The Man Who Showed Science How to Be Wrong

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"... the ways by which men arrive at knowledge of the celestial

things are hardly less wonderful than the nature of these things themselves."                                                                                       
 -Johannes Kepler

For the longest time, Johannes Kepler clung to his treasured theory. It was so beautiful, so harmonious; "God's geometrical plan for the universe."

It was also wrong.

It was around the dawn of the 17th century, and Kepler, a brilliant German-born astronomer, was entranced with the idea of a Copernican solar system whose motions were at least partially based upon the five platonic solids. By ordering the solids as follows -- octahedron, icosahedron, dodecahedron, tetrahedron, and cube -- within a scaled, 3-D model, Kepler could closely approximate based on the best available data the orbits of the known planets, which -- emulating the dominant thinking of Copernicus -- he strongly believed to be spherical. For Kepler, the model perfectly reconciled his theological beliefs with his scientific work.

437px-Kepler-solar-system-1.pngBut in 1600, Kepler went to work for the eccentric and eminent mathematician Tycho Brahe in Prague. After gaining access to Brahe's immense collection of astronomical data in 1601, Kepler slowly and frustratingly realized that his favored theory was not in line with the hard facts. Thus, he had a choice. Would he prefer painful truth or blissful ignorance? His decision would shape science for generations to come.

"When he found that his long-cherished beliefs did not agree with the most precise observations, he accepted the uncomfortable facts. He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions," Carl Sagan recounted in Cosmos.


circle-ellipse.gifExamining the movements of Mars, Kepler found its orbit to be elliptical, not spherical. This meant that Copernicus's widely accepted assumption was incorrect. The discovery also dealt a blow to Kepler's divine geometrical notion of the solar system. Though he would never fully relinquish the idea that platonic solids played a role, he didn't allow his beliefs to sway the data. Later, he would formulate his revolutionary Three Laws of Planetary Motion. The brief, but powerful laws were the first to accurately describe mathematically the motions of the planets around the sun.

The laws would grant Kepler enduring fame, but the real takeaway from his work was something just as integral: Kepler showed millions of future scientists how to be wrong.

"It is the first published account wherein a scientist documents how he

has coped with the multitude of imperfect data to forge a theory of

surpassing accuracy," Owen Gingerich, a Harvard Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and History of Science, wrote in 1992.

Today, we call this the scientific method.

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