Stupid Americans: 1 in 4 think the Sun goes around the Earth

I am going to avoid the breathless headlines doing the rounds about an upcoming press release about the detection of cosmological gravitational waves. Firstly, a press release about an upcoming press release is a seriously poor way to do science. And I am already groaning internally about how poorly any result will be presented in the media (looking at you ABC News 24, especially Michael Rowland, who still calls the Higgs boson the Higgs bosun).

So, back to something we all enjoy, America bashing (every year I eagerly await the letters in the newspapers complaining about halloween in Australia, telling us that we don't want this American rubbish here while chewing down on a McDonalds, sipping coke and driving a ford, stopping at the American stop sign before rushing home to watch the latest American cop show on TV). And before any American readers get riled up, the preceding text is an example of sarcasm.

Apparently, 1 in 4 Americans think that the Sun goes around the Earth. How can they be so stupid? Ha ha ha... Sorry, what was that? In Europe it's 1 in 3... Oh... Well, here in Australia they are bound to be smarter? ... Surely... apparently not.

There has been a little bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth over this. What's going on with the world, how did people miss the Copernican revolution? Is science in trouble?


Hang on.. Let's remember that the Copernican revolution was only a few hundred years ago and for the majority of human history people, lots and lots of people, from the not so bright to the smartest of the smart thoughts that the Sun went around the Earth.

Why? Because sitting here on Earth, that is what it appears to do. It comes up at one horizon, trundles across the sky, and disappears over the opposite horizon. And the next day, it does it all over again. The Egyptians saw this, as did the Greek, Romans etc. But, you say, they were ignorant of the truth!

Well, I think all this angst is misplaced. I think it's perfectly fine to think that the Sun goes around the Earth. You may think that I've gone crazy, but let me explain.

What do we mean when we say that one thing goes around another? Well, I'm sure there is more than one way to define it, but I'm going to say object A goes around object B if it changes changes its angle as viewed from B, tracing out 360 degrees.

As seen from the Sun, this is what the Earth does, tracing out a complete path in 365 days. The Earth goes around the Sun.

But what if I centre my coordinate system on me, and then trace out the path of the Sun in my coordinates, then the Sun is above my head at noon, below my feet twelve hours later, and then is back above my head after another 12 hours. In my coordinate system, the Sun goes around the Earth.

I know that you are stomping your feet and saying "but your coordinate system is rotating because it's pinned to the surface of the rotating Earth. It only appears that the Sun goes around the Earth".

Of course, I know this. But the question people were asked was


Not does "Does the Earth orbit the Sun, or does the Sun orbit the Earth?", but "go around" and I think it is completely legitimate to say that either is true. As viewed from the Earth, the Sun goes around the Earth. Viewed from the Sun, the Earth goes around it. 

People are not as "stupid" as people think. And the people who did the survey should have thought a little harder about the question.


Oh, and the answer to  "Does the Earth orbit the Sun, or does the Sun orbit the Earth?" is neither, both orbit the common centre of mass. How many of you would have gotten that correct?

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