Thursday, 16 September 2010

Why "Galileo Was Wrong" is not even wrong.

The American based Catholic group Galileo Was Wrong (GWR) has been getting a bit of stick recently, noticeably from Slashdot, for their assertion that the planet Earth is, in fact, at the centre of the Universe.

A tad harsh I reckon.

Not that I believe their standpoint is right, you understand.  Certainly not in the same context, with the heavy religious slant and subtitle of "The Church Was Right".

But there are some interesting ideas here - questioning established facts for one.  A world where people question their own beliefs is a better one, we should all do it more often.  Are you still voting for the same political party out of habit, even though the policies have changed drastically over the decades? Still buying the same toilet roll that was all cutting edge (no unpleasant pun intended) in the 1980s?  Still (and here's the rub) believing in the same god you were told about when you were six?  There's nothing wrong with believing in a god in my book - all of the major theologies freely admit that it's entirely a matter of faith, and science freely admits that the axioms of whichever branch you take are also based on faith, so there's no real argument there.

The point is, look at your old beliefs occasionally, make sure you're up to date.  There's nothing more cringeworthy than holding an old belief...nope, not even finding out that your boss follows your Twitter ramblings ;)

That's what GWR are doing, looking at an old scientific belief, one which has changed drastically in the last few hundred years.  That's the beauty of science, it changes, it relishes the mistakes.  If mistakes aren't made, then science isn't doing its job properly.

Sorry guys: Galileo's work is still the subject of a great many questions, but probably not in the way you're thinking.

Unless the Catholic Church have some top secret 17th Century documents concerning hyperbolic geometry and imaginary numbers then the whole argument is akin to getting in a fizzy over whether the Sun is kind of a yellowish colour. 

The truth is a bit weirder.

If the Big Bang theory is even remotely correct, if the entire observable Universe was once all in the same place, then yes, the Earth is at the centre of it.  All of the constituent particles were at the centre, along with everything else.  Then space expanded.  Every single thing moved away from every other single thing at once.  In essence, the three dimensions were curled into a single dimensionless point, and then they unfurled.  Space came into being, without expanding into anything.  There wasn't any thing to expand into, because there wasn't any space...the three dimensions didn't exist, let alone space.

So everything is still at the centre, the centre's just got bigger.  You are, right now, sitting on top of the exact spot where the Big Bang happened.  So am I.  So are the biscuits in the cupboard, and the bit of the Moon they stuck the flag in, and Uranus, and stop giggling at the back.

The Big Bang happened everywhere.  The entire observable Universe, all of it, is still in exactly the same place it always  It expanded, yes, but it didn't expand into anything.  It's still just here, at the centre, where it always was.

Current physical theory does indeed suggest that the Earth is at the centre of the just defines "centre" in a slightly more interesting and physically real way.  The Church, as quoted by GWR, are missing out on something huge, and that's a pity.  If there is a god, and a good scientist has to accept the concept if not the hypothesis, then he's made a very interesting Universe indeed, and choosing to ignore the whole glory of it all is blasphemy in itself.

As a serendipitous follow-up, my flatmate just told me about Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer who just happened to be on BBC4 last night (iPlayer - 21:15).  A man with some very interesting views, and proof that GWR are probably far from the only Catholic views on spacetime.

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