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Life, Unbounded

Life, Unbounded


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The Copernicus Complex: A Primer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In a month’s time, the end result of two-and-a-half years of research, thinking, writing, re-writing, re-re-writing, editing, mulling, puzzling, coffee-drinking, beer-swilling, swearing, and tweaking will hit the shelves in the form of my new book The Copernicus Complex. In the coming weeks I’ll be writing some special pieces here at Life, Unbounded, exploring some of what I learned, and expanding on some of the scientific tales in the book. This month’s print edition of Sci Am is also carrying an excerpt from the book – but that’s just a taster, without too many punchlines (sorry, frustrated commentators).

So what’s it all about? At the simplest level it’s about the quest to find out whether there’s other life in the universe. But what I discovered during the past two years is that there’s nothing simple about that quest at all (I know, but I am a simple soul). Not only did I have to dig into the science of stars, planets, nebulae, cosmology, atoms, molecules, non-linear dynamics, gravitation, geophysics, molecular biology, microbiology, genetics, evolution, space travel, microscopy, probability, statistics, paleoclimate, and chemistry, I also realized that I had to tackle the problems of mathematical bias, inference, and viewpoint that bedevil efforts to generalize what we know about the nature of existence.

As someone more akin to the dressing-gown-wearing, tea-sipping, befuddled Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, than to its pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent beings, it was therapeutic and helpful to construct the following tasteful infographic (click to expand) to explain what the heck I was doing all this time. I thought I would share it here.

For use in case of existential confusion.

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. M Tucker 4:19 pm 08/5/2014

    If you can somehow show that self-reproducing cells will inevitably be organized from simple elements, if you can find evidence of primitive life on some exoplanet, if you can somehow adjust evolutionary theory to show that humans are a natural consequence, then we might begin to think we are not so special. Otherwise you are fighting an uphill battle.

    Personally I was never disappointed to learn of our not so special place in the galaxy or to learn of the mind boggling enormous number of other galaxies in the universe. I was not disappointed to learn that the sun was the center of the solar system and Earth was in just the right place and stabilized in just the right way to allow life as we know it. 14 billion years does not seem long enough to allow random chance to come up with life. I am not making an appeal to a higher power because I know of no other evidence for that other than I am writing this post, that is a very unsatisfactory explanation.

    The fact that life began at all is an amazing and startling event. That humans somehow came through the crapshoot of chance is even more amazing. For the vast majority of the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s existence nothing that could look back at the universe and begin to unravel how it all happened and what it is all made of existed at all. Suddenly, in the past few hundred thousand years, we have the miracle of humans. That seems pretty special and Copernicus and his wacky idea, which came without evidence, can do anything to change that.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-case-against-copernicus/

    Link to this
  2. 2. M Tucker 4:21 pm 08/5/2014

    If you can somehow show that self-reproducing cells will inevitably be organized from simple elements, if you can find evidence of primitive life on some exoplanet, if you can somehow adjust evolutionary theory to show that humans are a natural consequence, then we might begin to think we are not so special. Otherwise you are fighting an uphill battle.

    Personally I was never disappointed to learn of our not so special place in the galaxy or to learn of the mind boggling enormous number of other galaxies in the universe. I was not disappointed to learn that the sun was the center of the solar system and Earth was in just the right place and stabilized in just the right way to allow life as we know it. 14 billion years does not seem long enough to allow random chance to come up with life. I am not making an appeal to a higher power because I know of no other evidence for that other than I am writing this post, that is a very unsatisfactory explanation.

    The fact that life began at all is an amazing and startling event. That humans somehow came through the crapshoot of chance is even more amazing. For the vast majority of the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s existence nothing that could look back at the universe and begin to unravel how it all happened and what it is all made of existed at all. Suddenly, in the past few hundred thousand years, we have the miracle of humans. That seems pretty special and Copernicus and his wacky idea, which came without evidence, can do anything to change that.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-case-against-copernicus/

    Link to this
  3. 3. Therapistmumbles 6:52 pm 08/6/2014

    It certainly seems a shame to be human at this time. You seem to feel we are at a moment in the entire history of the universe when conditions are ripe with possibilities. Yet, we humans still feel the urge to destroy each other, mostly on the basis of the tiniest differences. It must be that we all have such a strong reaction to the realization of our own individual insignificance that we destroy each other in the hope of establishing some personal sense of significance.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Therapistmumbles 7:02 pm 08/6/2014

    You seem to make the point that we are living in a time in the history of the universe that offers unique possibilities. Yet, we humans, here on earth still seem intent on destroying each other because of the most insignificant differences between us. Perhaps this is due to our inability to face how insignificant all of us really are given the vastness of space and time that surround us.

    Link to this
  5. 5. magneticnorth50 11:15 am 08/10/2014

    Nothing new here . Copernicus Complex , Galileo Complex , God Complex …….no evidence anywhere of life atleast evolved to our own level ,that we know of . Nothing can be discounted in the lack of information . If we were juxtaposed in our Galaxy with a similarly evolved species , and they were broadcasting radio/tv etc . it would take 100,000 years to detect , assuming we evolved at roughly the same time and that one had not yet made themselves extinct . In addition the period of time we’ve had the capability of listening is extremely small . I imagine though the book may be entertaining .

    Link to this

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