Wednesday, July 13, 2011

No sense of proportion

Large and small insanities

As Douglas Adams has observed, the universe is so mind-bogglingly big that a sense of proportion can be a dangerous thing to have. That is, at least, if you want to maintain your equanimity and sense of self-worth.

Nevertheless, the absence of any sense of proportion appears to be one of society's major ills. It manifests itself in various forms of innumerate inanity and scientific delusion. I have three very different examples in mind, the toxic impact of which should be readily apparent to any minimally rational reader. Today I'll present the first one, which is a delightful mix of religion and pseudoscience.

Playing center

Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have cruelly quipped that Gerald Ford spent too much time playing center on his football team, looking at the world upside-down from between his legs. I wonder whether Robert Sungenis filled the same position on his high school's team. Whatever the case may be, he ended up as a dedicated exponent of the theory that he is the center of the universe.

Forgive me. I overstate the situation just a little. Sungenis is actually a geocentrist rather than an egocentrist (although I suppose it's possible that he could be both). An ultramontane Catholic apologist who is far outside the mainstream of Catholic thought, Sungenis is a Bible literalist who believes in young-earth creationism and argues that Joshua couldn't have ordered the sun to stop in the sky (Joshua 10:12-13) unless it circled the earth—and not the other way around. Logical, right?

Sungenis is considered an embarrassment to the Catholic hierarchy even though he is trying to defend its old accusations against heliocentrist Galileo Galilei. However, his diocesan bishop has deemed some of his essays anti-Semitic and has ordered him to stop writing such material. You'd think the Church fathers would be grateful!

I have encountered Sungenis before. Any Google search on Catholic apologetics brings up his “Catholic Apologetics International” website, although it has since been renamed the “Bellarmine Theological Forum.” I was reminded of his rabid geocentrism upon being directed to an amusing post on The Greenbelt, where The Ridger gently eviscerates the campaign by Sungenis to discredit Galileo. As she points out, “When Ken Ham finds you too wacky, you are definitely in need of help.”

To get a sense of how ridiculous it is to think that the entire universe spins about a fixed earth, consider the simple case of Neptune. The distance between Earth and Neptune averages 30 astronomical units—that is, thirty times the mean distance of the earth from the sun. Assuming that Neptune's supposed path about the earth is approximately a circle, we compute the circumference of a circle with a radius of 30 AU to obtain a distance of 60π AU. This is the distance that Neptune supposedly travels in a single 24-hour period as it wheels about the earth. So how fast does Neptune have to travel to complete that circuit in the allotted time? Since an astronomical unit is approximately 93 million miles, a little calculator work yields 730 million miles per hour. If we divide by 3600 (the number of seconds in an hour) to convert this speed to miles per second, we get a little over 200 thousand miles per second for Neptune's speed.

Oops. The speed of light is only about 186,000 miles per second. Unless Neptune has warp drive, it can't possibly be traveling faster than the speed of light.

Please note that we were discussing the simple case of a relatively close planet—one that shares the same solar system as the earth. Imagine how much more ridiculous the results would be if we merely extended them to the nearest star, approximately four light-years away. Or the Andromeda galaxy, about a million light-years away. (The folks in Andromeda must be as dizzy as hell!)

Of course, this refutation of geocentricity assumes that Einstein was right. I'm sure that Sungenis is prepared to contradict Einstein in his discussion of “Jewish science.” You know, perhaps we should revisit the “egocentric” issue in his case.


Nick Barrowman said...

One version of geocentrism holds that the Earth, positioned at the center of the universe, rotates about its axis. I'm certainly not a geocentrist, but this does eliminate the speed problem.

Zeno said...

Quite true, Nick, but Sungenis is the hardcore kind of geocentrist who holds with a fixed Earth. No revolution. No rotation.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I wonder if James will show up to tell you about "Dr. Sungenis' abridged version of his huge 2 volume work" of which "I submit (unless you can prove otherwise) that it is the most comprehensive and detailed scientific treatise on the issue of heliocentric versus geocentric cosmology ever offered to the public bar none."

ShockedISaid said...

While Neptune screaming around us at 11 times the speed of light seems like a winning argument to me, apparently it's wrong.

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait argues with support from cosmologist Sean Carroll --

"[R]elativity says the math has to work out if you change a frame of reference, so if you do the detailed relativistic equations to look at the motion of distant objects, it still works. Things actually can move faster than light relative to the coordinate system, it’s just that things cannot move past each other with a relative speed greater than light. In the weird geocentric frame where the Universe revolves around the Earth, that is self-consistent.

In other words, the Neptune-moving-too-quickly argument sounds good, but in reality it doesn’t work, and we shouldn’t use it."

That doesn't make sense to me, because in my non-scientist brain Neptune going around us is the same as Neptune going passed us. Just the same, scientists are saying this isn't a good argument.

Zeno said...

Thanks for the link, Shocked. I am not a physicist, but I am suitably shocked. The bottom line, in my humble opinion, is that it's time to reach for Occam's razor.

ShockedISaid said...

Zeno, you are absolutely correct about that. The number of absolutely ridiculous assumptions required for geocentrism are mind-boggling.

drmathochist said...

In general, it's impossible to say the Earth moves around the Sun or vice versa. There are even reference frames in which both are fixed. It's all a question of which choice makes the subsequent discussion the most convenient.

The Ridger, FCD said...

"things cannot move past each other with a relative speed greater than light" - that's your key. If the earth isn't moving, Neptune and it aren't moving past each other.

Special Relativity only works for inertial frames of reference, but once you deal with gravity - meaning of course once you're in the real universe - it's General Relativity, and that doesn't. The math may work for some special problem, but it doesn't work in practice.

Kurt said...

"You know, perhaps we should revisit the 'egocentric' issue in his case."

Egocentrism has plenty to do with it.