findings, given the difficulty of public access to scientific papers thanks to the lock JSTOR still has on so much of it.
The main objection to DjSadhu's animations that Phil Plait brings up at Bad Astronomy (once you figure out what he's really objecting to) is the fact that some of Sadhu's insight about what the real motions of the sun and planets are and what it really looks like comes from the work of Pallathadka Keshava Bhat. Bhat was less a scientist than he was a spiritualist, and that is anathema among real scientists. Obviously, the man knew nothing.
Therefore, DjSadhu's animations are teh suxor. Even though they are gorgeous, and even though they more accurately depict the motions of the sun and planets than the Standard Dinner Plate Diagram, they suck and cannot be redeemed for they are based on the ravings of a heretical madman.
Unfortunately that is the way too many arrogant and egotistical scientists approach challenges from "outside."
On the whole, I thought Phil Plait's debunking of DjSadhu's animations was pretty hilarious and typical. His objections were least of all on substance, because for the most part Sadhu got the (helical motion) substance pretty much right. Plait's objections revolve mostly on matters of definition of terms, perceived insults and lack of decorum, and minor adjustments to his helical models of motion (which he inflates into massive errors). There is no basic objection to the helical model itself. The objection is mostly over who is proposing and describing it.
DjSadhu is objecting to the dinner plate model of the solar system and its motions and he is illustrating an alternative model -- which is more accurate, despite its errors. Neither Plait nor any of his supporters acknowledge that the dinner plate model is fundamentally wrong, though they do acknowledge that a helix is a more accurate description of planetary motion.
What would be useful at this point would be for planetary scientists to work with computer animators to illustrate what they believe is the correct understanding of the helical motion of the planets and solar system.
But I won't hold my breath.