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Sherlock Holmes: Not An Astronomer — 5 Comments

  1. Great reflection! It reminds of a statement Br. Guy made once on how the problem with Occam’s Razor is that the idea of the “simplest argument” is changing due to the advancements of modern science… things are not as simple as they seem on the surface.

  2. How timely – I saw Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” again yesterday and there is a great exchange about poetry and science. This starts after a character suggests that Bernard’s research on Lord Byron is “trivial.”

    Bernard: Oh, you’re going to zap me with penicillin and pesticides. Spare me that and I’ll spare you the bomb and aerosols. But don’t confuse progress with perfectibility. A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There’s no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle’s cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God’s crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can’t think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars—big bangs, black holes—who [cares]? How did you people con us out of all that status? All that money? And why are you so pleased with yourselves?
    Chloe: Are you against penicillin, Bernard?
    Bernard: Don’t feed the animals.
    The exchange continues and Bernard ends with: “If knowledge isn’t self-knowledge it isn’t doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing ‘When Father Painted the Parlour’? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you. ‘She walks into beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.’ ”

  3. My friend Brad Schaefer pointed out to me a long time ago that Sherlock Holmes is either pulling Watson’s leg here, or trying to make a point through exaggeration.

    In fact, once the two of them got to know each other better, Holmes could discuss with Watson “the causes of the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic” (see “The Greek Interpreter”) which is pretty advanced celestial mechanics.

  4. Holmes may not be good at astronomy, but let us note that he is proposing a theory of how the mind works, which we could kick around if this were a psychology blog. Perhaps there are experiments which could test the implications of Holmes’s theory.

    My own resident psychologist points out that people in their eighties and nineties often learn new things, and that “filled-up brain” is not an observed malady. Both of these facts suggest that Holmes’s model may not be correct.

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