Raymo: Walking Zero

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Chet Raymo, Walking Zero : Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian. New York : Walker & Company, 2006. 194 pages, index and "Further Reading".

One could make an easy joke about how the subtitle is almost longer than the book, but it would be counterproductive because the book, which is indeed smallish, is charming, thoughtful, and rewarding to read; plus, the subtitle is an accurate statement of the theme of the book.

The idea was that Raymo would walk along a section of the Prime Meridian, which passes through the Royal British Observatory at Greenwich, England, and the author would reflect on historic developments in our concepts of space and time as suggested by places he passed by. These are the places that provoked his thoughts:

  • Peacehaven
  • Brighton
  • Lewes
  • Piltdown
  • Cuckfield
  • Downe
  • London
  • Cambridge
  • Norwich
  • Woolesthorpe
  • Barrow-on-Humber

Along the way is an exciting cast of characters and, as promised, ideas that shaped the way we think about our place in the universe. The list of chapter titles gives a good sense of his argument:

  1. Mapping the Earth
  2. The Earth in Space
  3. Antiquity of the Earth
  4. Antiquity of Man
  5. Cosmic Time
  6. Cosmic Space

This is not a detailed history of ideas, but a poetic, personal rumination on the history of the big ideas that located humankind's place in the modern universe. It's the story of how the Earth got bigger over time, then stopped being the center of the universe, then how the universe got bigger over time and everything got older than is imaginable.

The point of view is always to watch the cultural process and observe science in action. His story of how Erestosthenes measured the diameter of the Earth – and the assumptions he relied on – is a parable of how science operates. "The Earth in Space" adeptly traces the evolution of the ideas about the center of planetary orbits and how those orbits work.

It's deep stuff, but Raymo has a beautiful, poetic approach to discussing it all in what feels like an intimately connected succession of personal essays that range over huge topics. Still, by the end of the book, Raymo quite nicely accomplished his goal of showing how all this understanding came about and having a go at its implications and significance.

Raymo manages to talk about some of my favorite topics, too, like the invention of worldwide time-zones and the longitude problem and how the prime meridian came to be where it is, so I was sure to find the book appealing. But Raymo has honed his writing and his ideas so that this small book more than repays the work of reading it, which work is small because the writing is elegant and effortless.

At the near half-way mark, Raymo pauses to consider the question: Do scientists invent or discover? This leads him to ruminate on the nature of "scientific truth"

There is no such thing as the infallible Truth-generating "scientific method" often attributed to Galileo's contemporary Francis Bacon—pose a hypothesis, do an experiment, refine the hypothesis, et cetera—all very impersonal and guaranteed to lead inevitably to the raw reality of nature itself. As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, Bacon himself understood that science is (in Gould's words)"a quintessential human activity, inevitably emerging from the guts of our mental habits and social practices, and inexorably intertwined with foibles of human nature and contingencies of human history." The theories of Ptolemy or Kepler can only be understood within the context of their creators' personalities, learning and experience, cultures, times. Understanding empirical data means searching for suitable metaphors, analogies, and patterns of meaning, and what we find suitable is culturally (perhaps even genetically ) determined to a greater extent than the ultrarealists are willing to admit.

Are theories, then, entirely arbitrary cultural constructs, as the ultrarelativists assert? No. In Bacon's words, scientific understanding "is extracted...not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature." An acceptable scientific idea must be consistent with ever more finely contrived observations of nature. The theories of Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler are severely constrained by celestial observations, and it is this that gives us confidence that each of the theories possesses a measure of truth. Contemporaries of Copernicus and Kepler believed that comets were divinely ordained signs and portents. When it was discovered that comets obey precisely Kepler's laws of planetary motion, the idea of portents went out the window. Only the most hard-nosed relativists would deny that Kepler's theory of comets is in some sense truer than the theory of portents.

Scientists hold their theories against the refining fire of experience. Paradoxically, the constraints of data might actually promote scientific creativity. The poet Robert Frost famously said that writing unrhymed verse is like playing tennis with the net down. He understood that artistic creativity is enhanced, rather than frustrated, by working within certain formal constraints. The beat poets all impose complex structural restriction s upon their work: rhyme schemes, sound, patterns, syllabication, and son on. Aspiring young poets sometimes believe that by merely emptying the closets of their minds willy-nilly onto paper they have created poetry. It's not poetry that they have created, and it's not particularly creative. Poetry is a very special use of language in resonant tension with the world. In the same way, scientific creativity is sharpened, not dulled, by rubbing against the whetstone of reality. Empirical observation constrains the scientist's creativity but does not force inventiveness along inevitable tracks. It is for the scientist as it was for the singer in a poem by Wallace Stevens: "Even if what she sang was what she heard...there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang, and singing made."

What we seek in science is not Truth but knowledge more reliably true than any alternative. [pp. 71—72]

-- Notes by JNS

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