The Copernican Principle
At first glance, the Copernican Principle may seem rather depressing. Proposed by Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century, the principle describes a heliocentric (sun-centered) model of our solar system. At the time, Earth was believed to be at the center of the universe and everything else was a lucky bystander. Astronomers were unable to compare or contrast our conditions to surrounding celestial bodies because we were on “another level” - we were brand named cereal and everything else was generic.
But if the Earth wasn’t special, and space was equal, we could observe surrounding systems and apply the same mathematics and predictions anywhere. This is what the Copernican Principle allowed. It kicked open the proverbial door to modern-day astrophysics, paving the way for heavy-hitters like Galileo and Newton. But his principle birthed more than just a clearer understanding of the cosmos...
The Copernican Principle offered a very different perspective on life itself. Here comes the slightly depressing bit. His principle has come to embody the idea that we (humans, the Earth, our galaxy) are insignificant. As Carl Sagan so famously put it:
“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
Imagine realizing this back in Copernicus’ time. One minute you’re at the centre of the universe and the next you’re just another gassy ball of molten rock. But with mediocrity comes humility. Take away the pedestal and we’re just as important as the next planet - we’re able to see how everything is connected, and that we're part of something bigger than ourselves.
Some argue that we shouldn’t completely let go of ouruniqueness (which is arguably different from specialness). The fact that life was able to develop on earth - in what looks like an incredibly inhospitable universe - isn’t something to be scoffed at. In fact, the fight against climate change might be aided by acknowledging our uniqueness. The earth may not be spatially special, but that doesn't mean our extraordinary planet isn't worth protecting.
Image by Pixabey