What is our cosmic significance?

Does it even make sense to ask a question like that?

If you happen to find yourself in Cleveland, Ohio this coming Thursday evening, and stop by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History at 8pm you can catch me talking about this. As part of their Frontiers of Astronomy series I'll be discussing one of the biggest conundrums that we face as a species trying to make sense of its place in the universe.

Since Copernicus laid out the mechanical circumstances of our heliocentric solar system, and proposed that the universe has no single center, we've adopted a principle of 'cosmic mediocrity' - that we're not special, nor is our place in the cosmos. This idea is exceedingly important, and has helped science make tremendous progress. It's also consistent with a wealth of evidence that the opportunities for life are abundant - from the all-pervasive nature of carbon chemistry to the enormous number of planets we know exist around stars in our galaxy.

Yet there's a catch. If we look a little closer we can also find reasons to think that our place in the cosmos, our circumstances are not so mediocre, that they are unusual to a certain degree. From the architecture of the solar system, to the quirks of terrestrial biology, to this specific point in cosmic history, there are a lot of seemingly 'special' characteristics about life on Earth.

So how does science resolve these apparently conflicting bits of evidence, and where is this taking us?

You'll have to come and see (or you can - hint, hint - take a look at my new book, The Copernicus Complex, when it hits the stands in September 2014).