Thoughts & Insights
It really rotates
Over 500 years ago a number of courageous men of science put forward the momentous world-changing assertion that “And yet it does move”. By this they meant the earth. Such a view filled the potentates of the church of that time with horror and dismay. They believed that the Erth and mankind were the crowning glory in the divine scheme of things and thus must stand at the very centre of the universe. And they would bitterly persecute anyone who dared contradict them.
Nowadays the scientific discoveries made by Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler about the course of celestial bodies have long been common knowledge. Today everyone knows that the earth turns on its own axis and revolves around the sun. The idea of the earth as the centrepoint of the universe has long been discarded. And yet something still remains of the old perception that the sun revolves around the earth and not vice versa.
It survives in a certain way that we use language – any of the world’s languages – and is evidenced each time we talk, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, of the rising and setting of the sun. The sun rises in the morning, revolves around the world in the course of the day and sets again the evening. In this linguistic model the earth is always stationary. Even though we all know that this cannot be the case. This is really curious.
How can it be that after more than 500 years we still haven’t found any adequate linguistic expression for this cosmic state of affairs? That in the 21st century we talk blithely about the relationship between the earth and the sun as though we were still living in the 12th century?
Perhaps it has to do with our sensory system. We sense nothing of the earth’s rotation and delude ourselves that our planet is fixed and immobile just because the place we live in always has the same longitude and latitude. And our everyday experience might even occasionally lead us to believe that the earth is flat because we can always easily keep walking straight ahead on its surface without ever feeling the slightest curve.
One way out of such a subjective viewpoint is shown by a video which gives a time-lapse visualisation of both the earth’s rotation and the curve of its surface by taking the Milky Way as its point of reference and having the landscape spin instead. Thanks to Aryeh Nirenberg for this extraordinary visual experience which helps us to overcome the illusion of our usual daily perception of what we call sunrise.
The fact that even today we are still using the language of a time when all this was unknown shows that in the depths of our being we are still fixated on a geo- or anthropocentric view of the world. And until we find a proper way of expressing the true state of the cosmos, our language will keep us trapped in this cognitive condition where we live out the permanent contradiction between what astrophysics teaches us and what our sensory experience of everyday reality unconsciously persuades us to believe. What our everyday language expresses is not our astrophysical knowledge but the illusion in which we are living.
Only when we have found a way of expressing in language that the sun rises over the horizon when our earth has sufficiently turned on its axis, and that the sun disappears under the horizon when our planet has nearly completed its rotation – only then will we develop a truly cosmocentric understanding of ourselves and the world we live in, an understanding that is rooted in everyday thought. Only then will we truly grasp the true dynamics of our solar system.
Whether this will help us to a better understanding of our role on this planet remains to be seen. Yet the fact that our perceptions shape our language and our language shapes the ways we think is indisputable. Yet whatever the reciprocal effects of perception, language and thought might be – I for one would dearly love to know what an adequate expression for what we still today call a sunrise and sunset would sound like.
Perhaps sometime such an expression will come along, possibly with the aid of artificial intelligence that frees us from the self-centeredness of our own consciousness and the sensory limitations of the human brain. Yet if it does, I do hope that it doesn’t mean that we shall also lose the romanticism of that extraordinary beauty we still associate with what we now call the rising and setting of the sun.