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written by Michael Clough, Craig Ogilvie, and Michael Matthews
supported by the National Science Foundation
This web page presents the story of how the "spherical Earth theory" was challenged, tested, defended, and ultimately rejected through rigorous experimentation in the late 17th century. As a result, the theory of the oblate Earth was adopted. The story brings the controversy to life, as it describes the efforts by Christian Huygens to defend the concept of spherical Earth through his pendulum experiments. The established scientific community at the time was reluctant to deviate from the spherical Earth theory, in part because of prevailing belief that a creator would not build an imperfectly shaped Earth. The story goes on to explore pendulum experiments conducted at equatorial French Guiana, where evidence repeatedly showed that the gravitational constant was slightly different at the equator than at Paris -- a contradiction of Huygens' theory.

This resource was developed to help students gain insight into the complexity of testing an established scientific theory, and the need for alternative theories as part of the challenge process. See Related Materials for links to the full collection of "stories" that span five science disciplines.
Editor's Note: As the authors point out, this story is a good example of commitment to the scientific outlook: "do your best to defend a theory, but when counter evidence prevails, be prepared to give it up."
Subjects Levels Resource Types
Classical Mechanics
- General
General Physics
- History
- Philosophy
- Scientific Reasoning
- High School
- Lower Undergraduate
- Informal Education
- Instructional Material
= Curriculum support
= Tutorial
Appropriate Courses Categories Ratings
- Algebra-based Physics
- AP Physics
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application/pdf
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© 2010 Iowa State University
Keywords:
Huygens, Scientific Revolution, clocks, historic experiments, history of science, pendulum experiments, scientific theory, timekeeping
Record Cloner:
Metadata instance created June 12, 2012 by Caroline Hall
Record Updated:
October 19, 2012 by Caroline Hall

AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)

1. The Nature of Science

1A. The Scientific Worldview
  • 9-12: 1A/H2. From time to time, major shifts occur in the scientific view of how things work. More often, however, the changes that take place in the body of scientific knowledge are small modifications of prior knowledge. Continuity and change are persistent features of science.
1B. Scientific Inquiry
  • 6-8: 1B/M1b. Scientific investigations usually involve the collection of relevant data, the use of logical reasoning, and the application of imagination in devising hypotheses and explanations to make sense of the collected data.
  • 9-12: 1B/H6a. In the short run, new ideas that do not mesh well with mainstream ideas in science often encounter vigorous criticism.
  • 9-12: 1B/H6b. In the long run, theories are judged by the range of observations they explain, how well they explain observations, and how useful they are in making accurate predictions.
  • 9-12: 1B/H7. New ideas in science are limited by the context in which they are conceived; are often rejected by the scientific establishment; sometimes spring from unexpected findings; and usually grow slowly, through contributions from many investigators.
1C. The Scientific Enterprise
  • 9-12: 1C/H3a. Progress in science and invention depends heavily on what else is happening in society.

2. The Nature of Mathematics

2B. Mathematics, Science, and Technology
  • 9-12: 2B/H2. Mathematics and science as enterprises share many values and features: belief in order, ideals of honesty and openness, the importance of criticism by colleagues, and the essential role played by imagination.
  • 9-12: 2B/H3. Mathematics provides a precise language to describe objects and events and the relationships among them. In addition, mathematics provides tools for solving problems, analyzing data, and making logical arguments.

9. The Mathematical World

9E. Reasoning
  • 9-12: 9E/H4. Once a person believes a generalization, he or she may be more likely to notice cases that agree with it and to overlook cases that don't.

12. Habits of Mind

12A. Values and Attitudes
  • 9-12: 12A/H3. In science, a new theory rarely gains widespread acceptance until its advocates can show that it is borne out by the evidence, is logically consistent with other principles that are not in question, explains more than its rival theories, and has the potential to lead to new knowledge.

Common Core State Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6—12

Craft and Structure (6-12)
  • RST.11-12.6 Analyze the author's purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text, identifying important issues that remain unresolved.
Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity (6-12)
  • RST.11-12.10 By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend science/technical texts in the grades 11—CCR text complexity band independently and proficiently.
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Record Link
AIP Format
M. Clough, C. Ogilvie, and M. Matthews, (2010), WWW Document, (http://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/earthshape.pdf).
AJP/PRST-PER
M. Clough, C. Ogilvie, and M. Matthews, The Story Behind the Science: The Role of Theory - Pendulum Motion and Shape of the Earth (2010), <http://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/earthshape.pdf>.
APA Format
Clough, M., Ogilvie, C., & Matthews, M. (2010). The Story Behind the Science: The Role of Theory - Pendulum Motion and Shape of the Earth. Retrieved July 23, 2014, from http://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/earthshape.pdf
Chicago Format
Clough, M, C. Ogilvie, and M. Matthews. The Story Behind the Science: The Role of Theory - Pendulum Motion and Shape of the Earth. 2010. http://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/earthshape.pdf (accessed 23 July 2014).
MLA Format
Clough, Michael, Craig Ogilvie, and Michael Matthews. The Story Behind the Science: The Role of Theory - Pendulum Motion and Shape of the Earth. 2010. National Science Foundation. 23 July 2014 <http://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/earthshape.pdf>.
BibTeX Export Format
@misc{ Author = "Michael Clough and Craig Ogilvie and Michael Matthews", Title = {The Story Behind the Science: The Role of Theory - Pendulum Motion and Shape of the Earth}, Volume = {2014}, Number = {23 July 2014}, Year = {2010} }
Refer Export Format

%A Michael Clough
%A Craig Ogilvie
%A Michael Matthews
%T The Story Behind the Science: The Role of Theory - Pendulum Motion and Shape of the Earth
%D 2010
%U http://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/earthshape.pdf
%O application/pdf

EndNote Export Format

%0 Electronic Source
%A Clough, Michael
%A Ogilvie, Craig
%A Matthews, Michael
%D 2010
%T The Story Behind the Science: The Role of Theory - Pendulum Motion and Shape of the Earth
%V 2014
%N 23 July 2014
%9 application/pdf
%U http://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/earthshape.pdf


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The Story Behind the Science: The Role of Theory - Pendulum Motion and Shape of the Earth:

Is Part Of The Story Behind The Science

A link to the full collection of materials developed by the Story Behind the Science project.

relation by Caroline Hall
Is By The Same Author and Covers a Similar Topic As The Story Behind the Science: Pendulum Motion

A story that examines how Galileo's studies of pendulum motion triggered a revolutionary way of thinking about physics and about the value of idealization in science.

relation by Caroline Hall

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