samuel_arbesman's picture
Complexity Scientist; Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital; Author, Overcomplicated
The Copernican Principle

The scientist Nicolaus Copernicus recognized that Earth is not in any particularly privileged position in the solar system. This elegant fact can be extended to encompass a powerful idea, known as the Copernican Principle, that we are not in a special or favorable place of any sort. By looking at the world through the eyes of this principle, we can remove certain blinders and preconceptions about ourselves and re-examine our relationship with the universe.

The Copernican Principle can be used in the traditional spatial sense, providing awareness of our mediocre place in the galaxy, and our galaxy's place in the universe. We now recognize that our solar system, once thought to be the center of the galaxy, is actually in the suburban portions of the Milky Way. And the Copernican Principle helps guide our understanding of the expanding universe, allowing us to see that anywhere in the cosmos one would also view other galaxies moving away at rapid speeds, just as we see here on Earth. We are not anywhere special.

The Copernican Principle has also been extended to our temporal position by astrophysicist J. Richard Gott to help provide estimates for lifetimes of events, independent of additional information. As Gott elaborated, other than the fact that we are intelligent observers, there is no reason to believe we are in any way specially located in time. It allows us to quantify our uncertainty and recognize that we are often neither at the beginning of things, nor at the end. This allowed Gott to estimate correctly when the Berlin Wall would fall, and has even provided meaningful numbers on the lifetime of humanity.

This principle can even anchor our location within the many orders of magnitude of our world: we are far smaller than most of the cosmos, far larger than most chemistry, far slower than much that occurs at subatomic scales, and far faster than geological and evolutionary processes. Through this principle, we are compelled to study successively larger and smaller orders of magnitude of our world, because we need not assume that everything interesting is at the same scale as ourselves.

And yet, despite this regimented approach to our mediocrity, we need not have cause for despair: as far as we know, we're the only species that can actually recognize its place in the universe. The paradox of the Copernican Principle is that, by properly understanding our place, even if it be rather humbling, we can only then truly understand our surroundings. And by being able to do that, we don't seem so small or insignificant after all.