Helical Solar System - Ask Professor Puzzler
Dear Professor Puzzler,
One of my friends shared a video about the solar system being a vortex, or a helix. Is this video correct?
Baffled in Buffalo
The short answer to your question is: The guy who made this video clearly slept through both his elementary school science classes and his high school science classes.
First, for those who haven't seen it, here's a snippet of the video; click on the image below to watch a few seconds. If you want to watch the whole thing, go to youtube and search for "helical solar system."
Elementary Science - Heliocentric Theory
DjSadhu starts his video with the following very bizarre statement: The old heliocentric model of the solar system...planets rotating around the sun...is not only boring, but also incorrect.
In other words, "Ha ha...scientists are wrong, but I am enlightened enough to know the truth!"
The fact is, Heliocentric theory has accounted for the motion of the sun around the galaxy center since the days of William Herschel, in the late 1700s. Yes, that's right, this crazy "new" idea of his has been part of the body of scientific knowledge for 250 years. In other words, this knowledge is as old as the United States of America.
I learned it in elementary school, and that was back in the ancient days of the 1970s. I asked some of my high school students, and guess what! The knowledge hasn't been lost in the last 40 years; they're still teaching it in elementary school science classes.
You know what else I learned in elementary school science class? There's a difference between "revolve" and "rotate." Planets don't rotate around the sun; they rotate around their axis. They revolve around the sun. A minor semantic issue? You might think so, but no, not really. Scientists are very particular about word usage, since having a single, specific meaning for each word avoids confusion and misinterpretation of scientific research and analysis. So while I'm perfectly willing to forgive that semantic mis-step, it's a good reminder that the guy who made this video isn't actually an astronomer.
High School Science - Relativity
Depending on whether you took a physics class in high school, you may or may not be familiar with relativity. That's okay. But if you pretend to be an astronomer, you'd better have at least a basic understanding of the fact that all motion is defined relative to a frame of reference, and the choice of reference is, in fact, arbitrary.
Imagine three people, two of whom are riding in cars traveling at 60km/hr toward each other, and the third person is standing by the side of the road.
From the perspective of the person in one car, the person in the other car is traveling toward him at 120km/hr, and the person on the side of the road is moving toward him at 60km/hr. But from the frame of reference of the person by the side of the road both cars are traveling at 60 km/hr.
So what's really happening in this video? DjSadhu is upset that, for the sake of simplicity, we often choose the sun as the reference point (thus making the planetary orbit calculations easier), and ironically, he makes the equally arbitrary choice of choosing the galaxy's center as the reference point, when in fact the galaxy itself is moving relative to the center of its galactic cluster, which is is moving relative to the center of its super-cluster, and the super-cluster is moving relative to other super-clusters. So what reference point do you choose? You choose the one that makes the most sense for the calculations you are trying to do. And if you understand anything about relativity, you don't tell another scientist that their frame of reference is "boring and incorrect."
This Video and Beyond
Despite the fact that he's not an astronomer, and despite the fact that he thinks the heliocentric model is wrong, the video itself is pretty, with some nicely designed graphics, and really has only minor mistakes. In other words, even though he doesn't believe the heliocentric model, his graphics are more or less in keeping with the model he despises! (You might wonder why, if he's not too far off, why scientists react to his video with such vitriol; if so, be sure to read our Vortex Madness page.)
However, if you read any of Sadhu's writings, or watch any of his subsequent videos (don't watch his galaxy video; that one is so flat-out wrong that it makes me cry!), it becomes clear that it was only luck that his mistakes were minor. His science is way off base.
His writings and other videos make it clear that he actually believes that the planets are not orbiting the sun, but are trailing behind it like ducklings trail after their mother.* In other words, he's invented a whole new mathematics of gravitational attraction.
Is this wrong? You betcha! How do I know? Because we've sent people to the moon (insert appropriate conspiracy theory here) and probes to other planets based on the existing mathematical model of gravitation. If that model is incorrect, then we would have missed the moon, and those probes wouldn't have been anywhere near those other planets.
"Yeah," you say, "but I'm one of those conspiracy guys that doesn't believe NASA actually did any of those things."
Fine. Let's bring it closer to home. The same gravitational model that explains the motion of the moon and the planets also explains the motion of the man-made satellites we've tossed up into orbit. And guess what! Your GPS triangulates location relative to those satellites, and if the satellites aren't orbiting the earth, those calculations aren't going to work!
In other words, if our theory of gravitation is wrong, and this guy is right, the next time your GPS tells you "Turn left now," you'd better keep right on going, because your GPS is wrong.
* The day after I posted this article, DjSadhu posted a new video, and with it a comment in which he sort of distances himself from the "trailing" concept. It's important to note that he doesn't reject the "trailing" concept, but merely says the helical model and the planets-trailing model are "two separate ideas." Which means he's at least acknowledging he doesn't really know what he's doing, and just trying out different ideas.
Do you think his videos are pretty? Then by all means enjoy them. But remember, before you share them, that nowhere in the actual videos does he say, "I'm just a graphics guy who's having a lot of fun trying out different ideas about the solar system," so when you share it, odds are good your friends will interpret it as fact rather than fiction!