Illustration Friday: Theory

And now, for something completely different…

Ptolemy vs Copernicus

This sort of illustration is representative of what I do at my graphic design job. Here it is in its original context; it’s a very simplified explanation of the concepts because it’s for schoolkids. I much prefer drawing small furry animals, but there’s not too much call for that at this job!

This week’s Illustration Friday topic hits a bit close to home. I work with scientists all day, and some of them get very picky about how people use words like “theory”. To a scientist, a theory is a proven explanation for why a particular thing behaves the way it does, and has been thoroughly tested, with observable results, by many different people. A theory, in this more formal use, is something which has been proven scientifically to be true until some new observation reveals it to be false. I know a few astrophysicists who are driven nuts by the phrase “string theory” because it’s really just a hypothesis.

The theory that the earth was the center of the universe was around for a long time, and Ptolemy thought he had figured out all of the details as perfectly as possible. In this case, the “proof” was mathematically predicting where the planets would be in the sky as observed from Earth at any given moment in time. The problem was that while his model was very close, it wasn’t quite perfect. There was some variable that wasn’t being accounted for.

Copernicus’ theory was a lot closer to being accurate, but he was  also wrong about many of the details. It took much more precise measurements of the planets’ movements (made possible by Galileo’s use of the telescope) to find evidence that scientifically proved that Copernicus was on the right track and Ptolemy was wrong.

Over the centuries, mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers have worked to refine that theory, using new calculations and observations to make changes and expand upon it. Copernicus’ theory looks foolishly simplistic, compared to what we know now. Even today scientists are discovering new things like dark matter and dark energy that make them adjust their theories about the universe again. But all the time they are making their theories more and more accurate and precise. And everytime something doesn’t quite add up, they know that means there’s more to discover than they can see… yet.

One thought on “Illustration Friday: Theory

  1. Oww, you’re making my head hurt, hee hee. No, actually, that’s really quite interesting. It’s also very cool to see what other folks do for a living. But, yes, furry animals are a lot more fun to draw, eh?

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