INTERLUDE 2-2 The Scientific MethodColor
Most ancient philosophers held firmly to the belief that, whatever the reasons for the motions of the heavens, Earth in general and humankind in particular were absolutely central to the workings of the universe. Modern science, by contrast, has arrived at a diametrically opposite view. Our present-day outlook is that Earth, the solar system, and (some would argue) humanity are ordinary in every way. This idea is often (and only half-jokingly) called the "principle of mediocrity," and it is deeply embedded in modern scientific thought. It is a natural extension of the Copernican principle discussed in Sections 2.3 and 2.4 (see also Interlude 2-1). Nowadays, any theory or observation that even appears to single out Earth, the solar system, or the Milky Way Galaxy as in some way special is immediately regarded with great suspicion in scientific circles.

The principle of mediocrity extends far beyond mere philosophical preference, however. Simply put, if we do not make this assumption, then we cannot make much headway in science, and we cannot do astronomy at all. Virtually every statement made in this text rests squarely on the premise that the laws of physics, as we know them here on Earth, apply everywhere else too, without modification and without exception.

This transformation in the perception of humanity's place in the universe went hand in hand with a gradual—but radical—shift in the way philosophers and scientists conducted their investigation of the cosmos. The earliest known models of the universe were based largely on imagination and pure reasoning, with little attempt to explain the workings of the heavens in terms of known earthly experience. However, history shows that some philosophers did come to realize the importance of careful observation and testing to the formulation of their theories. The success of their approach changed, slowly but surely, the way science was done and opened the door to a fuller understanding of nature.

As knowledge from all sources was sought and embraced for its own sake, the influence of logic and reasoned argument grew, and the power of myth diminished. People began to inquire more critically about themselves and the universe. They realized that thinking about nature was no longer sufficient; looking at it was also necessary. Experiments and observations became a central part of the process of inquiry. To be effective, a theory—the framework of ideas and assumptions used to explain some set of observations and make predictions about the real world—must be continually tested. If experiments and observations favor it, a theory can be further developed and refined, but if they do not, it must be rejected, no matter how appealing it originally seemed. The process is illustrated schematically in the accompanying figure. This new approach to investigation, combining thinking and doing—that is, theory and experiment—is often known as the scientific method. It lies at the heart of modern science.

Notice, incidentally, that there is no "end point" to the process depicted in the figure. A theory can be invalidated by a single wrong prediction, but no amount of observation or experimentation can ever prove it correct. Theories simply become more and more widely accepted as their predictions are repeatedly confirmed.

In astronomy we are rarely afforded the luxury of performing experiments to test our theories, so observation becomes vitally important. One of the first documented uses of the scientific method in an astronomical context was performed by Aristotle nearly 25 centuries ago. He noticed that during a lunar eclipse, when Earth is positioned between the Sun and the Moon, it casts a curved shadow onto the surface of the Moon. The following figure shows a series of photographs taken during a recent lunar eclipse. The Earth's shadow, projected onto the Moon's surface, is indeed slightly curved. This is what Aristotle must have seen and recorded so long ago.

Because the observed shadow seemed always to be an arc of the same circle, Aristotle concluded that Earth, the cause of the shadow, must be round. On the basis of this hypothesis—this possible explanation of the observed facts—he then went on to predict that any and all future lunar eclipses would show that Earth's shadow was curved, regardless of the orientation of our planet. That prediction has been tested every time a lunar eclipse has occurred. It has yet to be proved wrong. Aristotle was not the first person to argue that Earth is round, but he was apparently the first to offer a proof of it using the lunar-eclipse method.

The reasoning procedure Aristotle used forms the basis of all scientific inquiry today. He first made an observation. He then formulated a hypothesis to explain that observation. Finally, he tested the validity of his hypothesis by making predictions that could be confirmed or refuted by further observations. Observation, theory, and testing—these are the cornerstones of the scientific method, a technique whose power will be demonstrated again and again throughout our text.

Scientists throughout the world today use an approach that relies heavily on testing ideas. They gather data, form a working hypothesis that explains the data, and then proceed to test its predictions using experiment and observation. Experiment and observation are integral parts of the process of scientific inquiry. Theories unsupported by such evidence rarely gain any measure of acceptance in scientific circles. Used properly over a period of time, this rational, methodical approach enables us to arrive at conclusions that are mostly free of the personal bias and human values of any one scientist. The scientific method is designed to yield an objective view of the universe we inhabit.