Posts tagged with history
If the astronomical observations and other quantities on which the computation of orbits were absolutely correct, the elements also, whether deduced from three or four observations, would be strictly accurate (so far indeed as the motion is supposed to take place exactly according to the laws of Kepler), and, therefore, if other observations were used, they might be confirmed but not corrected.
But since all our measurements and observations are nothing more than approximations to the truth, the same must be true of all calculations resting upon them, and the highest aim of all computations made concerning concrete phenomena must be to approximate, as nearly as practicable, to the truth. But this can be accomplished in no other way than by a suitable combination of more observations than the number absolutely requisite for the determination of the unknown quantities. This problem can only be properly understood when an approximate knowledge of the orbit has been already attained, which is afterwards to be corrected so as to satisfy all the observations in the most accurate manner possible.
Johann Carl Friedrich Gauß, Theoria Motus Corporum Cœlestium in Sectionibus Conicis solem Ambientium, 1809
(translation by C.H. Davis 1963)
[Scientific theories can be accurate and even make novel predictions, whilst being ultimately wrong. Scientific theories can also be inaccurate, whilst being ultimately right.]
Consider specifically the state of ætherial theories in the 1830’s and 1840’s. The electrical fluid, a substance which was generally assumed to accumulate on the surface rather than permeate the interstices of bodies, had been utilized to explain inter alia the attraction of oppositely charged bodies, the behavior of the Leyden jar, the similarities between atmospheric and static electricity and many phenomena of current electricity.
Within chemistry and heat theory, the caloric æther … explain[ed] everything from the role of heat in chemical reactions to the conduction & radiation of heat and … standard problems of thermometry.
Within the theory of light, the optical æther functioned centrally in explanations of reflection, refraction, interference, double refraction, diffraction and polarization. (Of more than passing interest, optical æther theories had … made … startling[, true] predictions, e.g., Fresnel’s prediction of a bright spot at the center of the shadow of a circular disc: a surprising prediction which, when tested, proved correct. If that does not count as empirical success, nothing does!)
There were also gravitational (e.g., LeSage’s) and physiological (e.g., Hartley’s) æthers which enjoyed some measure of empirical success. It would be difficult to find a family of theories in this period which were as successful as æther theories. Compared to them, 19th century atomism … a genuinely referring theory … was a dismal failure. Indeed, on any account of empirical success which I can conceive of, non-referring 19th-century æther theories were more successful than contemporary, referring atomic theories.
[According to] J.C. Maxwell…the æther was better confirmed than any other theoretical entity in natural philosophy!
Larry Laudan’s A Confutation of Convergent Realism, Philosophy of Science, 48(1), 19-49
via David Corfield