My grumpfy rant yesterday was spurred by a particular piece of writing, but I tried to keep it as general as possible. These are habits we writers get into, after all. Sean Carroll brings up Democritus, for example, then points out how different our modern atoms are from the Greek dude’s, so I’ll absolve Sean. (I’m sure he’s happy to know that.) I know I’ve been guilty of reinterpreting geocentrism as meaning Earth is the focus of the Universe, rather than its lowest, meanest point. And that’s even after reading The Divine Comedy, where the heavens literally contain Heaven and are populated by the Blessed, while the center of Earth is the dwelling place of Satan and traitors like Judas Iscariot. Evil sinks to the center, while righteousness ascends beyond the stars.
The problem is that it’s very easy and convenient to set up Straw Theories to knock down. You know what I mean: it’s fun to bring up theories that were once viable, like geocentrism or phlogiston or steady-state cosmology. Sometimes that’s to point out how scientists in the past were Teh Dumb compared with Smart Us’ns, sometimes another purpose is at work, but most often it’s just because that’s what we science writers do: it’s a reflex, a habit. If we’re talking about the atomic model of matter, we have to bring up Democritus, even if it doesn’t actually make much sense to do so.
However, physics writer/student Leah Crane sparked a thought during a Twitter conversation yesterday. She said she doesn’t want to give up using the term “Ptolemaic” just because it’s a cool word.
@DrMRFrancis 100% understandable. (We should come up with another meaning for Ptolemaic other than “relating to Ptolemy” for everyday use.)
— Leah Crane (@DownhereonEarth) October 24, 2013
(Seriously, English language: we need more words starting with “pt” or similar consonant clusters. Greek has so much of an edge on us.) So, I thought of a modest proposal: what if we coin the following?
ptolemaic (adj.): pertaining to a scientific theory that was once viable and widely accepted, but no longer valid thanks to improved data and subsequent ideas.
Ptolemaic models fit the available data very well during their time, so people were not stupid for accepting them. If people continue to accept ptolemaic theories beyond their period of usefulness, that’s an entirely different matter. This is not the same as (say) Newtonian physics, which is still useful in a wide range of applications, even though it breaks down on small scales, strong gravity, and high energy. Rather, we can think of ptolemaic as similar to “obsolete”, but without the negative connotations of the latter term.
What do you all think?
- Dante was writing metaphorically, but (as I understand it) the Aristotelian view was that Earth’s physical laws were base, while the heavens obeyed perfect rules. At the same time, I’m not sure how fruitful it is to think of religious cosmology of that era in scientific terms.