So, for instance, the ancients explained the motion of the sun, moon and
stars by conceiving a notion that they were connected to “crystalline spheres”
surrounding the earth. It quickly became apparent that the five planets – the
“wandering stars” – then known needed a sphere each, too.
More detailed observations of the sky revealed that some of these spheres had
to be connected to yet other spheres, to explain the movement of the sun
throughout the year and the wayward movement of the planets. Soon there were 27
spheres – then 34, then 56, then 72. It all started to get more complicated than
the observations they were trying “to render uniform and coherent”.
Ptolemy developed a system of “Eccentric Spheres”, “Epicycles” and a great
“Equalizing Circle”. Others argued that there weren’t any such crystalline
spheres but rather that the heavens were filled with a “fluid ether”.
Then came Copernicus and, as Smith wrote, “When you have convinced the world,
that an established system ought to be corrected, it is not very difficult to
persuade them that it should be destroyed.” And so was born the shocking notion
that the sun was the centre of the universe, not the earth. Galileo discovered
the moons of Jupiter and conducted important experiments involving falling
objects, while Kepler found that the orbits were elliptical, not circular. Isaac
Newton found that not even the earth was perfectly spherical, but was actually
fatter at the equator. Today we have black holes, dark matter, string theory and
ten – or is it 11? – dimensions. It’s all getting very complicated.
A bit like the history of accounting standards, then. Historic cost
accounting was gradually “improved” with all sorts of new rules, SSAPs, FRSs,
UITFs, property revaluations, different ways of accounting for acquisitions or
foreign currencies and (briefly) monetary working capital adjustments.
International accounting standards threw out the old system to try to reflect a
“uniform and coherent” picture of business reality. But as our survey reveals,
the complexity of it all is such that they succeed mostly to “embarrass and
confound the imagination”.