The Scientific Failure Of The Original Elegant Universe
“Kepler’s idea was nothing short of brilliant, and each of the ratios for the planetary radii were predicted exactly by his model. The problem came when you compared them with observations. While the ratios for Mercury to Venus, Venus to Earth, and Earth to Mars lined up pretty well, the final two worlds failed to adhere to Kepler’s predicted ratios. In particular, it orbit of Mars, and its failure to conform to a circle of any type, was the downfall of Kepler’s model. Even though Kepler continued to work on it, even publishing a second edition more than 20 years later, his most remarkable contribution came from doing what most scientists can never bring themselves to do: abandoning their most cherished hypothesis.”
Call it what you will: beauty, elegance, simplicity, or reductionism, one of the biggest dreams of any fundamental science is to describe as much as possible with as little as possible. From F = ma to dreams of string theory, this powerful idea has been a guiding force in the formulation of scientific theories since ancient times. But while advances in mathematics often lead to brilliant new ideas in physics, they (perhaps even more) often lead to beautiful ideas that have nothing to do with our physical Universe. This isn’t a failing on our part, but rather a truth of the Universe that we must accept, whether we like it or not. But cheer up! This is nothing new, and was an uncomfortable truth faced by none other than Johannes Kepler. Kepler, famous now for his three laws of planetary motion and discovering the elliptical nature of planetary orbits, began with a different idea based on mathematics and the music of the spheres. His idea was beautiful, elegant, and a complete failure. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable, however, as it was a step that led us, eventually, to a greater scientific truth.