Adapted for the Internet from:

Why God Doesn't Exist
Mathematical Physics
only offers Ptolemaic
explanations

    Do you know what a Ptolemaic explanation is?

    2000 years ago Claudius Ptolemy wrote the Almagest, a book in which he summarized his lifelong researches in Astronomy.
    Ptolemy and some of his contemporaries attempted to explain how the Solar System works. They devised a complicated
    system of epicycles, deferents, and equants to account for the movement of celestial bodies around the Earth. Fig. 1 shows
    just how cumbersome and ridiculous Ptolemy’s final system as published in his Almagest indeed was.
When it comes to science, Bill,
we follow in the footsteps of our
glorious ancestor Ptolemy. We
explain the motion of the planets
with warped space, that of the
galaxies with dark matter, and
that of stars and gases with
black holes.

Fig. 1   The music of the spheres

    The ultimate reason behind Ptolemy’s distorted and amusing explanations is that, despite contrary evidence coming from
    the lab, he refused to abandon his belief in the geocentric model. In fact, to account for weirder and weirder observations,
    the ancient astronomers were forced to devise ever more ludicrous explanations. One author explains:

    “ Unfortunately, the system still did not quite match observations. Sometimes the
      size of a planet's retrograde loop (most notably that of Mars) would be smaller, and
      sometimes larger. Ptolemy could not explain this even when he moved deferents
      off-center, for the change in loop size did not match with the change in speed. This
      prompted Ptolemy to come up with the idea of an equant. The equant was a point
      near the center of a planet's orbit which, if you were to stand there and watch, the
      center of the planet's epicycle would always appear to move at the same speed.
      Therefore, the planet actually moved at different speeds at different points in its orbit.
      By using an equant, Ptolemy claimed to keep motion which was uniform and circular,
      but many people didn't like it because they didn't think it was true to Plato's dictum of
      'uniform, circular motion.' The resultant system which eventually came to be widely
      accepted in the west was an unwieldy one, using two sets of epicycles, revolving on
      a deferent, offset by an equant which was different for each retrograde planet (then
      known to be only Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), but it predicted the beginnings and ends
      of retrograde motion far more accurately than either earlier Platonic spheres or early
      (and falsely perfect) Copernican systems.”  [1]

    A Polish monk, Nicholas Copernicus, finally put an end to Ptolemy’s amusing system of epicycles and ‘retrograde’ explanations.

    Is it right for me to laugh at Ptolemy?

    Absolutely not!

    But here it goes anyway: "Ha, ha, ha." I don’t feel so guilty because, judging him by today’s standards, Ptolemy would have
    probably brought his authority to bear against a contemporary Copernican upstart. This habit of laughing at skeptics comes to
    us at least from the ancient Cynics. The mathematicians have been in the habit of manipulating peers against and sneering at
    isolated skeptics since the days of the Greeks. Plato, the first really big idiot of Mathematical Physics, was so damned cocky
    that he put a sign on his Academy door that read “Let none ignorant of geometry enter here.” Yet no one was as ignorant of
    Geometry as Plato!

    We should not lose sight of the moral of the story. The awkward, contorted, and forceful Ptolemaic explanation for the
    movement of heavenly bodies lasted for 1500 years until it was finally put to rest by Copernicus’s heliocentric system.
    Meanwhile, our ignorant forefathers believed in it wholeheartedly, so much so that the thugs of the Catholic Inquisition
    threatened to put Galileo on the rack if he didn’t recant. What died was the notion of epicycles and contorted explanations for
    how the planets move as they move. What didn’t die are the Ptolemaic explanations. What didn't die is the circus atmosphere.
    What didn't die is the peer review system so lethal to Science. The mathematical physicists picked these banners up from
    where they fell on the battlefield and carry them proudly to this day. The five key words of Mathematical Physics serve to show
    that Ptolemaism isn’t dead yet. One author asks:

    “ words such as mass, force, torque, work, power and energy. What do these words
      really mean”  [2]

    Yeah! What do these words really mean? I think that everybody would like to know once and for all.


A planet moves around a fixed point on an
embedded, rotating sphere. Here I show
only two such spheres with their respective
epicycles. Imagine swinging a ball at the
end of a string while you ride on a rotating
carousel. The center of the carousel is the
Earth. The ball revolving around your hand
is an epicycle. Ptolemy and others devised
this comical system to explain what they
observed when they looked at the night
sky. To explain more subtle phenomena,
they went further and developed deferents
and equants, concepts which essentially
mean that the Earth was slightly off center
within the spheres.

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        Copyright © by Nila Gaede 2008