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Scientific Revolutions

Now, what is the relationship among these three pictures? It is clear that the Copernican-Galilean-Keplerian-Newtonian revolution overthrew the Ptolemaic system, in the sense that Ptolemy is only taught as history and never as science. But I predict that Newton will always be taught, because Newton’s picture is basically right - on the scale of the solar system. The scientific revolution that led to the modern cosmos, including the early 20th century contributions of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, have encompassed Newtonian physics with physics that works at astronomical scales and velocities. But Modern cosmology reduces to the Newtonian treatment for the solar system, for normal sized things on Earth, and generally for conditions where speeds are not too high and gravitational forces are not too great. So, we can really only say we know that a theory is right when we know where it is wrong.C. W. Misner, ``Cosmology and Theology, in Cosmology, History, and Theology, W. Yourgrau and A. D. Breck, eds. (Plenum Press, 1977), pp.75-100. Inside the boundary where the theory begins to fail, the theory is correct (to some prearranged accuracy). Modern cosmology is undergoing an encompassing revolution as opposed to an overthrowing revolution.Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack, "Scientific Revolutions in Cosmology: Overthrowing vs. Encompassing,"  Philosophy in Science, Vol. 9, pp. 75-96 (Tucson: Pachart Publishing House, 2001);...

Table 1. Three Cosmologies: Medieval, Newtonian, and Modern.

Size: R
Age: T


Unifying Ideas

God’s role?


Medieval Cosmos

Finite R
Finite T

Sublunary:  Earth, Water,  Air, Fire
Heavens:  Ether

Circular motion
Great Chain of Being

Prime mover,


Newtonian Cosmos

Infinite R?
Infinite T?
No center

Atoms, Void

Deterministic mechanics
Universal gravitation



Modern Cosmos

R = 1028 cm
T = 1010 yr
Homogeneous & Isotropic

   quarks, electrons
Dark Matter

Gravity = space curvature
Nondeterministic quantum theory

Before the Big Bang?

Contributed by: Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams

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