Sherlock and Geocentrism

One element in the first season of the BBC series Sherlock that sticks close to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original is the mention of Sherlock not knowing that the Earth orbits the sun. Here’s a clip of the scene:

This mention of geocentrism actually makes an important point. It is possible to be incredibly gifted in one area and completely clueless in another.

And this is relevant not just to the question of whether you trust a hydraulic engineer over the consensus of the world’s biologists, geneticists, geologists, astronomers, and all those in fields related to evolution or the age of the Earth.

The fact that someone is a really fantastic Christian doesn’t mean that they will have a fantastic grasp of science either. Indeed, the fact that they put well into practice what they understand doesn’t even mean that they are particularly well versed in the study of the Bible. After all, there were some really fantastic Christians who were illiterate, and/or who lived before there was a complete Bible of the sort available today, much less one that could be consulted so conveniently.

And so when considering matters of science, or history, or the study of important ancient texts, remember Sherlock. It is far better to honestly admit that some things do not matter to you, than to pretend that because you are an expert in some area, that you must therefore have a good grasp of another.

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  • My father was incredibly gifted and amazingly clueless too.

    “All that matters to me is the work,” Sherlock says.

    My father was an aviator and true engineering genius who designed and built parts for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle missions for NASA. I was always fascinated that the man never had the desire to enjoy a whimsical diversion into the genre of science fiction entertainment. For instance, he never watched a single episode of Star Trek in the 1960s, and you could ask him who Obi Wan Kenobi was and he’d not recognize the name. I firmly believe that his mind was genetically shut off to ‘fiction’ in science. His vision of the world so firmly rooted in reality. Which planets orbited the sun were trivial to him when compared to solving the engineering feat of constructing the docking mechanisms used on two orbiting spacecraft.

  • arcseconds

    There’s a certain amount of tension, if not outright inconsistency, with how Holmes is portrayed in A Study in Scarlet and what he gets up to later. The point of the interchange about the solar system is to establish Holmes as a monomaniac, who is only interested in things that can help him in detective work, which includes tobacco and a highly applied version of soil science, but doesn’t include astronomy, so he doesn’t care about it.

    But in later stories, he’s portrayed as a wide-focus dilettante, if not a polymath, dabbling not just in chemistry (which might fall into the ‘useful for detection’ basket, but he apparently attempts chemical syntheses for their own sake) but in paleolinguistics and music history, amongst other things, apparently at an expert level.

    • Rick DeLano

      Perhaps the point of the interchange is rather more subtle than that.

      • arcseconds

        Perhaps, but I doubt it, at least in the sense that Doyle would have intended a more subtle reading. It’s a pulp novel that he wrote in under 3 weeks, he didn’t know he was creating a character for eternity, and he’s hardly the most sophisticated of authors. It makes sense that Holmes starts off as a bit of a caricature and becomes more fleshed-out later.

        Authorial intent doesn’t need to constrain interpretation, of course, but coming up with an entirely in-fiction interpretation that seems to me to be difficult.

        If he really believes the rubbish he says about the human mind being an attic which had better be tidily stocked with only what is useful to the person’s work, what’s he doing studying the motets of Lassus or the Chalcedonian roots of the Cornish language? I can’t come up with an interpretation that doesn’t result in contradicting some settled aspect of Holmes’ character. Easiest way out is that he changed his mind and broadened his interests later in life.

        But if you’ve got another idea, by all means, let’s hear it 🙂

        • Rick DeLano

          My alternative is that Doyle has dropped a deliciously ironic insight into Sherlock’s superior method, in just the form in which it would be sure to be recognized by a very few.

          • arcseconds

            Clearly it must be very esoteric, because I still can’t see it!

            Would you mind explaining in more detail?

          • Rick DeLano

            Sure. See my initial post at the top of the thread.

        • PorlockJunior

          It’s even worse. As the Baker Street Irregulars noticed a long time ago, the opening of The Greek Interpreter has Holmes and Watson in a rambling conversation on subjects that include the causes of the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic.

          That’s not of much use in detection; but also, the discussion is inconceivable outside of a heliocentric view of our local corner of the universe.

          The Irregular explanation was that Holmes was pulling Watson’s leg when they’d first met. Note (as I failed to see till just now), that this is just the time when Holmes might talk straight to Watson and stop trying to lead him astray: it is here that he first tells Watson of the existence of his brother.

          • arcseconds

            Yes, that was an explanation that occurred to me. It seems the act of a pompous arse, though, to do this to someone you’ve just met. Or at best an elaborate piece of ironic performance art. Neither seems really keeping with Holmes’s character. Certainly he comes across as a pompous arse sometimes, but he doesn’t seem to be doing this deliberately – he sees himself as being honest. And he generally is: when it comes to his friends he withholds information quite often but doesn’t lie or play elaborate pranks on them (OK, so he does prank sometimes, but he reveals it pretty quickly).

            The other possibility is that his knowledge genuinely does have odd holes in it (this is not that implausible with autodidacts. I once had an acquaintance who was very well versed in her area of postgraduate study, and knew everything there is to know about Tom Waits, but hadn’t heard of Avril Levine, and didn’t know the south pole is distinct from the north pole), and confabulated the whole attic story to save face.

            But again, this doesn’t really seem like the Holmes we know later, who seems quite happy to admit his mistakes and confess ignorance.

  • Rick DeLano

    Great point! It is a mark of an ignorant person, to not be aware of the fact that no experiment has ever shown the Earth to be orbiting the sun. Since he insists upon eliminating every possibility, until he is left with what remains, however implausible……..Sherlock wins again!

    • Paul B. Lot

      I mean, that’s true by tautology: “to not be aware” of anything is to be ignorant of it.

      Of course, I take issue with your hilarious premise that “no experiment has ever shown the Earth to be orbiting the sun,” but once you set that up as a premise, then to be ignorant of your supposed fact is to be ignorant of it: true.

      You know what else makes you ignorant person? Not to be aware of the fact that I am secretly from Betelgeuse Seven.

      • Rick DeLano

        If you take issue with the “hilarious premise”, then you neglected to include a citation of the experiment.

        This makes you either careless, or ignorant.

        I am betting ignorant, myself…..

        • Rick DeLano

          It being immoral to bet sure things, I amend the above.

          I am not betting ignorant.

          I simply point out that Paul, above, has perfectly proved my point; he could not have done so more perfectly had he been a sock puppet invented by me for that express purpose


          • Paul B. Lot

            Maybe I’m secretly a separate account of yours ;p

            No, but in all seriousness, you’re correct: the Earth doesn’t orbit the sun. The earth-moon system orbits the sun-earth-system barycenter.

            Of course, since that point is located inside the sun, I’m not going to be too harsh on those poor, ignorant, benighted saps who fail to make the nearly pointless distinction.

            In the future, though Rick, I’d appreciate it if you could refrain from using metaphors like ‘sock puppet’ to describe me. The recent track record of Catholics on the unwilling-rear-entry-front leaves me uncomfortable when you choose as your analogy something that you want to stick your hand in.

          • Rick DeLano

            I am afraid it is you who have (don’t ask me how, I don’t want to know- really!) determined that a relationship exists between sock puppets and sodomy.

            But on to the point at issue.

            You have amended your answer to propose that some experiment has proven that the Earth-moon system orbits the Sun-earth system barycenter; that is, some experiment exists which has measured this alleged motion of the Earth-moon system about this Earth-sun barycenter.

            I reply:

            Only a profoundly ignorant person could make such a claim, since only ignorant persons have failed to learn that no experiment has ever measured any such assumed motion.

            In other words, Paul, you are as congenial to my initial point as if you were a………….


          • PorlockJunior

            There may be a little problem here with definition of terms. I mean, what does it mean to “prove” something with an experiment?

            A follower of Popper might start by asking what kind of experiment could falsify (“disprove”, as the layman says) the proposition. If your point is that no experiment could possibly disprove the claim, then you have misstated your case: Sherlock ought to have complained that the whole idea isn’t science in the first place. Which might be philosophically sound and up to date (within 50 years), but rather less like Doyle.

            The reason I suspect a problem with definitions, however, is that rather few people who are not total bozos would deny that the evidence from stellar displacement, the Foucault pendulum, stellar parallax, and many other things, taken together, constitutes a proof for all ordinary purposes (e.g., sending vehicles to Jupiter). And all of this and more is general knowledge. So it appears you have a different conception of what, if anything, constitutes proof; I wonder what it is.

            And sending stuff to Jupiter? Now there is an experiment that could falsify the proposition that we know how the Solar System works. If the attempt failed, that is, and the failures turned out consistent. But no number of such successes would *prove* the proposition. That is: Popper.

            Perhaps, though, your unstated contention is that proof means one neat experiment that conclusively demonstrates the truth to an observer who knows nothing of it in the first place. In that case, there’s not much to say except that your idea of proof is ludicrous.

            Oh, and “Hope you enjoy your trip back to 1616, where you belong.” [All this is, as you understand, purely hypothetical, following from hypotheses abut what you might mean, since you haven’t given us a hint.]

          • Rick DeLano


            I appreciate your implicit acknowledgement of my point:

            You are able to point to no experiment that measures the universally-assumed motion of Earth about Sun.

            Your various references to:

            “stellar displacement, the Foucault pendulum, stellar parallax”

            are also useless to you as evidences for heliocentrism, since Relativity requires that all these phenomena be attributed with equal justification to either an heliocentric or a geocentric frame.

            In other words, your argument from “almost everyone agrees” is, at root, a logical fallacy, an argumentum ad verecundam.

            In matters of science, “almost everyone agrees”, or “I simply can’t believe it should be any other way than this” are not arguments, but instead admissions of ignorance.

          • PorlockJunior

            *Edited to correct a premature button push*

            You misread my posting, of course. My assertion about bozos was not an attempt to prove that my definition is right, but to assure that I was not necessarily calling you a bozo.

            Oh, and the tired rhetorical gimmick of implicitly acknowledging your point puts you in the pleasant position of implicitly acknowledging that I guessed right about your epistemology: you really do insist on some discrete experiment that neatly proves the point. So my hypothetical claim that your idea of proof is ludicrous would seem to be confirmed.

            Actually, it’s a bit disappointing that this turns out to be the old invocation of Relativity. Boring stuff, and irrelevant to anything that Holmes and Watson could possibly have been talking about. Or, if we choose to fall into an old-fashioned fallacy, anything that Doyle could possibly have been writing about.

            Could this relativistic argument be the subtlety, Doyle’s ironic insight, that you mentioned earlier? If so, you have made an important discovery of Doyle’s priority in formulating Einsteinian relativity by 28 years! (Not just 18; the reason is left as an exercise for the reader.) Or else you’re just plain wrong.

            (If the subtlety is something else, perhaps you ‘d like to tell us)

          • Rick DeLano

            I am glad you find Relativity boring, and I hope it’s catching.

            Relativity was not required for Doyle to plant his delightfully ironic insight in the story.

            Relativity, after all, explains *why* all the experiments designed to measure the universally assumed motion of the Earth returned a velocity of zero.

            The experiments themselves had returned a velocity of zero for centuries.

          • PorlockJunior

            Since misreading what people say is part of the game, I won’t bother to mention that I did not in any way call Relativity boring.

            But here’s a real question. What were these experiments that had “returned a velocity of zero” for so long?

            I know of some thought experiments, of course, mostly about rotation and not orbital motion, by which the Earth was proved stationary. But by 1700 (very conservatively) they no longer returned any such result. So I’m curious.

          • Rick DeLano

            “Since misreading what people say is part of the game, I won’t bother to mention that I did not in any way call Relativity boring.”

            >> “it’s a bit disappointing that this turns out to be the old invocation of Relativity. Boring stuff”

            I think I will leave you to debate yourself, Porlock.

            If you assert there to be some experiment before, or after 1700, that measures any velocity of the Earth about the Sun, you are in error.

            The proof will be this:

            You will be unable to cite one.

          • PorlockJunior

            Glad you’re going to be sensible and go away. I’ll follow your good example.

            After all, if you can’t distinguish between relativity and a form of invocation of relativity, what’s the point of debate?

            The only relevance of 1700 to this is that it’s a quite conservative estimate of when the old interpretation of the old thought experiments was untenable.

            “The experiments themselves had returned a velocity of zero for centuries.” From this I inferred that you thought there had been, you know, experiments, which had returned values for the velocity, which consistently had been zero.

            But you now deny the existence of any “experiment before, or after 1700, that measures any velocity of the Earth about the Sun”. At first I thought that was almost sort of contradictory to the stuff about centuries of experiments. The closest to a sensible interpretation of this would be, I suppose, that you really meant there was some non-zero velocity. And, further applying my hermeneutics to your claims, that would be some non-zero absolute velocity in an absolute coordinate system. Now at least we know what you were trying to assert, assuming I’ve guessed correctly.

            Trouble is, this is as irrelevant as ever. As I already said in part, good science, which Holmes supposedly was supporting in preference to the bad science of heliocentrism, simply does not work by One True Experiment that unambiguously proves a law. Rather, it goes often by the principle that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains must be the truth. Let’s see, who said that?

          • Rick DeLano

            In other words, you have no experiment that measures any motion of Earth around Sun.

            Which was my initial point.


          • Paul B. Lot

            I tell you what: we’ll land a rover on the surface of the Sun, equip it with a laser pointer.

            Then we’ll set up a detector here on Earth, I imagine a standard cop car laser gun should do the trick.

            Then, finally, we’ll have your concrete experiment Rick!

          • Rick DeLano

            Thanks, Paul!

            Let me know when you have that result ready for us to examine.

          • David Evans

            You are right that it’s possible to apply Einsteinian physics in any reference frame, even a geocentric one. However it’s very much easier to do so in the reference frame of the Solar System’s centre of mass. For instance the aberration of starlight has an obvious interpretation in the latter reference frame. How do you interpret it geocentrically?

          • Paul B. Lot

            Look, we’re going on decades of revelations of old, closeted, conservative Catholics men being outted as predatory repressed homosexuals, and you -an old, conservative, Catholic man- are describing me using a metaphor which requires sticking your hand inside me. I didn’t even suggest that you made a Freudian slip, I merely stated I’d be more comfortable if you stopped imagining me as a being a tool invented for you. Don’t get your knickers in a twist, it’s not my fault you chose poorly with your analogy.

          • Rick DeLano

            Umm, if I understand you correctly, Paul, you seem to be suggesting that sock puppetry is somehow related to me sticking my hand inside you.

            I admit such a metaphor would never have occurred to me.

            I do not think the pederasts and homosexuals who have buggered children under authority of the cloth were thinking in terms of hands.

          • Paul B. Lot

            If you had used a different metaphor, if you had called me simply your purpose-built puppet it would have been insulting enough. Calling me your purpose-built puppet would bring implications of strings being pulled, my inability to think or reason solo, etc.

            But you didn’t.

            The metaphor which *did* occur to you was one related to you sticking your hand inside me.

            It was one in which you are not only the controller of me as an inanimate object; a sock puppet is useless and shapeless until you enter. Through the bottom.

            I’m not going to speculate about why you feel so confident in describing the internal mental state of a Catholic pederast, I’m just going to once again ask you refrain from using that analogy in the future.

          • arcseconds

            It isn’t always inside the sun…

          • Paul B. Lot

            I’m fairly sure that’s false.

            The sun’s mass is so much larger than the earth/moon system that the barycenter lies very close to the sun’s core.



            I should acknowledge that after further reading, you appear to be correct as to the nature of the point that the Earth orbits with respect to the solar system as a whole: the SS barycenter does rotate rather eccentricly around the Sun.

            I suppose there’s a further question, when we ask about the Earth’s orbit do we mean simply the Earth/Sun system, whose barycenter always lies well within the Sun’s radius, or do we mean the Earth/SS system, whose does not?

            Of course, the SS is a part of the galaxy, so the SS barycenter is not the same as the SS/galaxy barycenter etc…

          • arcseconds

            Yes, for my part I’ll confess I didn’t read closely enough and assumed you were talking about the centre of mass of the solar system, not the barycentre of the Earth-Sun system.

            I think the most obvious non-arbitrary answer is the centre of mass of the solar system, for various reasons. One thing to say is that the solar system can more cleanly be isolated than the Earth-Sun system, which is pretty obviously in reality intertwined with the rest of the solar system. Also, from the perspective of the centre of mass of the galaxy, the Sun and Earth both orbit the centre of mass of the solar system, which orbits the centre of mass of the galaxy (or at least, that’s a straightforward way of breaking down the motions).

        • Paul B. Lot

          Does anything in the universe move?

  • Marta L.

    One of the things I find so interesting about Sherlock is that the fact he doesn’t know basic facts like that is intentional. He makes this point in the BBC episode you refer to, when he says his brain is like a hard-drive and it only makes sense to put in the things that are really useful (to his purposes, to solving cases) because “ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish, and that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters.”

    Put more simply: even Sherlock can’t know everything. The good news is, he knows enough to know he doesn’t have to. He can rely on other people or books or whatever other resource to keep track of the things he doesn’t regularly have to know. Which is actually kind of a liberating fact. But it’s worth remembering, he’ll turn to a source that actually is reliable on that subject, not because it seems good for some other reason – later in the episode, for example, it’s a scholar-written presentation on astronomy, not the recollections of a friend like John or Lestrade, that provides astronomical details necessary to solving the case.