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The Theory of Relativity and its Influence on Scientific Thought

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
In the days before Copernicus the earth was, so it seemed, an immovable foundation on which the whole structure of the heavens was reared. Man, favourably situated at the hub of the universe, might well expect that to him the scheme of nature would unfold itself in its simplest aspect. But the behaviour of the heavenly bodies was not at all simple; and the planets literally looped the loop in fantastic curves called epicycles. The cosmogonist had to fill the skies with spheres revolving upon spheres to bear the planets in their appointed orbits; and wheels were added to wheels until the music of the spheres seemed well-nigh drowned in a discord of whirling machinery. Then came one of the great revolutions of scientific thought, which swept aside the Ptolemaic system of spheres and epicycles, and revealed the simple plan of the solar system which has endured to this day. The revolution consisted in changing the view-point from which the phenomena were regarded. As presented to the earth the track of a planet is an elaborate epicycle; but Copernicus bade us transfer ourselves to the sun and look again. Instead of a path with loops and nodes, the orbit is now seen to be one of the most elementary curves—an ellipse. We have to realize that the little planet on which we stand is of no great account in the general scheme of nature; to unravel that scheme we must first disembarrass nature of the distortions arising from the local point of view from which we observe it. The sun, not the earth, is the real centre of the scheme of things—at least of those things in which astronomers at that time had interested themselves—and by transferring our view-point to the sun the simplicity of the planetary system becomes apparent. The need for a cumbrous machinery of spheres and wheels has disappeared. Every one now admits that the Ptolemaic system, which regarded the earth as the centre of all things, belongs to the dark ages. But to our dismay we have discovered that the same geocentric outlook still permeates modern physics through and through, unsuspected until recently. It has been left to Einstein to carry forward the revolution begun by Copernicus—to free our conception of nature from the terrestrial bias imported into it by the limitations of our earthbound experience. To achieve a more neutral point of view we have to imagine a visit to some other heavenly body. That is a theme which has attracted the popular novelist, and we often smile at his mistakes when sooner or later he forgets where he is supposed to be and endows his voyagers with some purely terrestrial appanage impossible on the star they are visiting. But scientific men, who have not the novelist's licence, have made the same blunder. When, following Copernicus, they station themselves on the sun, they do not realize that they must leave behind a certain purely terrestrial appanage, namely, the frame of space and time in which men on this earth are accustomed to locate the events that happen. It is true that the observer on the sun will still locate his experiences in a frame of space and time, if he uses the same faculties of perception and the same methods of scientific measurement as on the earth; but the solar frame of space and time is not precisely the same as the terrestrial frame, as we shall presently see.