The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities

Because of the issues with #CO2Fre’s tyre, it only just finished this book in time for our meeting today.

I started this book right after finishing 18 Miles: The Epic Dreams of Our Atmosphere and Its Weather. Overall, I found the book a bit repetitive but it does bring up some interesting topics. I think the conclusion of we being born of both order and chaos is a nice ides given other books I’ve read that go into great detail on how unusual it is for biologic life to arise and how even more astronomical the odds are that a bacterium would take up residence in an archaea to make eukaryotes.

The survey of extrasolar planetary configurations was fun, however. I love the description of unusual systems like tight packing of planets, binary star systems, and life evolving on a Gas Giant moon. Although there are multiple ways a binary star system could have planets. For instance, one could have one star is a large (but not huge) one like our sun, and the other is a red dwarf, a bit larger than Jupiter, with the planet orbiting only the major star. But what Caleb Scharf seems to present is something more akin to two stars of relatively close mass orbiting one another tightly and a planet much farther out which orbits them both. In the later case, the idea that suns eclipse each other in regular cycles making the nature of a solar-centric universe much more amenable to budding intelligent life was a great and interesting flight of fancy that will help inform my better authorship of Science Fiction.

My main nit goes back to the first issue, though, with the mention of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the prologue. I thought the author did better introducing astronomical elements than he did biological elements and it was in the biological sections in which I was bogged down.

I am happy though to concede that with the modified Drake equation: \(N = R_* \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_i \cdot f_e \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L\) where,

  • \(R_*\): the average rate of star formation in a galaxy
  • \(f_p\): the fraction of those stars that have planets
  • \(n_e\): the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
  • \(f_i\): the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life (like bacteria or archaea) at some point
  • \(f_e\): the fraction of planets with life (like bacteria or archaea) that develop complex life (like eucaryotes)
  • \(f_i\): the fraction of planets with complex life (like eucaryotes) that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
  • \(f_c\): the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
  • \(L\): the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

We know \(R_*\) is about three percent more stars per year, and that \(f_p\) is often greater than one, perhaps an average of four in modern surveys. \(n_e\) is a little harder to determine as we generally define it as a goldilocks zone, but as the book points out, life with radically different chemistry could have a different universal solvent than water. Methane, CH₄, for instance. \(l_i\) is a harder one but it seems this may indeed be quite common in any planet large enough to have plate tectonics and a hot core. The harder question is if \(l_e\) is common or not. As we don’t exactly know how eucaryotes evolved or, more specifically, how such a symbiosis could evolve so stably without consuming it. Finally, \(f_i\), \(f_c\), and \(L\) are all based on how intelligent life evolves and sustain itself, which, again, we have only one data point and can’t draw any conclusions from that at all. The main point though is we are getting closer to answering the first five terms at least and all are looking, even \(f_e\), a bit like we are not alone.

One of the most interesting aspects, however, were the Zodiacal Light display. I never knew that was possible and now I definitely have it added to my Bucket List. It was fascinating to learn about all the planetary and extrasolar debris that just sits along the ecliptic plane. And I enjoyed the author’s discussions of the origin of our solar system and how it compares to the many other stellar systems possible.

Talking about how Copernicus made our universe more knowable by virtue of it being ordinary and nothing special was a great way of presenting the conundrum between Anthropocentrism and ubiquity implied by Copernicus. I think that is the most important conclusion: that we are both special and ubiquitous. That our journey to intelligent life was unique, but that there are many ways of for the universe to know itself, and we are only one of those ways.

The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities
The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities

Overall, the text could have been tighter and less repetitive but the overall conclusion seems sound. We are, indeed Unique and Ubiquitous. Now, on to, The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

See you later, my friendly fellow sapiosexuals!

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