In the field of astronomy many renowned discoveries were only made when brave souls were willing to speak out against the accepted norms. They sometimes did this at great cost to themselves. Once their ideas were supported, those scientific rebels were able to rise above any critique and reign over the field, recognized as the great minds that carried humanity forward with advanced scientific knowledge.
Consider for a moment that you are in some field of study. If your education is in the field of astronomy, you will have learned about the great masters—Galileo and Copernicus, among others. You may look up to these figures, you may admire and appreciate their work. Now imagine, that you start to suspect those great minds made a mistake in their calculations and conclusions. What would you do?
This is the predicament that Gerrard Hickson found himself in. Through careful study, he started to suspect that along the way, some of those great astronomers had made a major miscalculation. So, what did he do about it? He wrote a book and he called it like he saw it—Kings Dethroned.
Gerrard Hickson and His Discovery
Kings Dethroned is based on research from Gerrard Hickson. Reportedly, in 1907, he made an astonishing discovery. Based on his findings and calculations, he came to believe that the sun was remarkably closer to the earth than previously thought. Such a finding flew in the face of previous research and the teachings even from the greatest astronomers. It could upend the entire field.
Hickson more broadly came to believe that the actual methods for calculating the earth’s distance from the sun and all the subsequent conclusions by the great astronomers were seriously flawed. He followed the work of these astronomers backwards to find the flaws in their work and conclusions. Then he followed their work and conclusions forward to identify the erroneous consequences.
In his book, written in 1922, Hickson lays out the history of this work, what he considers to be an evolution of the field. This evolution spans work completed as far back to the days of the Roman Empire up to Hickson’s own work. He believed that this information must be put forth for the general public to better understand the field of astronomy and the gravity of these ‘truths’ he had discovered.
Hickson took his book Kings Dethroned one step further by not only proclaiming a mistake and a ‘truth’ but also by debunking large portions of the field of astronomy. He presents arguments for how one error led to more, essentially indicating that the field had built itself on a faulty foundation. He also takes things even one step more by, at times, suggesting a conspiracy to protect those false conclusions.
Public and Scientific Reception to Hickson’s Work
You might imagine that Hickson’s discoveries and writings would be astonishing. Such information should have entirely upended the field of astronomy. Would this not mean that people’s understanding of the earth and its place in space was entirely wrong? Surely people would want to know the truth and the field of science would quickly set about towards correcting all those old falsehoods.
Yet, if you think about your own education in science and anything you do know about astronomy, you probably do not recall hearing about any great revolution in the field. You also probably do have a sense that the earth is fairly far away from the sun. So, what gives? Well, what gives, is that Hickson was himself wrong. His own calculations were flawed. His book and theories were later debunked.
Ultimately, Hickson’s book was considered so spectacularly wrong that, in 1989, the archivists at MIT identified it as a member of their “Nut Collection.” This is their affectionate term for useless research that now has no bearing on the scientific community. Hickson’s work is not alone in that collection, but it certainly stands out for its spectacular inaccuracy and the high degree of hubris it displays.
Today’s, Hickson’s view (and his prideful certainty) that the earth is quite close to the sun, is considered almost laughable. Indeed, it may even sit aside other erroneous theories such as that old view that the earth is flat. However, what makes Hickson’s views more easily criticized is that he was working in a time with access to more data and better scientific equipment to avoid such erroneous conclusions.
Further, Hickson was indeed overly prideful when he wrote his work and it makes his own inaccuracy all the much more ironic. He had proclaimed that his work would dethrone the great ‘kings’ of the field. However, their reigns were left solidly in tact and rather than sitting atop his own throne, he is considered to have no relevance in the field (aside from being a footnote example of faulty findings).
Utility for Modern Audiences
As a modern reader, with sometimes limited time, you may wonder if you should put forth the effort to read Kings Dethroned. In many cases, yes you should make the time. The book is iconic for putting forth erroneous information and it does highlight the hubris of a man who thought he had it all figured out.
If you are in the field of science, why not read a book that will broaden your understanding for the field and the scope of its history. Hickson’s work should not just be a footnote of inaccuracy, it should be considered as a work that does have a place in the history of the development of the field of astronomy.
When you read the book King’s Dethroned, you may find yourself sometimes feeling astonished at Hickson’s thought processes, conclusions, and written statements. Read it as a bit of scientific history. Read it as a source of entertainment. Read it so you have some fun trivia to share at parties. Finally, read it as a warning against exercising any similar levels of hubris in your own scientific work.