Julian Fell

Heliocentrism

Some say that Johannes Kepler wrote the first ever work of science fiction. In 1609, his painstaking work mapping the stars had borne fruit, and he had a reliable mathematical model of the heliocentric model of the solar system. Despite his accurate predictions the orbits of planets, the church and scientific establishment were hostile to the idea that Earth was not the centre of the universe.

So to change their minds he made up a story.

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Stories have been vehicles for shared understanding since the beginning of humanity. When reason fails to convince, we turn to empathy through storytelling. We show alternative perspectives to bridge the divides that separate us.

Acceptance of his model relied on people seeing the universe from a new perspective. To guide the shift in thinking, he invented a civilisation on the moon that believed that the Earth orbited their tiny planet. They observed the Earth similarly to how we observe the sun, and in describing their misconceptions, he drew parallels to our Earth-centric misunderstanding.

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His plan failed, of course. They were dark times when literacy was not widespread. His mother was convicted of witchcraft, a consequence of his work, and his theory was rejected by the scientific establishment of the time. It took decades for his theories to be widely accepted.

By exploring speculative ideas through stories, we ground them in relatable experience. We foster empathy and imagine ourselves in alternate worlds where they have already been accepted. Would we fear totalitarianism and state surveillance as viscerally if Orwell hadn’t made us experience it through Winston’s eyes? I think not.