Life in the Universe and the Copernican Revolution

This is a philosophical musing spurred by a credible observation of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs).

In 1543, Copernicus proposed in his book De Revolutionibus that to represent the solar system as planets circling the Sun would be simpler and would explain observations as well as the earlier representations having the Earth at the center. This started a revolution in scientific thought concerning the physical world. The revolution overturned centuries of a previous concept going back to the Greeks and Romans, namely the Earth as a static center while the planets, Moon and Sun revolved around it. In addition, the “sphere of the fixed stars” had been considered as not far beyond Saturn. After 150 years of observations and theories, Isaac Newton published the Principia, finally resolving a mechanism that explained the motion of the Earth and other planets, as well as a quantitative theory of matter and gravitation.1

What I want to trace is the psychological revolution that Copernicus started, and that went well beyond what he might have imagined. It was the loss of centrality. First, the Earth is no longer special since it is not central in the solar system. Also scientists started to understand that the stars are at a great distance, and may well be similar to the Sun.

The next giant step occurred with Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, along with contemporary geological work showing that the Earth is millions of years old (now understood as over 4 billion years). Since humans are part of an evolutionary tree and related to all other forms of life, humanity is no longer special but an integral part of life on Earth. The views of some of our religions have had to be revised.

In the 20th century astronomers confirmed the enormous extent of the universe around us. They determined that our solar system is located in a peripheral part of a galaxy, that the Sun is an ordinary star, and that there are truly billions of galaxies in the universe. In the 21st century we have evidence that planets exist around many stars. Our solar system is not special.

We say that humans have consciousness and agency, that is we can decide how to think and act in ways that no one can predict. Applying the same principle of non-centrality, we can postulate that these characteristics apply to all forms of life, again reducing the specialness of humanity. Another extension of this principle would say that life is everywhere in the universe, along with matter. 

Furthermore, if humans can build aircraft and space vehicles, then we should not be surprised that some species elsewhere in the universe can do the same. Some may venture to explore the universe and observe us, just as we aspire to do.

The 2004 observation by the U.S. military of smooth oval extraterrestrial vehicles off the shore of Southern California would seem to be such an exploration.2 In the process, the extraterrestrials will undoubtedly have learned that we have space technology by observing the satellites that surround the Earth, and have seen the aircraft that came close to their ovals forcing them to take evasive maneuvers. Also they now know that we are aware of their presence.

Finally, the behavior of the US government is interesting. The military and security agencies don’t like phenomena they cannot explain. So they classified the evidence of this and other encounters. Now, due to a Congressional inquiry, the government submitted a report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) on June 25, 2021.

The 9-page report doesn’t say much; the official concern is with threats to our security. There is speculation on advanced technologies of other nations, which seems unlikely. The report tries hard to avoid the subject of extraterrestrials, and it appears that the military-industrial complex wants to undertake a foolish attempt to understand and duplicate these capabilities – more work for them! The best thing about the report is that the government considered incidents only during the last 20 years, when trained pilots and military crews reported in detail what they observed, often with video records.

1An excellent description of this process is given in Thomas Kuhn’s book The Copernican Revolution, Harvard University Press, 1957.

2 See

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