Do You Think You’re Important?

(as my contribution to the Total Perspective Vortex, this is the transcript of my Apr 4th, 2011 10-min podcast for 365daysofastronomy.org, titled “A Copernican Gallop“)

Today we are going to have a Copernican Gallop. We are going to see how Astronomy has made us absolutely irrelevant. What have Astronomers done to us, in fact? Some say that Astronomy must be the important of all Sciences. Perhaps we wouldn’t even have Modern Science without Astronomy. But think also that…were it not for the extraordinary progress of 400 hundred years of astronomy, we would still believe to be the center of the cosmos…instead. we’re now sure we’re not. Not at all. Not by a long shot. And nothing we do is any special (physically speaking), and we actually are in a nondescript part of the Universe. Worse, the Universe itself might be just one of many.

Less than zilch, that’s what we are. And thanks to whom? Well, thanks to the..Astronomers!! None of the major philosophers and religious leaders in the history of humanity has remotely approached the ruthless efficiency with which the scholars of the cosmos have demonstrated again, and again and again what little piece of nothingness we actually are. Only to be replaced by another generation of astronomers, busying themselves in demonstrating that the previous notion of us being nothing, was actually a gross overstatement.

Who started this descent, or maybe you can call it ascent, an ascent to humility? Why, somebody called Niclas Koppernigk, known to us as Nicolaus Copernicus.

Imagine yourself then at his times. It’s around 1500, it’s the Renaissance, and Man is the center of everything. People are defining themselves as the middle point, like the Earth, the center between the perfection of Heaven and the imperfection of Hell. Everything is theirs for the taking, and now that the ancient philosophers of Greece are being rediscovered, it surely won’t take much before the whole world is understood. There comes Nicolaus, instead, no Santa Claus, him…he toppled Earth from the center, in his posthumous book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”. And if the center is not here, we’re not the center either. Bye bye Renaissance men!

Worse, Copernicus played like the first ever giant Angry Birds game. He managed to start an incredible chain reaction that might (or might not) have just ended. First stop in the chain reaction, of course, Galileo Galilei with his observations of Venus in the year 1610 demonstrating that planets orbit the Sun, not the Earth. Then Newton, extraordinarily linking in 1687 the force that pushes us down with the force that keeps planets and satellites in their orbit.

Can you imagine? By this time, the revolutionary idea was taking hold, that Earth and the heavens obey the same laws. Let’s continue: Herschel’s map of the Galaxy in 1785, with the Sun located not exactly at the center. Kirchhoff and Bunsen developing spectroscopy in 1859, thereby helping us understand what the stars are made of, the same stuff as the Sun: in other words, determining that the Sun is just another ordinary star, made of more or less the same elements as any other and with billions of almost identical twins out there.

Move now to Harlow Shapley working on Globular Clusters, clusters of stars that is, showing in 1921 how they are distributed around a point some 15kpc from us, the center of the Galaxy therefore being quite away from our Solar System. Even our modern value of 8kpc between us and the galactic center still means we’re somewhere at the periphery.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1755 and then the scientist Alexander von Humboldt in 1845 already made the point that as the Sun is in no special place in the Galaxy, our Galaxy is itself just one of many. And that’s exactly what a guy called Edwin Hubble demonstrated, in 1924.

But wait…isn’t that the same Hubble that came up with the idea of an expanding universe? Is that not supporting a birth for everything in what we call the “Big Bang”? Doesn’t that make us special, as we’re only 13 billion years away from it, that is next to nothing compared to quadrillions of quadrillions of years until the last photon is emitted?

Not so fast. One of the most popular ideas in contemporary cosmology is in fact the existence of a multiverse, a collection of universes just like ours, a concept that elucidates several issues including why our universe exists at all. Some say the number of universes is in the region of 10 to the 500, a number that is totally alien from all our levels of comprehension. Obviously, even if a minute fraction of that number is the true value for a count of all existing universes, our own universe is just, simply, merely one of several many. End of the story?

No. This humility extravaganza doesn’t only work at giant scales. Consider the consequence of finding as many extrasolar planets as we’ve actually discovered as yet…our own doesn’t appear to be either the strangest, or the most interesting (more or less the only thing keeping Earth apart is the existence of liquid water on its surface:
but I would expect a dramatic announcement about that too, sometimes in the near future).

Everywhere we look, at all times we look, we’re one of many.

Let me speak for the rest – we live on just another planet orbiting just another star in just another orbit around just another galaxy weakly attracted to just another supercluster that is anywhere and nowhere really in one universe out of quadrillions of pentillions of them.

And this is the end of the Copernican Gallop. Or is it? An atom in the whole Jupiter is relatively more important than us in the whole of the Cosmos. To what level of nothingness will next generation of astronomers elevate us?

One final word…please. Don’t feel depressed. It doesn’t count, anyway. And this is just another podcast by Omnologos. Thank you for listening.

BBC Science Coverage: It's Worse The We Thought

BBC News’s “Science & Environment” pages have seldom been a paradigm of in-depth, unbiased, trustworthy coverage. Yet, they’re now sinking to new, sensationalistic lows. And it’s not just climate change.

Latest offerings: Richard Black on absurdist claims that million-year-long processes are changing right now; Black again telling the world that coal is now good (and reporting the energy policy ideas of a Professor of Ecology & Environmental Biology); Mark Kinver crying that penguins are “suffering” (whilst whales and seals are thriving, as reported well hidden in the same article); Pallab Ghosh fantasizing about Soviets getting the Moon before the Americans (forgetting that the key technological factor was the development by the US of combustion chambers able to withstand enormous pressures, so the Saturn-V could do with 5 engines on the first stage instead of 30).

Expect soon articles on how people feel about string theory, and the dangers to the fabric of the Universe caused by pesky European particle accelerators (oh…nevermind)