Some people like their science focused and tight. I prefer something more far-reaching. These days, with science and so many other disciplines well-honed and specialized, it is rare for an author to pull off a feat of delving into multiple disciplines. Astrophysicist Caleb Scharf manages this competently in The Copernicus Complex. He begins with a look under a 17th century microscope and takes the reader on a journey through the distant past and dozens of billions of years into the future, weaving together modern insights of cosmology, biochemistry, geology, physics, probability, while touching on assorted other fields of study. To what point?
Is life on Earth special or ordinary? The ancients saw us as accidents in a universe controlled by capricious gods. Judaism suggested the creation of human beings was a special intent of a loving God. And Christians adopted this. Likewise other religions today have a more refined understanding of human purpose in a universe not so hostile and random.
But western scientists have observed that perhaps we are not so special after all. Instead of being at the center of God’s creation, we are just one planet circling a star. Once, one planet among a handful. Today, a yellow star considered a “dwarf” and one planet among countless trillions. And maybe caprice will do us in in the end: a comet hitting the planet, or our star swelling up into a helium-burning red giant and incinerating the Earth in some future endgame of the solar system.
I like Dr Scharf’s approach in this book. He keeps readers on their toes. He keeps the science accessible without dumbing it down. I would say a sharp high-school student could follow the gist of this text and find wonder. It presumes a strong secondary education in the sciences. But the prose is engaging, even if a bit drawn out at times. The editing could be a bit tighter–modern effectiveness needs more than spell-check. But I say that about most any book I read these days. I still recommend this tome as one of the best I’ve read in five years.
Religion isn’t really a part of this volume, but the topics open up possibilities on that front. If we were one of many intelligent species in the universe, how does that affect our beliefs and assumptions about God? Some authors have swung away from Copernicus suggesting we are just an ordinary planet. Dr Scharf addresses the “rare Earth” thinking among some scientists. Before I read this book, I would have put myself into that camp. Now I’m not sure. Not that I’m self-identifying as a creationist or anything like that. At this point in time, we simply don’t have enough information to determine if intelligent life is unique, Star Trek/Star Wars common, or somewhere in between those extremes.
We are just beginning to get a rational grasp on the question. Go with this author, and tighten your grip.