Despite the giant leaps of medical knowledge in recent times, we have all met the orthopedist who cannot renovate one’s agonized back and the dermatologist who cannot get rid of that obstinate rash, leading us to suspect that science is perhaps not such an exact science after all. After all, unlike the unchanging Torah, science changes its stance incessantly in the face of new evidence and sometimes even retreats to rejected theories of the past. This article will explore some samples of the last genre.
Heliocentrism or Geocentrism
As everyone knows, until fairly recently the earth was undisputedly regarded as the physical center of the universe. Geocentrism, as this concept is called, retained center stage until the sixteenth century, when Nicolaus Copernicus shook up the astronomical world with his convincing Heliocentrism (sun-centered) model of the cosmos.
It is widely assumed that the Maharal is referring to this earthshaking new system when he writes in his Be’er Hagolah, “Is the new astronomy the end of the world, the final truth? Not at all…The very author of the bold new doctrine concedes in his writings that he cannot explain everything. Though science is a valuable tool in deciphering the physical universe, it cannot give us the answer to the deeper questions that the heart seeks to resolve. It cannot deal with non-material reality, the world of spirit— only religion can.”
Yet strangely, the heliocentric view of the universe was not that new after all, having existed as a minority opinion since the time of the ancient Greeks. Archimedes cited the third century BCE Greek sage, Aristarchus, as offering a hypothesis that, “The fixed stars and the Sun remain unmoved [and] that the Earth revolves about the Sun on the circumference of a circle, the Sun lying in the middle of the orbit, etc.” Sadly for Aristarchus, his theory never caught fire and nineteen long centuries passed before his theory seized center stage.
Despite its advantages and simplicity, it was incredible to imagine wandering the surface of a revolving world that seems perfectly still, as one of Copernicus’s contemporaries complained, “There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down.” Why do we not notice the earth’s spin?
Newton provided the answer with his Newtonian Theory of Relativity (not to be confused with Einstein’s theories which also shed light on these concepts), which explains that so long as a person is not subjected to acceleration, he will feel stationary even if traveling at a thousand miles an hour. Just as someone traveling through a placid sea could imagine that his ship is stationary and the waves are moving past, so we feel that the earth is perfectly still and the sun is racing overhead. See pesachim 94B, the Rishonim there and the Gilyon Hashas there who quotes Rabbenu Tam.
Incidentally, an oft cited passage in the Zohar (Vayikra 10a) seems to support Copernicus’s heliocentric position, stating that, “The entire world revolves like a ball, these below and these above…. And there is a place in the world where, when it is light for these, it is dark for these, for these day and for these night. And there is a place which is all day and has no night except for a short time.”
This passage seems to intimate that day and night come about not through the movement of the sun, but through the revolving of our planet earth.
Related to the sun or earth centered debate was the old flat or round earth question. This topic does not really belong to the “science in reverse” category, since, contrary to common opinion, the solid scholarly consensus since the time of ancient Greece has been that the earth is as round as a marble.
Aristotle, one of the early investigators of the round earth concept, proved that this idea held water by noting that people traveling south see the southern constellations rising higher above the horizon the further south they move. This would not make sense if the earth were fl at. In addition, the Greeks noticed that the earth’s shadow on the moon is consistently round during lunar eclipses, which would be impossible if the earth was a fl at disk.
In consequence of this, we find the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 3:1) describing the idolatrous nations constructing idols holding a globe of the world in their hands as a symbol of their concern with planet earth (see Tosafos there). Indeed, modern historians have labeled the misconception that Middle Age cosmologists regarded the world as flat as “the Myth of the Flat Earth,” although they concede that common people may have thought otherwise. This would explain the unsubstantiated story of Columbus’s sailor threatening him with mutiny due to their terror that sailing too far west might plunge them over the edge of the world.
Incidentally, the Flat Earth Society had a thousand membership roll at its peak in the 1980s. Its members, the sincere ones at any rate, obstinately insist that science has got it all wrong and the world is flat after all.
Is Space Real
For centuries, scientists argued whether space has a real, independent existence or whether it is merely a way to label the distance between objects, so that in a universe bereft of objects space would be meaningless. Typical of his deep religious outlook, Isaac Newton insisted that even empty space is filled with spirituality and that absolute space is “the sensorium of G-d.” On the other hand, Newton’s contemporary, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnetz firmly believed that empty space does not really exist in any conventional sense.
By the nineteenth century opinion had swung in Newton’s favor, and scientists firmly believed that space was filled with an invisible ether. Their argument was that just an ocean wave cannot make a wave without water and just as a sound wave cannot make noise without air to travel through, so too, a light wave would be helpless unless there was something to “wave” it, and this something was invisible, weightless, odorless ether that permeated the entire universe.
The idea was discredited after the Jewish American scientist, Albert Abraham Michelson, ran a series of brilliant experiments to detect the presence of ether and came up empty handed. Regarded as the most famous failed experiment in history, this fiasco drove the ether theory to the grave.
Strangely, decades later in 1964, a new theory surfaced that replaced the old fashioned ether sea with the even stranger Higg’s Ocean. Like ether, the Higgs Ocean too is invisible, odorless, and undetectable. In addition to explaining various sub-atomic phenomena, the Higgs Ocean explains why it is more difficult to throw a brick than a softball. Scientists explain that this is because the Higgs Ocean is a greater barrier to objects of greater mass. Without the Higgs Ocean, most physicists agree that a child could effortlessly kick a ball to the moon.
Imagine an anti-gravity machine that enabled grand pianos and cars to float in the air like balloons. This would be a good solution for sore backs and energy problems! Taking the gravity of the entire cosmos into consideration, Einstein’s 1915 Theory of General Relativity led to the awesome realization that the universe is not static, but either stretching or shrinking, which strongly indicated that the cosmos has a definitive beginning and end, a moment of creation and a destiny of dissolution. To Einstein, the idea of creation smacked of “heresy,” for did not every self-respecting scientist know that the Universe is eternal and unchanging?
Applying his giant intellect to the problem, Einstein suggested that the answer was anti-gravity. Exactly enough anti-gravity existed, he asserted, to oppose the attracting force of gravity and keep the universe in eternal stasis. He even gave this force a specific value – the “Cosmological Constant.”
Twelve years later Einstein and his cohorts got a shock when astronomer Edwin Hubble observed that the stars are racing away from us and that the universe is indeed expanding. Einstein not only admitted that he was wrong but reputedly said, “This was the biggest mistake of my life.” Perhaps this was when Einstein warned that human obstinacy is one of the biggest impediments of science:
“Concepts which have proved useful for ordering things easily assume so great an authority over us that we forget their terrestrial origin and accept them as unalterable facts. They then become labeled as ‘conceptual necessities,’ etc. The road of scientific progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors.”
Einstein never knew that science would vindicate his anti-gravity theory after all. In the late 70s scientists were theorizing that the mysterious Higgs Field mentioned earlier might produce a repulsive “anti-gravity,” which possessed a force ten to the power of a hundred greater than Einstein’s cosmological constant. Evidence for this strange idea was unearthed in 1998 when astronomers found that certain supernovae (exploding stars) seemed further away than should be and concluded that they were being thrust away at accelerating speed by a mysterious repulsive force that is the opposite of gravity.
It is worth noting that the concept of repulsive anti-gravity is mentioned by the Alshich in his commentary on Mishlei (25:3): “Some say that the heavens hold [the world] in place by repulsing it from every direction, while others maintain that the heavens attract it from every direction.”
The Alshich concludes that the ultimate repository of all physical and spiritual truths is the Torah and the messorah handed down over the generations. Scientists, on the other hand, can be aptly described as Newton depicted himself:
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”