Apr 08 2014

Geocentrism – Seriously?

I just saw the trailer of a new movie, The Principle. The movie is produced by Robert Sungenis, who writes the blog Galileo Was Wrong. Sungenis is what we technically call a kook. He believes the earth is at the center of the universe and that there was no Jewish holocaust, but rather the Jews were conspiring with Satan to take over the world.

Sungenis, however, is apparently a kook with money, so he is making a documentary film preaching his bizarre notions to the world. This much is nothing new. There are plenty of such films out there, like What the Bleep Do We Know and Expelled. They superficially follow the science documentary format, but they have an ideological agenda.

This film, unfortunately, will be narrated by Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. Old Star Trek stars lending their fame to pseudoscience is also, sadly, nothing new.

I was surprised to see Lawrence Krauss and Michio Kaku in the film. I know that Kaku has been flirting with the edges of responsible science promotion, but not Krauss. I suspect that they were duped into being interviewed for the film.* Perhaps they were not aware of the film’s editorial stance. (I will be seeing Krauss this weekend and will ask him.)

Krauss did tweet about the movie: “It is nonsense,” in case there was any doubt there.

It seems that Krauss and Kaku are there to simply say how strange and mysterious the cosmos are, and to discuss the edges of our current knowledge. This is a common ploy – focus on what we do not currently know in order to make it seem like we don’t know anything. The movie trailer opens with Mulgrew saying that everything we think we know about the universe is wrong.

Apparently Sungenis thinks he is smarter than the entire scientific community. Perhaps he thinks that modern science is all a conspiracy.

That the sun is at the center of our solar system, the earth revolves about the center of gravity between the earth and sun (which lies beneath the surface of the sun, which makes it reasonable to say the earth revolves about the sun), and that the universe itself has no center, are all well-established scientific ideas. Most people take these conclusions for granted and may not know the lines of evidence that support them.

One line of evidence is simply precise observations of the movements of the sun and the other planets, combined with the physics of gravity, including general relativity. If our model of how planetary mechanics works were so far off, I doubt our probes would have reached the outer planets – an accomplishment of scientific precision that is utterly astounding.

If scientists were so profoundly wrong as Sungenis claims we would not have been rewarded by such pretty pictures of Saturn and Jupiter.

Another line of evidence is stellar parallax. Parallax is the apparent change in position of relatively near objects compared to the background of relatively farther objects. Nearby stars shift in position relative to the distant background stars. They do so with amazing regularity on a yearly cycle, resulting from the earth revolving about the sun.

Stellar parallax alone (predicted by Galileo before our observations were precise enough to detect it) is strong evidence for heliocentrism. How does Sungenis answer this?

He argues that, while the sun revolves about the earth, the rest of the universe revolves about the sun, so that they are shifting their relative position to the earth causing the parallax.

Of course, this causes more problems than it solves. First, the universe is no longer geocentric. Everything but the earth revolves about the sun. Second, such a system does not actually fit our obsevations. And finally – how the hell do distant galaxies revolve about our sun?

Sungenis’s answer is that the earth (but I guess really the sun) is at the gravitational center of the universe, and objects really revolve about the center of mass, which is the earth.

This, of course, is utter nonsense. There is something called the inverse square law. Gravity becomes weaker as the square of the distance. This means that objects are much more affected by the gravity of nearby objects than the tug of distant objects – even if that distant object is the center of mass of the universe (which, by the way, does not exist).

The sun, therefore, has a greater pull on the earth than any more distant object. The earth and the sun have to be revolving around their mutual center of gravity, with only slight tweaks from other objects in the solar system. Meanwhile the entire solar system is revolving about the center of gravity of the galaxy.

This is the way it has to be.

Sungenis does not have a workable system. He has a ridiculous kluge that falls apart if you even glance at it sideways, let alone carefully inspect it.

Conclusion

Sungenis has made a documentary that does document something useful – the notion that there is no belief so absurd that there isn’t someone who will not only believe it but dedicate their time and effort to promoting it. The human brain can get trapped in even the most astoundingly ridiculous belief, and can contort itself into a Gordian knot of logic and rationalizations.

There is also another lesson, one for science communicators. Carefully vet anyone asking you to be interviewed for their film. We should have learned this lesson from Expelled.

 

*Update: This is from Krauss’s blog:

“I have no recollection of being interviewed for such a film, and of course had I known of its premise I would have refused. So, either the producers used clips of me that were in the public domain, or they bought them from other production companies that I may have given some rights to distribute my interviews to, or they may have interviewed me under false pretenses, in which case I probably signed some release. I simply don’t know.”

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