In 1514, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish priest, put forward an Earth-shattering idea: that the Earth and the other planets revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around. In turning a 1,500-year-old wisdom on its head, he didn’t merely shock, but also committed a theological crime.
Even as the new picture of the cosmos begrudgingly took hold, people fervently hoped that our Sun was at the center of some 200 billion stars in our own galaxy.
But it turned out that we were in the “galactic boondocks.”
They tenaciously clung to the idea, next, that, at least, our galaxy was the seat of the universe.
That too, was wishful thinking.
The universe has no core in the sense of three-dimensional space, and the Milky Way is certainly not at it, being one among a staggering swarm of 170 billion galaxies.
Those who would’ve liked to hear that we were at the center of time, so to speak, suffered more crushing disappointment when the Earth’s age was determined to be 4.5 billion years, which by implication meant that humankind has been around for an “instant of geological time.”
The Big Bang, believed to have taken place roughly 13.8 billion years ago, came as a sharp blow to those who knew that God created the Earth on October 23, in 4004 B.C., a Sunday, the date pinned down, in the 17th century, by the head of the Church of Ireland, the archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher.
Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work showed that we’d evolved from the interaction of organic molecules, swimming in a primordial soup—another bummer to most theologians.
As science has progressively clarified (or obfuscated, depending on one’s philosophy) our position in the universe, it has steadily dented our “geocentric arrogance.”
In “The Varieties of Scientific Experiences,” an edited collection of a series of talks delivered by the Pulitzer Prize-winning astrophysicist Carl Sagan, at the prestigious Giffords Lectures, in 1985, he expressed that, even today, the “Copernican battle” is still being fought silently, at the level of extraterrestrial intelligence.
The search for intelligent life elsewhere, is one of the few instances where both a positive and a negative outcome would be a win-win.
Should our radio telescopes, one day, pick up a signal from space, the answer to the eternal question, “Are we alone?” would’ve been found.
If not, it would confirm that intelligent life is indeed rare, and it’d still be an occasion for a bash, for proponents of the view that there’s no one smarter than us in the entire universe.
The cacophonous medley of (analog) television broadcasts that escape the terrestrial boundaries, are, in theory, detectable in our cosmic backyard.
And in the event that we’re contacted, it’s likely to be from beings vastly superior to ourselves, because, “if they’re even a little bit behind us, they can’t communicate at all.”
For any civilization to be able to beam waves from across hundreds of light years away, let alone travel through interstellar space, they’d have to have crossed a high technological threshold.
Sagan doesn’t rule out the possibility that we’ve been visited in the past, but dismisses U.F.O. sightings as elaborate hoaxes.
A good patch to shine the celestial flashlight on, he believes, is in the solar exurbs, in the vicinity of the four, methane-rich, gas giants.
Titan, the largest of the Saturnian moons, blanketed with a dense organic gruel, broken up by lakes of liquid hydrocarbons, could possibly be a fertile crucible for life.
His approach to the existence of God is neither one of flat denial, blind embrace, or derisive snigger, and pithily summed thus: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Neither is it evidence of presence.”
He regards the concept of God as an omnipotent being, portrayed as “an outsize, light-skinned male, with a long white beard,” sitting on a capacious throne in the sky, as “naïve.”
Rather, he doffs his hat to the version of God as proposed by Albert Einstein and Baruch Spinoza, as the totality of the laws (Newtonian gravitation, quantum mechanics, unified field theory, etc.) that keep the universe running, with “unexpected regularity.”
That the principles of physics apply uniformly, everywhere from Milan to the Antarctica to a distant quasar, represents a power far greater than us.
Science and religion, he maintains, are not antithetical to each other. Science is “informed worship.”
To those who offer as proofs of God’s existence, the facts that we’re imbued with a consciousness at some stage of gestation, we have religious experiences, we are moral beings, he asks, as to why God didn’t leave more concrete evidence?
For instance, he could’ve embedded Maxwell’s Laws into Egyptian hieroglyphics—cryptic codes that would’ve been indecipherable to the ancients, but could’ve been cracked today.
Or, perhaps, an even more striking, hard-to-miss sign like emblazoning the Ten Commandments on the lunar surface, each spread across 10 kilometers, for future space probes to bump into? Or, suspend a gigantic crucifix in the Earth’s orbit?
He doesn’t critique any religious thought harshly. His gripe with Western theology, however, is that God is depicted as the “God of a tiny world,” cripplingly narrow and too limiting.
This book is lively in its style, but intense in the ideas it conveys.