Thursday, July 3, 2014

Isaac Asimov considers The Relativity of Wrong

A few months ago I stumbled on this old article by Isaac Asimov published at Skeptical Inquirer in 1989.  I thought he did a very nice job of discussing the development of knowledge with an eye towards considering the significants of our decreasing uncertainty in the knowledge that we do possess.  I thought it would make a good addition to my collection over here since trying to grasp the reasoning of our right-wing climate science denier pals is what my little journey is all about.

Getting permission turned into a convoluted trail of dead endsbut I finally did get through to the Asimov estate -

That's where my luck ended as Asimov's daughter seems focused on making money and my silly request was dismissed - though she offers a slightly different excuse, one that to my eyes has about as much substance as a three dollar bill:
Dear Peter,
Regarding your request to reprint my father's essay on your blog, unfortunately I cannot give you permission.
The internet, while wonderful in many ways does make it easy for pieces of work to be reprinted in places that may not be ideal.  While I understand your good intentions, those who will reprint from your site may not nor would they have the conditions that I ensure when I do give permission.
This is what both my lawyer and I concluded.
Thank you for seeking out my permission though sorry this did not work out.  

Robyn Asimov
Asimov Holdings LLC 
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My response:
Dear Robyn Asimov, 
I'll admit, I'm disappointed by your conclusion.    
This short 2,5000 word essay by Isaac was intended to stir public discussion and thought, not to be treated like a sacred painting stuffed in a distant dusty corner of some church.  I believe your father would also be quite disappointed by your narrow interpretation. 
I wish I could ask you to reconsider, but I imagine that would be more futile dreaming. 
Sincerely, Peter (CC)
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Predictably I've received no further communication - so the matter is closed.  Which still leaves me with 'fair use' and keeping my direct quotations to <250 words which I have done.  In-between I describe what Isaac had written with my own words.  Though large swaths are missing (Isaac did like to digress and add layers) so I encourage the curious to link to Isaac's much richer full version at:  

The Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1989, Vol. 14, No. 1, Pp. 35-44
The Relativity of Wrong
By Isaac Asimov
Having received a scolding from an English Lit. major because Isaac had voiced gladness at living in a century when we had finally figured out the basics of the universe, Asimov writes ...
¶4 - ... having quoted me, (he) went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. ... 
¶5 - My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."  
¶7 - ... It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so. 
~ ~ ~ 
Then Asimov goes on to point out that given early observational ability and considering that the average curvature of the Earth is nearly 0 per mile, that assuming the Earth flat wasn't such a stupid idea back in early times.
But, it wasn't such a good idea either.  Aristotle summarized some of the problems with a totally flat surface: stars appear and disappear as boats sailed north or south; Earth's shadow on the moon during an eclipse is the arc of a circle; ships sailing into the horizon seem to slowly dip into the water, hinting at curvature.  Aristotle also had a conviction that all solid matter moved towards a common center making a sphere.
About a century after Aristotle, Eratosthenes (wiki) realized that the length of the sun's shadow changed with latitude.  Knowing the length of shadows at Alexandria and Syene a little over a thousand kilometers to the south, during the summer solstice Eratosthenes used geometry to calculate the circumference the Earth. 
Asimov points out that a circumference of 25,000 miles gives us a curvature of about 0.000126 per mile, compared to flat earth's 0.000000, a very small, but very important difference.  And yet is the earth a sphere?
Going on, Asimov points out modern measurements of Earth's diameter from various points on the globe give us different numbers and it turns out that Earth isn't perfectly spherical.
It took a while to discover this, but telescopic observations of Jupiter and Saturn offered the first hints of a discrepancy as they were found not to be perfectly spherical, but in fact slight ellipses, because of the spinning planet's centrifugal effect.
It's not much of a difference, 44 km between longest and shortest distances, or to put it another way 0.0034 departure from true sphericity.
Asimov's point is that the corrections needed to go from flat to spherical is much greater than going from spherical to oblate spheroidal.  This wasn't even the last word.  In 1958 the satellite Vanguard I discovered Earth's southern hemisphere was slightly "bulgier" meaning that in fact Earth is pear-shaped.  Of course, this "pear" shape is caused by deviations measured in meters and adjustments of curvature measured in millimeters per kilometer.
¶32 - ... living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after. 
¶33 - What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete. ... If something more than a small refinement were needed, then the old theory would never have endured. 
Asimov goes on to look at Copernicus, considered how his switch from an Earth-centered planetary system to a sun-centered one was counter-intuitive to the casual observer - but that the Copernican revolution resulting from better ways to calculate the motions of planets.  Pointing out that it was precisely because the old theory gave such good results that it hung around so long.
After this Asimov get's into the development of Evolutionary understanding.  He points out that refinements in theory keep getting smaller, furthermore that these subsequent advances don't "wipe-out" the knowledge gained from earlier advancements, it's a cumulative thing.
¶42 - Naturally, the theories ..., but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.
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I hope this has provided enough incentive for you to go and read Isaac Asimov's complete essay at 
The Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1989, Vol. 14, No. 1, Pp. 35-44
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citizenschallenge said...

Anonymous at 6/26/16 - please understand that I won't post comments that have code embedded within them (such as i(?)t&¶#(?)39:s-yes it's disabled).

*If you can't take the time to write out your comment in plain english, I don't have the interest in posting it.*

Beyond that, looks like you are an example of science in a vacuum - so in love with your idea, you take great efforts to block out all the serious science that disputes you. If anyone's interested Anonymous at 6/26/16 has convinced himself that the theory of Relativity has it all wrong. If you are curious here's a link to his blog.


Just be aware if you find something there that cause you to doubt the soundness of the Theory of Relativity - take a little time to do some quality internet googling, I'm sure you will be able to find explanations for why it's not as Ano6/26/16 portrays it.

cheers, CC

citizenschallenge said...

Came across a frightfully fitting quote today.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Asimov.