Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why is the Sky Dark at Night? (a case study)

This sounds like a classic "little kid" kind of question, but the actual science - and the history and the philosophy which surround it - are well worth your own consideration...
--Dr. Thursday

Science can be studied in more than one way. Besides systematic, theoretical investigation, there is the experimental approach. In addition to admiration of the latest results, there is also the fascination of the long series of steps that precedes the crowning achievements. The survey of the road of advance offers, however, more than enthralling intellectual entertainment. The study of the past contains vital lessons as well that can be ignored only at a grave cultural risk. As human culture is increasingly influenced by science it becomes imperative to take a long look at science, at its potentialities and limitations, and last but not least, at the attitudes, qualities and shortcomings of its practitioners.
In achieving this objective, case histories of scientific thought should be particularly helpful. Their documentation often speaks more effectively than technical if not arcane arguments. Needless to say a case history of an old question imposes limits on the amount of documentation to be presented. The judgment implied in a representative reconstruction of the historical record is doubly difficult when the story is written for the first time, and when the number of special studies is rather meager. Both these remarks hold true of the history of scientific attempts aimed at the explanation of the darkness of the night sky, or Olbers' paradox. Although the collection of relevant material has been for years in the making, the present work makes no claim to completeness. Still it is hoped that no major document has been overlooked.
As the title of the book indicates, the story unfolded here is paradoxical in addition to the scientific paradox of the night sky. A principal source of the paradoxical character of the story lies in the fact that publications which constitute major mileposts in the story failed to be consulted by most of those who during the last hundred years or so discussed the question. The chronic neglect of those major documents is in part due to their relative inaccessibility. To remedy this situation the original texts of several classic essays on the question have been reprinted here as appendices. Their respective authors are Halley, Chéseaux and Olbers.
I am indebted to too many scholars and friends to have their names registered here. It will, of course, be my pleasure to receive communications from all those who have not ceased to ponder the meaning and significance of the paradox together with its fate and fortune in scientific thought.
December 1969 S. L. J.
[SLJ The Paradox of Olbers' Paradox (introduction)]

No comments: