December 24, 2013

Laplace is "the reason for the season"


Pierre-Simon Laplace/Wikipedia
This is the time of year when fundamentalist-type Christians wail and moan about a largely nonexistent “war on Christmas.” Even nonfundamentalists often talk about Jesus being “the reason for the season.”

Some atheists, respond that Mithra is the reason for the season, as the Persian sun god’s holy day was celebrated Dec. 25. Yet others refer to Saturn as the reason, with the Roman Saturnalia. And, there are other candidates, too.

The commonality, of course, is that all of these gods had their holy day, nativity or whatever commemorated on or around the winter solstice.

And that’s why I say “Laplace is the reason for the season.”

That would be Pierre-Simon Laplace.

That would be the scientific progenitor of the nebular hypothesis for the origin of our solar system, which, with modern refinements, explains angular momentum of our planet and others, which, coupled with axial tilt (caused in fair part by early solar system microplanetary bombardments and collisions) created — seasons!

In short, Laplace explained how Earth, Gaia, Tellus or whatever name you give it, came to have its currrent seasons, including the shortest daylight of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. He explains the reason behind all of these religions having major celebrations around Dec. 25.

His thought was part of his larger work on classical mechanics.

And, he is sadly overlooked as the man who developed Thomas Bayes’ ideas into Bayesian probability as we know it today. In fact, we really should call it Laplacean probability. The idea as we have it today owes at least as much to Laplace as to Bayes.

So, Laplace is the reason for the season! And, per what I just wrote, someone who needs more "love" from popular science appreciators.

That said, it appears to be apocryphal that he bluntly told Napoleon, “I have no need for that hypothesis” when presenting his nebular theory, when Napoleon allegedly asked about god. Rather, more narrowly, Laplace was saying, contra Newton, he did not need to postulate god intervening at certain times and points to maintain the solar system in equilibrium.

That said, that was a bold enough statement. Post Reign of Terror, the equilibrium in France, and in general, was swinging back away from freethought in general and definitely from outright atheism.

Anyway, Laplace was a scientific genius who deserves more publicity.

And, starting with this point, from denizens of the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere possibly having SAD 2-3,000 years ago, just like today, there's good secular reasons to celebrate the solstice, and for taking a holiday for it, even if it's piggybacked as part of Christmas Day.

Besides Laplace, we can celebrate the technology that created light boxes to battle solstice-centered Seasonal Affective Disorder. Or the antifreeze the helps let cars run in winter. Or the human storytelling ability that developed narratives about gods, narratives centered on the solstice. Or, the historical-critical and  literary tools that show today how those myths developed. 

And, now, to tie celebrating Laplace into a bit of recent Gnu Atheist drivel ...

Or, you can be a Gnu Atheist Grinch about the idea of being even remotely associated with Christmas, as is Tom Flynn of the Center for Inquiry. But, to focus on Laplace here, I've got my thoughts about Flynn here.

And, per the commenter, the primary reason I edited the original end of this post was NOT because of "sniping." In fact, Flynn's blog post was in part what shaped some of the details of this one. And, if he doesn't even like our calendar because of how weeks and months are named, I doubt he will see any "light" in the future.

3 comments:

iNaturalist said...

Being fond of the Laplace story, I was enjoying reading this tribute - until that is, I came to the sniping. For goodness sake, give it a break. People - all people, make mistakes. We don't all live right and perfect lives doing the right things all the time. Sometimes we mess up and for the best of reasons. Sometimes we realise it, but it might take years before we do. However, what hinders our coming into the light is when others snipe at us, then, we tend to dig our heels in and defend our position.

So, please, try leaving out the grumps, at least for a little while, and remember we're all fallible.

Gadfly said...

Well, I wound up working that, the "sniping," into a separate post just about the likes of Flynn ... so I may edit this one.

iNaturalist said...

Good. Actually, quite co-incidentally, I've just been listening to a debate where one of the speakers started complaining about what a 'nasty' person Laplace was, he exhorted the audience to do some research on him and discover his nastiness! So, now can you see Gadfly, all this in-fighting and denigrating others - where does it get any of us - nowhere worth going.