Happy Birthday Nicolaus Copernicus!
19 February 2013
Today we celebrate the 540th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The great astronomer was born 19 February 1473 in Toruń, now part of Poland. The name of Copernicus belongs with the short list of thinkers who not only changed the direction of civilization, but also the nature and character of Western civilization. Copernicus as the distinction of having a cosmology named in his honor.
We would do well to recall how radically our understanding of the world has changed in relatively recent years. Up until the advent of modern science, several ancient traditions of Western civilization had come together in a comfortingly stable picture of the world in which all of Western society was deeply invested. The Aristotelian systematization of Christian theology carried out by Thomas Aquinas was especially influential. Questioning this framework was not welcome. But science was an idea whose time had come, and, as we all know, nothing can stop the progress of an idea whose time had come.
Copernicus began questioning this cosmology by putting the sun in the center of the universe; Galileo pointed his telescope into the heavens and showed that the sun has spots, the moon has mountains, and that Jupiter had moons of its own, the center of its own miniature planetary system. Others took up the mantle and went even farther: Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and eventually Newton and then Einstein.
Copernicus was a polymath, but essentially a theoretician. One must wonder if Copernicus ever read William of Ockham, since it was Ockham along with Copernicus who initiated the unraveling of the scholastic synthesis, out of which the modern world would rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the medieval world. Ockham provided the theoretical justification for the sweeping simplification of cosmology that Copernicus effected; it is not outside the realm of possibility that the later theoretician read the work of the earlier.
Today, when our knowledge of cosmology is expanding at breathtaking speed, Copernicus is more relevant than ever. We find ourselves forced to consider and to reconsider the central Copernican idea from every possible angle. The Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter force us to seek new insights into Copernicanism. I quite literally think about Copernicanism every day, making Copernicus a living influence on my thought.
As our civilization grows in sophistication, the question “Are we alone?” becomes more and more pressing. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” This insight is profound in its simplicity. Thus we search for peer civilizations and peer life in the universe. That is to say, we look for other civilizations like ours, and for life that resembles us.
SETI must be considered a process of elimination, which I take to already have eliminated “near by” exocivilizations, although we cannot rule out the possibility that we currency find ourselves within the “halo” of a vanished cosmological civilization.
A peer civilization only slightly advanced over our own (say 100-500 years more industrial development), if it is in fact a peer and not incomprehensibly alien, would also be asking themselves “Are we alone?” They, too, would be equally terrified at being alone in the cosmos or at having another peer civilization present. Because we know that we exist as an industrial-technological civilization, and we know the extent to which we can eliminate peer civilizations in the immediate neighborhood of our own star, we can assume that a more advanced peer civilization would have an even more extensive sphere of SETI elimination. They would home in on us as incredibly interesting, as an exception to the rule of the eerie silence, in the same way that we seek out others like ourselves. That is to say, they would have found us, not least because they would be actively seeking us. So this may be considered an alternative formulation of the Fermi paradox.
Despite the growing tally of planets discovered in the habitable zones of stars, including nearby examples at Tau Ceti which lies within our SETI exclusion zone (which excludes only civilizations producing EM spectrum signals), there is no evidence that there are other peer civilizations, and advanced peer civilizations would already have found us — and they would be as excited by discovering us as we would be excited in discovering a peer civilization. There are none close, which we know from the SETI zone of exclusion; we must look further afield. Other peer civilizations would also likely have to look further afield. In looking further afield they would find us.
I don’t believe that any of this contradicts the Copernican principle in spirit. I think it is just a matter of random chance that our civilization happens to be the first industrial-technological civilization to emerge in the Milky Way, and possibly also the first in the local cluster of galaxies. We are, after all, an accidental world. However, it will take considerable refinement of this idea to show exactly how the uniqueness of human civilization (if it is in fact locally unique) is consistent with Copernicanism — and this keeps Copernicus in my thoughts.
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