It’s time for humans to realize that they are not the center of the universe

The discovery of other intelligent life may allow humans to grow up and see themselves in a more humble perspective. Is it time for a new Copernican revolution?

We are born into this world like actors who have entered the stage without a script, and tend to think that the play is about us. This delusion stems from our ego, which naturally gives center stage to our existence. With this mindset, things that happen to people must be caused by their actions.

Archaeologists recently uncovered evidence in the excavations of Tall al-Hammam that the ancient walled city, which towered over the Jordan Valley 7 miles northeast of the Dead Sea, was destroyed by a meteorite explosion 60-75 meters in diameter, comparable to the Tunguska bolide that leveled a forest in Siberia in 1908. The time of the city’s destruction, 1650 (+/- 30) years B.C., coincides with the period of Abraham and Lot in the Bible story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Traditional history attributes this event to divine retribution for the sins committed by the city’s inhabitants. However, the modern scientific viewpoint suggests that the stone that caused the destruction of the city was on its predetermined path to collide with the earth long before the city was built or any free-will transgression occurred within its walls. The message of this meteorite is loud and clear: this cosmic story is not about humans.

This misconception is not unique to mythological stories. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that we are at the center of the universe. A similar egocentric view existed outside of Europe.

For example, the ancient Maya accurately tracked changes in the position and relative brightness of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. They documented their astronomical data in books called codices, with far more quantitative detail than other civilizations of the time. The priestly astronomers used observations and modern mathematical calculations to predict eclipses, and developed a 365-day solar calendar that deviated by only one month every 100 years. They determined the orbital periods of Venus, Mars, and Mercury around the sun, but at the center of their universe was the Earth.

The Maya used their accurate data to support their culture of astrology. They correlated the periodic movements of celestial objects with human history and, rather than seeking a physical explanation for astronomical data, used it to initiate wars or rituals. Astronomers gained a high status in Mayan society because their data had political significance. This was based on the belief that the outcome of human actions was related to the rest of the universe observed in the sky. But the reality is that we don’t matter that much in a global cosmic perspective beyond Earth.

The geocentric model was the prevailing paradigm until Nicholas Copernicus, using observational data, changed the view of our cosmic status. The modern view, based on data on the cosmic microwave background and the large-scale distribution of matter around us, is that we are not a central part of any system in the physical universe around us.

Nevertheless, many scientists still believe that we can occupy a central place as unique sentient beings in the biological universe. In the summer of 1950, Enrico Fermi asked: “Where is everybody?” but his paradox is presumptuous. He assumes that if we don’t hear a knock on the door or see someone having fun in our “backyard,” then we have no neighbors. A more reasonable claim, based on cosmic modesty, is that we don’t deserve much attention or haven’t looked hard enough for appropriate clues.

Even today, many scientists reject the search for extraterrestrial intelligence based on the notion that Earth may be rare. But data from the Kepler satellite indicates that most sun-like stars have an Earth-sized planet at about the same distance. Thus, nature continues to let us know that we are by no means privileged.

It is time for a new Copernican revolution regarding our status among life forms in the cosmos.

My daughters thought they were the smartest until we took them to kindergarten. Likewise, our civilization will only mature after finding others.

It is hoped that the discovery of a smarter child in our cosmic neighborhood will have a profound effect on how we relate to each other.

Much of human history has been shaped by groups of people feeling superior to others. Our small genetic differences will become irrelevant once we all gaze in awe at technological equipment far more advanced than any we have ever developed.

The recently announced Galileo project will look for such equipment in space near Earth. By following scientific data, we will be able to better understand reality. Learning means letting go of misconceptions without judging them as a threat to our self-esteem.

We know that the spectacle has been going on for 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, which is ten thousand times longer than human history. Therefore, there is no doubt that the play is not about us. So we should look for other actors who have existed longer and can better understand what the play is about.

Author: Avi Loeb is the founding director of Harvard University’s Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and former chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University (2011-2020).

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