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Feeling at Home in a Scientific World

February 11, 2003|Michael Gilmore | Michael Gilmore, a thermophysicist who has worked on the space program, is a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society.

On my desk sit two little stones. One is a trilobite fossil, about half a billion years old. The other is an iron meteorite of unknown age.

They represent the two greatest turning points in science: the Darwinian and the Copernican revolutions -- which this month are remembered on the birthdays of Charles Darwin, Feb. 12, Nicholas Copernicus, Feb. 19, and Galileo, Feb. 15.

It was not the purpose of Copernicus to explain meteors when he argued for a sun-centered astronomical system in 1543. But he started a long scientific argument, lasting more than three centuries, that eventually explained the nature and origin of meteorites.

We have discovered some wonderful things along the path that Copernicus started, including the incredible fact that rocks fall from the sky.

Seventy years after Copernicus, his cosmological revolution was enlarged and presented to scholars and the public alike by Galileo. It is our immense good fortune that this revolution, which showed how Earth and the heavens follow the same natural laws, continued to grow. Pockets of resistance existed, however. When a statue of Copernicus was erected in Warsaw in 1839, no priest could be found to officiate. Copernicus' book had been removed from the Roman Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books only in 1835.

Also in 1835, a young English naturalist was on the other side of the planet exploring the Galapagos Islands. He was making observations that would eventually be part of his most famous book, "The Origin of Species," published nearly a quarter of a century later.

Charles Darwin's revolution would be like Copernicus' and Galileo's, a popular affair followed closely by both scholars and the public.

Mankind has suffered numerous displacements from what we thought was our proper and rightful place at the center of the universe and the pinnacle of creation. However, it is the Darwinian scientific revolution that disturbs us the most, although the Copernican revolution is a close second.

We now know that we live on a small Darwinian branch, on a pale blue dot of a planet, somewhere out in the cosmic boondocks.

Drawing from within the scientific revolution, there is a cure for our bruised egos. Begin by viewing these revolutions not as demotions but as inclusions. See yourself as a part of the natural world and thus as part of the unfolding of a remarkable and mysterious universe. Consider yourself, as Carl Sagan suggested, star stuff contemplating star stuff.

The more you understand our origin, evolution and place in the universe, the more you can feel a part of it. At some point you might even feel more at home. In fact, it could make you feel downright spiritual. Psychologist William James suggested that people may find a true religious sense when they "have a feeling of being at home in the universe."

Science is a very human enterprise that always stands on the edge of error. Scientific knowledge is never absolute. Even so, evolution is as certain as the existence of atoms or the revolution of our planet about the sun.

The little fossil and meteorite on my desk hold for me a sense of wonder and adventure. As they whisper of the mysteries of deep time and deep space, they tell some wonderful stories. Stories that I hope we will all come to know and cherish. They are the stories of science. Stories that should make us all feel more at home in the universe.

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