# Planets and Platonic solids

Johann Kepler discovered in 1596 that the ratios of the orbits of the six planets known in his day were the same as the ratios between nested Platonic solids. Kepler was understandably quite impressed with this discovery and called it the Mysterium Cosmographicum. I heard of this in a course in the history of astronomy long ago, and have had in the back of my mind that one day I’d look into this in detail. How exactly do you fit these regular solids together? How well do the planetary ratios match the regular solid ratios?

Imagine the orbit of each planet being the equator of a spherical shell centered at the sun. The five regular solids fit snugly into the spaces between the shells. Between Mercury and Venus you can insert an octahedron. Its inradius is the distance of Mercury to the sun, and its circumradius is the distance of Venus to the sun. You can fit the other regular solids in similarly, the icosahedron between Venus and Earth, the dodecahedron between Earth and Mars, the tetrahedron between Mars and Jupiter, and the hexahedron (cube) between Jupiter and Saturn.

Here’s the data on the inradius and circumradius of each regular solid taken from Mathworld.

|--------------+--------------+----------|
|--------------+--------------+----------|
| octahedron   |      0.70722 |  0.40825 |
| icosahedron  |      0.95106 |  0.75576 |
| dodecahedron |      1.40126 |  1.11352 |
| tetrahedron  |      0.61237 |  0.20412 |
| hexahedron   |      0.86603 |  0.50000 |
|--------------+--------------+----------|


Here’s the data on average orbit radii measured in astronomical units taken from WolframAlpha.

|---------+----------|
| Planet  | Distance |
|---------+----------|
| Mercury |  0.39528 |
| Venus   |  0.72335 |
| Earth   |  1.00000 |
| Mars    |  1.53031 |
| Jupiter |  5.20946 |
| Saturn  |  9.55105 |
|---------+----------|


So how well does Kepler’s pattern hold? In the table below, “Planet ratio” is the radius ratios of Venus to Mercury, Earth to Venus, etc. “Solid ratio” is the circumradius to inradius ratio of the regular solids in the order given above.

|--------------+-------------|
| Planet ratio | Solid ratio |
|--------------+-------------|
|      1.82997 |     1.73205 |
|      1.38246 |     1.25841 |
|      1.53031 |     1.25841 |
|      3.40419 |     3.00000 |
|      1.83340 |     1.73205 |
|--------------+-------------|


Not a bad fit, but not great either. I’ve heard that the fit was better given the data available to Kepler at the time; if Kepler had had more accurate data, he might not have come up with his Mysterium Cosmographicum.

By the way, notice some repetition in the solid ratios. The implied equalities are exact. The icosahedron and dodecahedron have the same ratio of circumradius to inradius because they are dual polyhedra. The same is true for the cube and the octahedron. Also, the ratio of 3 for the tetrahedron is exact.

Update: What if Kepler had known about more planets? The next planet ratios in our table above would be 2.01, 1.57, and 1.35. None of these is close to any of the solid ratios.

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# Gravitational attraction of stars and cows One attempt at rationalizing astrology is to say that the gravitational effects of celestial bodies impact our bodies. To get an idea how hard the stars and planets pull on us, let’s compare their gravitational attraction to that of cows at various distances.

Newton’s law of gravity says that the gravitational attraction between two objects is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. From this we can solve for how far away a cow would have to be to have the same gravitational attraction. For round numbers, let’s say a cow weighs 1000 kg. (Strictly speaking, that’s a more typical weight for a bull than a cow.) Then Jupiter has as much gravitational tug on a person as does a cow about two feet away.

Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, has the same pull as a cow about 5 miles away. Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth (other than the sun, of course) has about the same pull as a cow 18 miles away.

Calculations were based on average distance. The distance to planets changes over time, but so does the distance to a given cow.

|----------------+--------------|
| Body           | Cow distance |
|----------------+--------------|
| Jupiter        |     0.57 m   |
| Venus          |     2.45 m   |
| Mars           |    10.06 m   |
| Regulus        |     7.81 km  |
| Alpha Centauri |    28.70 km  |
|----------------+--------------|


# Could you read on Pluto? I heard somewhere that Pluto receives more sunlight than you might think, enough to read by, and that sunlight on Pluto is much brighter than moonlight on Earth. I forget where I heard that, but I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation to confirm that it’s true.

Pluto is about 40 AU from the sun, i.e. forty times as far from the sun as we are. The inverse square law implies Pluto gets 1/1600 as much light from the sun as Earth does.

Direct sun is between 30,000 and 100,000 lux (lumens per square meter). We’ll go with the high end because that’s an underestimate of how bright the sun would be if we didn’t have an atmosphere between us and the sun. So at high noon on Pluto you’d get at least 60 lux of sunlight.

Civil twilight is roughly enough light to read by, and that’s 3.4 lux. Moonlight is less than 0.3 lux.

60 lux would be comparable to indoor lighting in a hall or stairway.

# Are coffee and wine good for you or bad for you? One study will say that coffee is good for you and then another will say it’s bad for you. Ditto with wine and many other things. So which is it: are these things good for you or bad for you?

Probably neither. That is, these things that are endlessly studied with contradictory conclusions must not have much of an effect, positive or negative, or else studies would be more definitive.

John Ioannidis puts this well in his recent interview on EconTalk:

John Ioannidis: … We have performed hundreds of thousands of studies trying to look whether single nutrients are associated with specific types of disease outcomes. And, you know, you see all these thousands of studies about coffee, and tea, and all kind of —

Russ Roberts: broccoli, red meat, wine, …

John Ioannidis: — things that you eat. And they are all over the place. And they are all over the place, and they are always in the news. And I think it is a complete waste. We should just decide that we are talking about very small effects. The noise is many orders of magnitude more than the signal. If there is a signal. Maybe there is no signal at all. So, why are we keep doing this? We should just pause, and abandon this type of design for this type of question.

# Misplacing a continent

There are many conventions for describing points on a sphere. For example, does latitude zero refer to the North Pole or the equator? Mathematicians tend to prefer the former and geoscientists the latter. There are also varying conventions for longitude.

Volker Michel describes this clash of conventions colorfully in his book on constructive approximation.

Many mathematicians have faced weird jigsaw puzzles with misplaced continents after using a data set from a geoscientist. If you ever get such figures, too, or if you are, for example, desperately searching South America in a data set but cannot find it, remember the remark you have just read to solve your problem.

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# Mercury and the bandwagon effect The study of the planet Mercury provides two examples of the bandwagon effect. In her new book Worlds Fantastic, Worlds Familiar, planetary astronomer Bonnie Buratti writes

The study of Mercury … illustrates one of the most confounding bugaboos of the scientific method: the bandwagon effect. Scientists are only human, and they impose their own prejudices and foregone conclusions on their experiments.

Around 1800, Johann Schroeter determined that Mercury had a rotational period of 24 hours. This view held for eight decades.

In the 1880’s, Giovanni Schiaparelli determined that Mercury was tidally locked, making one rotation on its axis for every orbits around the sun. This view also held for eight decades.

In 1965, radar measurements of Mercury showed that Mercury completes 3 rotations in every 2 orbits around the sun.

Studying Mercury is difficult since it is only visible near the horizon and around sunrise and sunset, i.e. when the sun’s light interferes. And it is understandable that someone would confuse a 3:2 resonance with tidal locking. Still, for two periods of eight decades each, astronomers looked at Mercury and concluded what they expected.

The difficulty of seeing Mercury objectively was compounded by two incorrect but satisfying metaphors. First that Mercury was like Earth, rotating every 24 hours, then that Mercury was like the moon, orbiting the sun the same way the moon orbits Earth.

Buratti mentions the famous Millikan oil drop experiment as another example of the bandwagon effect.

… Millikan’s value for the electron’s charge was slightly in error—he had used a wrong value for the viscosity of air. But future experimenters all seemed to get Millikan’s number. Having done the experiment myself I can see that they just picked those values that agreed with previous results.

Buratti explains that Millikan’s experiment is hard to do and “it is impossible to successfully do it without abandoning most data.” This is what I like to call acceptance-rejection modeling.

The name comes from the acceptance-rejection method of random number generation. For example, the obvious way to generate truncated normal random values is to generate (unrestricted) normal random values and simply throw out the ones that lie outside the interval we’d like to truncate to. This is inefficient if we’re truncating to a small interval, but it always works. We’re conforming our samples to a pre-determined distribution, which is OK when we do it intentionally. The problem comes when we do it unintentionally.  Photo of Mercury above via NASA

# Freudian hypothesis testing In his paper Mindless statistics, Gerd Gigerenzer uses a Freudian analogy to describe the mental conflict researchers experience over statistical hypothesis testing. He says that the “statistical ritual” of NHST (null hypothesis significance testing) “is a form of conflict resolution, like compulsive hand washing.”

In Gigerenzer’s analogy, the id represents Bayesian analysis. Deep down, a researcher wants to know the probabilities of hypotheses being true. This is something that Bayesian statistics makes possible, but more conventional frequentist statistics does not.

The ego represents R. A. Fisher’s significance testing: specify a null hypothesis only, not an alternative, and report a p-value. Significance is calculated after collecting the data. This makes it easy to publish papers. The researcher never clearly states his hypothesis, and yet takes credit for having established it after rejecting the null. This leads to feelings of guilt and shame.

The superego represents the Neyman-Pearson version of hypothesis testing: pre-specified alternative hypotheses, power and sample size calculations, etc. Neyman and Pearson insist that hypothesis testing is about what to do, not what to believe. I assume Gigerenzer doesn’t take this analogy too seriously. In context, it’s a humorous interlude in his polemic against rote statistical ritual.

But there really is a conflict in hypothesis testing. Researchers naturally think in Bayesian terms, and interpret frequentist results as if they were Bayesian. They really do want probabilities associated with hypotheses, and will imagine they have them even though frequentist theory explicitly forbids this. The rest of the analogy, comparing the ego and superego to Fisher and Neyman-Pearson respectively, seems weaker to me. But I suppose you could imagine Neyman and Pearson playing the role of your conscience, making you feel guilty about the pragmatic but unprincipled use of p-values.

* * *

 “No test based upon a theory of probability can by itself provide any valuable evidence of the truth or falsehood of a hypothesis. But we may look at the purpose of tests from another viewpoint. Without hoping to know whether each separate hypothesis is true or false, we may search for rules to govern behaviour in regard to them, in following which we insure that, in the long run of experience, we shall not often be wrong.”

Neyman J, Pearson E. On the problem of the most efficient tests of statistical hypotheses. Philos Trans Roy Soc A, 1933;231:289, 337.

# Simulating seashells

In 1838, Rev. Henry Moseley discovered that a large number of mollusk shells and other shells can be described using three parameters: kT, and D. First imagine a thin wire running through the coil of the shell. In cylindrical coordinates, this wire follows the parameterization

r = ekt
z = Tt

If T = 0 this is a logarithmic spiral in the (r, θ) plane. For positive T, the spiral is stretched so that its vertical position is proportional to its radius.

Next we build a shell by putting a tube around this imaginary wire. The radius R of the tube at each point is proportional to the r coordinate: R = Dr.

The image above was created using k = 0.1, T = 2.791, and D = 0.8845 using Øyvind Hammer’s seashell generating software. You can download Hammer’s software for Windows and experiment with your own shell simulations by adjusting the parameters.

# Publishable

For an article to be published, it has to be published somewhere. Each journal has a responsibility to select articles relevant to its readership. Articles that make new connections might be unpublishable because they don’t fit into a category. For example, I’ve seen papers rejected by theoretical journals for being too applied, and the same papers rejected by applied journals for being too theoretical.

“A bird may love a fish but where would they build a home together?” — Fiddler on the Roof

# From triangles to the heat equation

“Mathematics compares the most diverse phenomena and discovers the secret analogies that unite them.” — Joseph Fourier

The above quote makes me think of a connection Fourier made between triangles and thermodynamics.

Trigonometric functions were first studied because they relate angles in a right triangle to ratios of the lengths of the triangle’s sides. For the most basic applications of trigonometry, it only makes sense to consider positive angles smaller than a right angle. Then somewhere along the way someone discovered that it’s convenient to define trig functions for any angle.

Once you define trig functions for any angle, you begin to think of these functions as being associated with circles rather than triangles. More advanced math books refer to trig functions as circular functions. The triangles fade into the background. They’re still there, but they’re drawn inside a circle. (Hyperbolic functions are associated with hyperbolas the same way circular functions are associated with circles.)

Now we have functions that historically arose from studying triangles, but they’re defined on the whole real line. And we ask the kinds of questions about them that we ask about other functions. How fast do they change from point to point? How fast does their rate of change change? And here we find something remarkable. The rate of change of a sine function is proportional to a cosine function and vice versa. And if we look at the rate of change of the rate of change (the second derivative or acceleration), sine functions yield more sine functions and cosine functions yield more cosine functions. In more sophisticated language, sines and cosines are eigenfunctions of the second derivative operator.

Here’s where thermodynamics comes in. You can use basic physics to derive an equation for describing how heat in some object varies over time and location. This equation is called, surprisingly enough, the heat equation. It relates second derivatives of heat in space with first derivatives in time.

Fourier noticed that the heat equation would be easy to solve if only he could work with functions that behave very nicely with regard to second derivatives, i.e. sines and cosines! If only everything were sines and cosines. For example, the temperature in a thin rod over time is easy to determine if the initial temperature distribution is given by a sine wave. Interesting, but not practical.

However, the initial distribution doesn’t have to be a sine, or a cosine. We can still solve the heat equation if the initial distribution is a sum of sines. And if the initial distribution is approximately a sum of sines and cosines, then we can compute an approximate solution to the heat equation. So what functions are approximately a sum of sines and cosines? All of them!

Well, not quite all functions. But lots of functions. More functions than people originally thought. Pinning down exactly what functions can be approximated arbitrarily well by sums of sines and cosines (i.e. which functions have convergent Fourier series) was a major focus of 19th century mathematics.

So if someone asks what use they’ll ever have for trig identities, tell them they’re important if you want to solve the heat equation. That’s where I first used some of these trig identities often enough to remember them, and that’s a fairly common experience for people in math and engineering. Solving the heat equation reviews everything you learn in trigonometry, even though there are not necessarily any triangles or circles in sight.