We’re all taught in school that the Earth goes round the Sun. But if you look around on the internet, you will find websites that say something quite different. There you will find the argument that Einstein’s great insights imply otherwise — that in fact the statements “The Earth goes round the Sun” and “The Sun goes round the Earth” are equally true, or equally false, or equally meaningless.
Here, for example, is this statement as written in Forbes by professor Richard Muller at the University of California, Berkeley. It opens as follows: “According to the general theory of relativity, the Sun does orbit the Earth. And the Earth orbits the Sun.” I invite you to read the rest of it; it’s not long.
What’s his point? In Einstein’s theory of gravity (“general relativity”), time and three-dimensional space combine together to form a four-dimensional shape, called “space-time”, which is complex and curved. And in general relativity, you can choose whatever coordinates you want on this space-time.
So you are perfectly free to choose a set of coordinates, according to this point of view, in which the Earth is at the center of the solar system. In these coordinates, the Earth does not move, and the Sun goes round the Earth. The heliocentric picture of the planets and the Sun merely represents the simplest choice of coordinates; but there’s nothing wrong with choosing something else, as you like.
This is very much like saying that to use latitude and longitude on the Earth is just a choice. I could use whatever coordinates I want. The equator is special in the latitude-longitude system, since it lies at latitude=0; the poles are special too, at latitude +90 degrees and -90 degrees. But I could just as well choose a coordinate system in which the equator and poles don’t look special at all.
And so, after Einstein, the whole Copernican question — “is the solar system geocentric or heliocentric?” — is a complete red herring… much ado about nothing. As Muller argues in his article, “the revolution of Copernicus was actually a revolution in finding a simpler way to depict the motion, not a more correct way.“
Well? Is this true? If not, why not? Comments are open.