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Caleb Scharf on the cosmic significance of life on Earth

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'The Copernicus Complex'
'The Copernicus Complex' by Caleb Scharf
Book cover courtesy of publisher

Since Nicolaus Copernicus proved the universe doesn't revolve around the Earth in the 15th century, we Earthlings have been struggling with the idea that we just aren't that special. In the 20th century, we even gave our insecurity a name - the "principle of terrestrial mediocrity," which reiterates just how ordinary our life here on planet Earth is.

But how ordinary is it really? In his most recent publication, "The Copernicus Complex," Caleb Scharf argues that while life on earth isn't unique, it is rare to live on a planet so unusually situated and part of such an exclusive club of planetary systems that can support life. In fact, Scharf points out that 97 percent of planetary systems don't allow for the existence of Earth-like planets in stable orbits - we benefit from a planetary system in a special 2 to 3 percent.

With all this in mind, we are left with some interesting questions: If our circumstances are indeed ordinary, isn't life like ours likely to be abundant? If so, why haven't we encountered intelligent life like ours? And even though the geocentric beliefs of the past have been stomped out of us, is our inferiority complex unwarranted?

"Scharf ultimately argues that it all comes down to chaos and that the only way to get to the bottom of our cosmic significance is to harness all the existing and emerging tools of physics, chemistry and biology, experiment, theory and simulation, and throw the lot at the problem," writes Cait MacPhee in Times Higher Education. "This may sound a little unsatisfying. But Scharf ably describes how we have harnessed computer simulations to explain how apparently weird and wonderful exoplanetary systems were formed following a series of unpredictable events."