Back before we encountered Professor Richard Muller’s claim that “According to [Einstein’s] general theory of relativity, the Sun does orbit the Earth. And the Earth orbits the Sun,” I was creating a series of do-it-yourself astronomy posts. (A list of the links is here.) Along the way, we rediscovered for ourselves one of the key laws of the planets: Kepler’s third law, which relates the time T it takes for a planet to orbit the Sun to its distance R from the Sun. Because we’ll be referring to this law and its variants so often, let me call it the “T|R law”. [For elliptical orbits, the correct choice of R is half the longest distance across the ellipse.] From this law we figured out how much acceleration is created by the Sun’s gravity, and concluded that it varies as 1/R^{2}.

That wasn’t all. We also saw that objects that orbit the Earth — the Moon and the vast array of human-built satellites — satisfy their own T|R law, with the same general relationship. The only difference is that the acceleration created by the Earth’s gravity is less at the same distance than is the Sun’s. (We all secretly know that this is because the Earth has a smaller mass, though as avid do-it-yourselfers we admit we didn’t actually prove this yet.)

T|R laws are indeed found among any objects that (in the Newtonian sense) orbit a common planet. For example, this is true of the moons of Jupiter, as well as the rocks that make up Jupiter’s thin ring.

Along the way, we made a very important observation. We hadn’t (and still haven’t) succeeded in figuring out if the Earth goes round the Sun or the Sun goes round the Earth. But we did notice this:

This was all in a pre-Einsteinian context. But now Professor Muller comes along, and tells us Einstein’s conception of gravity implies that the Sun goes round the Earth just as much (or just as little) as the Earth goes round the Sun. And we have to decide whether to believe him.

Now that you’ve discovered Kepler’s third law — that T, the orbital time of a planet in Earth years, and R, the radius of the planet’s orbit relative to the Earth-Sun distance, are related by

R^{3}=T^{2}

the question naturally arises: where does this wondrous regularity comes from?

We have been assuming that planets travel on near-circular orbits, and we’ll continue with that assumption to see what we can learn from it. So let’s look in more detail at what happens when any object, not just a planet, travels in a circle at a constant speed.

Kepler’s third law is so simple to state that (as shown last time) it is something that any grade school kid, armed with Copernicus’s data and a calculator, can verify. Yet it was 75 years from Copernicus’s publication til Kepler discovered this formula! Why did it take Kepler until 1618, nearly 50 years of age, to recognize such a simple relationship? Were people just dumber than high-school students back then?

Here’s a clue. We take all sorts of math for granted that didn’t exist four hundred years ago, and calculations which take an instant now could easily take an hour or even all day. (Imagine computing the cube root of 4972.64 to part-per-million accuracy by hand.) In particular, one thing that did not exist in Copernicus’ time, and not even through much of Kepler’s, was the modern notion of a logarithm.

Much of this work was done by Nicolai Copernicus himself, the most famous of those philosophers who argued for a Sun-centered universe rather than an Earth-centered universe during the millennia before modern science. He had all the ingredients we have, minus knowledge of Uranus and Neptune, and minus the clues we obtain from telescopes, which would have confirmed he was correct.

Copernicus knew, therefore, that although the planetary distances from the Sun and their cycles in the sky (which astrologers [not astronomers] have focused on for centuries) don’t seem to be related, the distances and their orbital times around the Sun are much more closely related. That’s what we saw in the last post.

Let me put these distances and times, relative to the Earth-Sun distance and the Earth year, onto a two-dimensional plot. [Here the labels are for Mercury (Me), Venus (V), Mars (Ma), Jupiter (J), Saturn (S), Uranus (U) and Neptune (N).] The first figure shows the planets out to Saturn (the ones known to Copernicus).

The second shows them out to Neptune, though it bunches up the inner planets to the point that you can’t really see them well.

You can see the planets all lie along a curve that steadily bends down and to the right.

Copernicus knew all of the numbers that go into Figure 1, with pretty moderate precision. But there’s something he didn’t recognize, which becomes obvious if we use the right trick. In the last post, we sometimes used a logarithmic axis to look at the distances and the times. Now let’s replot Figure 2 using a logarithmic axis for both the distances and the times.

Oh wow. (I’m sure that’s the equivalent of what Kepler said in 1618, when he first painstakingly calculated the equivalent of this plot.)

It looks like a straight line. Is it as straight as it looks?

And now we see three truly remarkable things about this graph:

First, the planet’s distances to the Sun and orbital times lie on a very straight line on a logarithmic plot.

Second, the slope of the line is ^{2}/_{3} (2 grid steps up for every 3 steps right) rather than, say, 7.248193 .

Third, the line goes right through the point (1,1), where the first horizontal and first vertical lines cross.