Astronomers observing the center of the Milky Way from the European Southern Observatory in Chile fire a laser into the heavens. The Laser Guide Star (LGS) is used as a reference to correct the blurring effect of the atmosphere on images.
Astronomers observing the center of the Milky Way from the European Southern Observatory in Chile fire a laser into the heavens. The Laser Guide Star (LGS) is used as a reference to correct the blurring effect of the atmosphere on images. Yuri Beletsky/ESO
For the last 500 years humanity has suffered one humiliation after another at the hands of the cosmos.
First Copernicus showed us that the Earth was not the center of the solar system. Then we found out that the sun was not in a special position within the galaxy. The galaxy, we then discovered, was not special either, but one of an uncountable number in an infinite universe. Now some physicists tell us that the universe may not be unique but may exist as part of a vast, infinite multiverse. All this Copernican overturning is enough to give a species a severe set of self-esteem issues.
Worse, it's enough to make us wonder what place and what meaning in the cosmos we are meant to inhabit.
Well today, my friends, I am here to tell you that Copernicus, or at least a reflexive Copernicanism, is wrong.
I am just about to press SEND on the final version of my new book, called The End of the Beginning: Cosmology Culture and Time at the Twilight of the Big Bang. It's a cultural history of cosmic time and a cosmic history of cultural time. I've spent the last two years tracing the path of humanity's cosmological imagination and, after giving the issue A LOT of cogitation, I think we're ready to ready roll Copernicus over and tell the cosmos the news.
We are, it turns out, the center of the universe and it's anything but meaningless.
For this claim to be true there is no need to insert your favorite, or most hated, religion. There is no need to demand a deity exist or posit that it fine-tuned the cosmos to give us a warm, safe, cozy home. To see our vital, central role in the cosmos you need only look out from your own perspective and understand that is all you, or anyone else, will ever get.
Because it's all about perspective.
We like to believe we can study the Universe (with a capital 'U') as a thing in itself. But in truth what we actually get are universes (with a lower case 'u'). We only ever get glorious but partial views of the ever-greater "whole." Science, in this perspective, is not a means to a "final theory" but is, instead, our most extraordinary means of continuing a never-ending dialogue with the world. That dialogue, formed through science and art and all forms of culture make us co-creators of the universes we inhabit and they are always suffused with meaning
There is the old story of a group of blind philosophers studying an elephant. One feels the tail and declares an elephant is like a snake. Another feels the ear and declares the elephant is like a palm frond. A third feels the foot and declares the elephant is like a tree. The relationship between the universe in-and-of-itself and the universe each culture, each instantiation of science, invents for itself is much like that between the philosophers and their elephant.
Perhaps it is time to see the universe as an infinite elephant or, better yet, as a diamond with infinite facets. Different facets come into view as culture and science change. We gain a deeper understanding even as the universe in-and-of-itself remains ultimately larger than all our accounts.
In the end, it is our dialogue with the universe that matters most. Acknowledging the intertwined evolution of culture and cosmic vision does not diminish the power of science; it allows us to see more clearly our role as participants in the universe.
To put it bluntly, we can never be taken out of the narrative of creation. We are always, in some partial but essential way, its co-creators. In taking this perspective we make the most radical step of all. We begin to move away from a reflexive Copernicanism that made human being irrelevant in the cosmos and recognize that there is vital place for us. It's a life at the center of the universes we manifest through the creative act of being human, creating culture and practicing science.