The Copernicus complex

Caleb Scharf

Why I looked at this book

The Copernican principle is the idea that humans are not privileged observers of the universe and this has become a criterion against which modern scientific ideas are tested. But some scientific discoveries have suggested that the universe is fine-tuned for our existence. Is trying to fit these into the Copernican principle stretching it too far? Maybe we do live in a special place or time. Is, for instance, positing a multiverse a valid way to fit observations with the Copernican principle or can it be thought of as a reductio ad absurdum argument against the principle. I'm looking to this book to discuss such issues.

First impressions

The book starts with a look at the history of the Copernican principle, asking how we got to the idea that we're not so special. When Anton van Leeuwenhoek peered through his microscope, the microbes he saw were viewed as something novel, but did anyone think it should change the way we saw ourselves? Certainly the idea that Earth isn't the centre of the universe goes back a long way. Aristarchus argued for a heliocentric universe but there was strong opposition to his idea.

I found it interesting to read, and it gets the book off to a good start, but I did think Scharf could have put forward more of his point of view early on to give more of an idea what the main arguments of the book will be.

Main review

I didn't get on with this book. It has lots of interesting stuff, but somehow it didn't seem to be engaging. Maybe that's because I know about quite a bit about some of the material it presents, but that never seems to be a problem with other books. I got the impression that the material was being presented at 'arms length'. For the author this means that he doesn't seem to be presenting work he has been involved in. Many such books take a more autobiographical slant, telling of the problems and successes that the author had in their research, but this was lacking in this book. For the reader, the 'arms length' impression comes from the way that I would read through a few pages on a topic, for instance Bayesian pprobability, but then feel that they didn't tell me what the topic was really about.

I think part of the problem is that Scharf leaves the main argument to the end. this is that life exists at 'edge of chaos', but there are plenty of opportunities for different types of life. Introducing this at the start would have helped to make sense of the rest of the book. As I said above, from the start it was hard to tell what the main arguments of the book were going to be.

It's probably just a matter of taste, and maybe other people will get on better with reading it. The book certainly has plenty of interesting material, looking at the discovery of exoplanets, the origin of life on Earth, and the nature of intelligence. Scharf shows how we often find much more variability than originally expected, supporting the idea that life in the cosmos may take a great variety of forms. If it didn't seem so 'arms-length' I might well have found it fascinating.
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