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Sunday, 17 February 2008


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But she says "heliocentric system," not "heliocentric universe." The solar system is a heliocentric system since the planets revolve around the sun - in fact, calling it a "solar system" is almost synonymous with calling it a "heliocentric system." This does not imply that the system itself shares its center with some absolute center of the universe.

Not saying there isn't something of interest here, but it isn't that Wharton's astronomy is dated.


You're absolutely right -- I jumped to "universe" because I'm thinking cosmologically, which, of course, setting it up with geocentrism primed me to do. I'd still like to get the date, approx. or otherwise, for the end of heliocentrism though, since I'm not trying to play Gotcha! with Wharton here. The exact opposite, in fact -- I think she's indicating the datedness of the narrative voice in "The Angel at the Grave" in order to assuage her lifelong fear of becoming obsolete.

It's why I think the recent spate of articles -- like Sharon Kim's otherwise excellent "Lamarckism and the construction of transcendence in The House of Mirth" in Studies of the Novel (June 06) -- are only half-correct to attribute Lamarckian thought to Wharton, who was too well aware of how quickly theories became obsolete to bank an entire novel on a single one.


I would've thought it died with Newton, or at least well before the 18th century. The Kant-Laplace nebular hypothesis doesn't have the sun at the center of the universe, for instance, and I've never seen this noted as something particularly remarkable.

The Wikipedia article you linked claims that Galileo claimed the sun was not the center of the universe, which isn't anything I'd heard before, but seems plausible enough. Elliptical orbits don't have a "center" anyway, so why not claim that Kepler killed heliocentrism?

Rich Puchalsky

This is a pretty difficult question, actually. Sure, over the 18th and 19th centuries it became more and more clear that the Sun looked like other stars. And sure, some people before that asserted that the universe wasn't heliocentric. But it seems to me that if the universe could have a center, then you couldn't necessarily know that the Sun *wasn't* at the center of it, except through an argument that random chance would make that unlikely (which could be argued against on the basis that the Sun was placed at the center by God and that chance didn't come into it, since heliocentrists would likely be religious). So when did it become clear that the universe doesn't have a center?

As far as I know, Kepler's laws wouldn't say anything about the shape of the universe. A Newtonian universe could still have a center. I think that it's only when you get to Einstein and relativity, or sometime around 1920, that the idea of the universe having a possible center of any kind is finally dropped.


Are you still back on Wharton? I thought you were writing a Twain chapter. (shakes head) Them wimmin writers ---- once they get their claws inta ya, ya just can't get away!


Maybe I'm being dense here, but isn't she using "geocentric universe" in the first passage as a metaphor (not a literary scholar; feel free to correct my technical terms) for a narrow-minded literary world which does not take science into account? In which case, she's using it entirely correctly, it seems to me, in the sense that the first great achievement of early modern science was the abandonment of geocentrism.

Similarly in the second one, she's using "heliocentric system" as a metaphor for a vision of the world beyond a narrow domestic "earthly sphere" (so to speak).

So far, rereading your post, we're pretty much on the same page.

It doesn't matter, I don't think, the extent to which cosmology had progressed by 1901, because what she's doing is channeling (I'm sure there's a technical term for this) the even-then-conventional narrative of geocentrism as a stand-in for all narrow-minded, self-limiting thought, and heliocentrism as the stand-in for the realization that we are not at the center of everything.

Relativity is a few years away yet (and popular understanding of relativity further off) and Hubble a few decades from his critical work on light-shift. I don't think most people had gone beyond heliocentricity yet.

David Moles

According to Wikipedia, the idea that stars were distant suns was already common currency in Newton's day; but it wasn't till the 1930s that one R.J. Trumpler showed that the solar system wasn't at (or even near) the center of the galaxy. Still, I think Surlacarte is right; I doubt very much that Wharton meant "heliocentric" to imply Keplerian celestial spheres.

I just forwarded this to a history of science friend at Berkeley; curious to see what she says.

Rich Puchalsky

"It doesn't matter, I don't think, the extent to which cosmology had progressed by 1901, because what she's doing is channeling (I'm sure there's a technical term for this) the even-then-conventional narrative of geocentrism as a stand-in for all narrow-minded, self-limiting thought, and heliocentrism as the stand-in for the realization that we are not at the center of everything."

In support of that, I can't think of a good shorthand word ending in -ism for "the universe has no center". If you're going to oppose geocentrism to something, there isn't really a good single word for that something, so I can see why heliocentrism would be tempting. Even "relativity", used later on, doesn't work in this context; it brings in connotations of moral and cultural relativism and so on that sort of slides you from premodernity to postmodernity without stopping at modernity in between.

Luther Blissett

Ahistoricality is right on, I believe. In "Angel," Wharton the writer -- not Wharton the woman who read a little science -- *wants* heliocentric because it works as the right image. Paulina is a heliotrope, her eyes and senses growing away from the dullness of an earth-centered world, her skin desiring the life and heat and color associated with the sun.

Sounds like a version of Plato's Cave.

Lloyd Mintern

The idea that Man, or any person ever, was disturbed by being informed they were no longer living on the planet at the center of the universe is in fact MISSING from history, and furthermore irrelevant to the scientists featured in the history. It is modern fairy tale incorporated into renditions of the story, as if people in that history were consumed by such a question; but in fact it has so little imaginative value, or appeal, that there are NO BOOKS on the dilemma--except commentaries, and novels with characters who are extreme anachronisms, way after this epochal shift supposedly occurred. However, there was an epochal shift between the time of the heliocentric system (which was, as your first commenter pointed out, NOT a universe) of Ptolemy, and the universe, more or less started up in thought, of Galileo. That was a shift in CONSCIOUSNESS, a shift to a thinking that claimed to be able to have access to and means to describe reality as it actually is (and always has been). This claim was never made before, and it licensed modern science. I am getting these ideas from Owen Barfield, SAVING THE APPEARANCES.


Well, then Barfield stinks as an historian, Mr. Mintern. While it's true that popularization of the heliocentric view didn't happen until the 18c, and that it was fairly uncontroversial at that point, it's also true that -- among the small circle of savants and power-brokers of the 16c -- there was considerable distress at the idea. Even putting aside Galileo's banning and house arrest, there's substantial correspondence from the time in which Galileo defended himself against a variety of criticisms from a variety of sources. There's also the case of Tycho Brahe, who spent a good portion of his career making fantastic astronomical observations in hope of debunking Copernicus, only to have his data used by Kepler (after Brahe's death) to bolster heliocentrism and further obliterate Ptolemy with elliptical orbits.

It is true that there was some ahistorical triumphalism (thus the myth of Renaissance Flat-Earthers befuddled by Columbus, when he was actually the one with the lousy geographic sense) in the 18th and 19th centuries (they called themselves "The Enlightenment" after all), but that doesn't mean they were completely wrong.

Lloyd Mintern

Considerable distress at what idea? The point here is that these ideas, about what kind of universe we live in, NONE of them, were at the heart of any controversy of that time; they are all read back into those times. And the idea that Galileo actually had, represents a shift in consciousness.


Apparently facts aren't going to get in the way of a good epiphany. I don't know how you read the history to put Galileo at the heart of the intellectual shifts while ignoring the fact that his ideas were objected to by the great and powerful (there being no public sphere to speak of at the time) and his astronomical observations overturned long-held beliefs: Galileo did some lovely cleaning up around the edges but Copernicus and Newton did the serious heavy lifting in terms of paradigm shifts.


[That's odd. I responded to everyone yesterday, but my comment's not there. Hm. I'll take care of that shortly.]

Ahistoricality, I think Lloyd has a point, doesn't he? I've never liked the cleanliness of the Kuhnian shift -- seems to me the stars don't snap into constellations the way he described them.


Scott: I'm not defending the Kuhnian shift -- Mr. Mintern's argument is about the Kuhnian shift, which he lays in the lap of Galileo; I'm defending the basic historical record against an argument that ignores considerable evidence for no apparent reason.


I'm generally with Lloyd on this one. Yes, Ahistoricality, there was significant resistance to Galileo in some quarters, but it was not simply because Galileo and/or Copernicus were disabusing them of the notion that they were at the center of the cosmos--which seems to me the issue that Lloyd was addressing.

In fact, the cosmology at Copernicus' time had Earth at the "bottom" of the universe. It was base material, the detritus of the cosmos, only one step above Hell (think Dante or Milton). The idea of a succession of freethinking people--Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Hubble-- setting straight the benighted, anthropocentric (and not coincidentally, religious) folk is a common myth, especially in the "pop" history of science nowadays. But it has been soundly refuted by scholarship from many quarters. The most straightforward treatment of this issue I've seen is “The Great Copernican Cliché” in the American Journal of Physics, 69.10 (Oct. 2001): 1029-1035.

Lloyd Mintern

I agree that it is not enough to lay the whole "paradigm shift" on Galileo alone. Here is a passage from Owen Barfield: "the real turning point in the history of astononomy and of science in general . . . took place when Copernicus (probably-it cannot be regarded as certain) began to think, and others, like Kepler and Galileo, began to affirm that the heliocentric hypothesis not only saved the appearances, but was physically true. It was this, this novel idea that the Copernican (and therefore any other) hypothesis might not be a hypothesis at all but the ultimate truth, that was almost enough in itself to constitute the "scientific revolution" ... SAVING THE APPEARANCES pg 51.

This epochal shift in the "evolution of consciousness" (Barfield's constant thesis) is of of course not the work of one man--it was sloppy of me to make it seem so in a brief comment. But is also more than a paradigm shift--which is a highly equivocal term more applicable to mere attitudes, than perceptions of truth. The real deception of the scientific revolution comes with its covert assertion that the universe must always have been the way scientific man now perceives it; which effectively erases the LOCATION of all previous cosmologies, rendering them merely fantastic and wholly imaginary.

I think perhaps I led Ahistorical astray as to when I thought this shift was, though, with a misplaced use of the word heliocentric; clearly we all agree, now, that it was "The Copernican Revolution" (I have read Kuhn also). The originality of Owen Barfield is that he views this as a story of how men became newly in search of what was "physically true"--more than a matter of whether the science itself was accurate. For, or course, at the time Ptolemy's system actually still saved more of the appearances. As you said, Galileo had alot of cleaning up to do.


Yes, Ahistoricality, there was significant resistance to Galileo in some quarters

Mr. Mintern seems to be denying this: that's the crux of my problem with his argument. I'm sorry, but I was trained to ignore arguments that start by denying basic facts. He cites Ptolemy as a heliocentric system, which is absurd on the face.

I'm perfectly happy to talk about a more nuanced intellectual and cultural history of cosmology -- the article looks interesting, though I can't seem to access it online through my library, but the abstract doesn't really support Mr. Mintern's assertions here -- but not with people who can't deal with basic material.

My own perspective on this is that there's been considerable regression on the relationship between religion and science in the last century or so: the counterreaction to modernity (including, but not limited to, Darwin) has created a rift that really wasn't as noticeable before. The Englightenment's anti-clerical stance produced a great deal of heated anti-religious history.... etc.

Lloyd Mintern

Didn't I just made that correction? If you want to disregard everything I say because I made a hasty misplacement, which doesn't even relate to the main issue, go ahead. Apparently you want to discuss the paradigm shifts between Copernicus and the Enlightenment; I am focused on the earlier shift. But enough with the accusatory "can't deal with the basic material." What do you think of Barfield's basic distinction (in the quote I supplied).


Our messages crossed, apparently, but you still haven't admitted any qualms about denying the difficulties Copernicus and his successor astronomers had in having their ideas accepted.

As far as "Barfield's basic distinction," I don't honestly see how that view contrasts, particularly, with the conventional history of the Copernican revolution, except in the odd postmodern turn of attempting to somehow relegitimize pre-Copernican cosmology.

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