Business Recorder - Pakistan's biggest financial daily - confirms that little knowledge, when combined with pre-existing religious beliefs, can be a source of a major embarrassment (hat tip to Muhammad Akbar Hussain and Zakir Thaver). This story also upsets me personally as the Business Recorder idiocy is related to astronomy. Okay, I don't want to make you wait any longer. Here is the headline: "Signs of the Day of Judgement: NASA confirms the possibility of sun rising from the West"
So first you notice that the story is about religion - rather than science. Second, there is a clear desire to seek an affirmation of a religious claim from science. Third, the source of authority regarding this lies in the West - in this case (and quite often) NASA (even though there is no mention of NASA in the story itself). Nidhal Guessoum recently attended a whole meeting dedicated to finding science in the Qur'an - and you can read his posts here and here.
But what is this bold claim, in a major newspaper, based upon? Well, as it turns out, it is based upon a gross misunderstanding of how planets of our solar system appear to move in the sky. Muslim astronomers, a thousand years ago, had a better understanding of astronomy than these editors of Business Recorder in the 21st century. Here is the claim:
ARTICLE (April 09 2010): The science of astronomy states that the speed of planet Mars has been decreasing in its course toward the eastern direction in the past few weeks to the level we notice the "waver" between the east and the west and on Wednesday the 30th of July the planet movement stopped going toward the eastern direction.
Then in the months of August and September...Mars changed its course in the opposite direction to the West- and that until the end of September which means the sun will rise now from the west on Mars!! And this weird phenomena of the opposite movement is called "Retrograde Motion" Most scientist state that all the planets will go through the same once at least and our planet Earth is one of them. Planet Earth will move in the opposite direction some day and the sun will rise from the west!!
This might occur soon and we are unaware! The rise of the sun from the west is mentioned in the hadith and this is the major sign of the day of judgement, most if not all, the minor signs have occurred. Wake up. Our beloved messenger Mohamed (Peace Be Upon Him) said: "One of the signs of the hour the sun will rise from the west, where no longer tauba (forgiveness) will be granted"
Where can I go and cry?? Okay. I'm taking a deep breath. Phhooooo.
So the starting point of the claim is correct, but rest is all garbage. Astronomers from antiquity have monitored the motion of planets and the stars. They noticed that planets, such as Mars or Jupiter, appear to move when compared with the background stars. For example, if we look at Mars night after night, we will see it change its location with respect to the background stars. The motion, however, is not constant in speed or in direction. For example, sometimes it may appear to slow down and then over the period of next few nights speed up again. In between, it may also appear to us to change the direction it was moving with respect to the background stars. Please note that it is only our perception with respect to the background that is changing.
Nothing is happening to the orbit of Mars!
This change in appearance is caused by the fact that the Earth is going around the Sun faster than Mars (because it is closer to the Sun). When we catch Mars from behind and then overtake it, it looks as if Mars has changed its direction. This is not so strange. You can see the same thing happen when one car overtakes another car on the road. If the slower car is ahead, you will see it first slow with respect to background trees or buildings, then almost stop - when you are parallel to it, and then you will see it going backwards - when you overtake it. The same happens to our view of the motion of Mars (for more, check out this excellent site for retrograde motion, including some nice and simple visuals. Also see this simple animation).
Now, it is quite straightforward to explain this retrograde motion in a sun-centered solar system. But it was a major challenge for Greeks and then later Muslim astronomers to explain it in the context of an geocentric cosmology. This was the primary reasons for the invention of epicycles - which were eventually discarded in the 16th century.
You must now be wondering this is all well and good. But the Business Recorder goes on to claim that "Most scientist state that all the planets will go through the same once at least and our planet Earth is one of them". Hmm...the first part is technically correct. It happens not once, but every time Earth overtakes Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, etc (or when Venus and Mercury overtakes the Earth), we see retrograde motion of planets. So it happens predictably and relatively frequently. What about the Earth? Well, you'll have to go to another planet to see the Earth do the same thing. For the editors of Business Recorder, I would recommend, Venus.
But Salman, you ask, what about the Sun rising from the West on Mars? Here is Business Recorder unleashing its shock & awe on any kind of reasoning. The appearance of the Sun rising and setting has to do with the rotation of the planet on its axis - and (generally) not the direction of its motion around the Sun. So, even if we accept the lunacy of the original claim, that will still not result in the Sun rising from the West!
To be fair to Business Recorder, many nonsense ideas show up in prestigious newspapers (NYT, couple of years ago, published an opinion piece by an astrologer, Washington Post provides a forum for (yikes!) Deepak Chopra, and the Huffington Post routinely publish New Age nonsense). But this article is a good example of why religion should not be mixed with science. The Business Record editors knew what answer they were looking for (i.e. a confirmation of their version of Islam) and did not even bother to check the validity, or even a remote plausibility, of any of the claims. (And if you hear about another Mars rumor - that Mars will be so close that it will appear to be as big as the Moon - please check out this).
Please please please. Keep religion away from science.
Read the Business Recorder article here and read more about retrograde motion here. And below find Sagan talking about retrograde motion, the idea of epicycles, religion, and idea of a sun-centered cosmology: