Naga Chokkanathan

Why Not? — Power Of Data

Posted on: March 22, 2011

For 2000+ years, astronomers were assuming earth to be the center of our universe. They thought everything else (including the sun) moved around the earth, in perfect circular paths.

In AD1520, Nicholaus Copernicus proved that Sun is the center of solar system and earth revolves around it. But still, circular paths didn’t change. Everyone assumed that planets move in circular paths around the Sun.

However, when these astronomers measured the position of various planets from earth, at various times, there were some serious disconnects. The data looked very erratic and they couldn’t plot these points in a perfect circular path. They didn’t know why.

(Image Courtesy: http://commons.wikimedia.org )

Enter Johannes Kepler, from Germany. Since his childhood, Kepler was fascinated by stars and wanted to be an astronomer, but couldn’t.

Reason? He had poor eye sight. It was near impossible for him to look at the stars and make accurate observations.

Still, Kepler didn’t give up hope, He decided to collect observations / data from someone else, analyze them and solve problems.

Trouble was, no one wanted to give him their data. After all, astronomy is hard work, you need very costly equipments and lot of patience for making any observations, and giving up all of them to somebody else was unthinkable.

Yet, Kepler wanted to try his best. He joined as an assistant to Tycho Brahe, a great astronomer. He patiently learnt many things from his master and took care of all his needs.

Few years later, Tycho died. He left all his astronomy observations to his assistant, Kepler.

From 1601, Kepler used this data to analyze position of Mars from Earth. Naturally, he couldn’t plot those data points in a perfect circle. What could be wrong? Tycho’s observations are incorrect? Kepler couldn’t check it because of his poor eye sight. He had to assume they are right and invent some other way of solving this problem.

That’s when it struck him, ‘What if Earth and Mars move in a non-circular path? What if they move in different speeds?’

For the next few months, he analyzed these questions patiently, with the help of Tycho’s data and found that all planets actually move around the sun in an elliptical path, not circular. And they all move in different speeds, not the same. Two wrong assumptions of thousands of astronomers, broken by an amateur astronomer!

With a single data analysis, Johannes Kepler was able to solve a problem which was bugging mankind for hundreds of years. And he did it without touching the telescope. That’s the power of data. Combined with an analytical human mind, it can solve any problem, scientific, business, technical, social or even personal!

(056)

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N. Chokkan …

22 03 2011

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