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Our Privileged Planet

Original Article

If there’s anything an election year teaches us, it is that even the truth, in the wrong hands, can be spun into almost anything. This isn’t much of a surprise for politicians. But scientists?

The legendary astronomer Carl Sagan once claimed, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic darkness.”

The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards (published by Regnery, a sister company to HUMAN EVENTS) sets out to debunk Sagan’s argument as nihilistic propaganda cloaked in scientific understanding. In fact, the earth and human life are rather unique, and the same data scientists like Sagan use to prove our insignificance actually show just how privileged we are.

The authors explain that scientists for years have been studying our world through the looking glass of ideology. “Rather than a search for the truth about nature–based on evidence, systematic study, and the like–science becomes applied naturalism: the conviction that the material world is all there is, and that chance and impersonal natural law alone explain, indeed must explain, its existence.”

On the contrary, not only is Earth an extraordinary blue dot in the vast universe–if not unique–its special place, time, and composition optimize our ability to explore the far reaches of the universe as well as the intricate detail in our own backyard. In short, our habitable world is remarkable, and its very habitability makes it possible for us to explore just how remarkable it is.

Gonzalez, an astronomer, and Richards, a philosopher, explore how the position of Earth in the solar system, the galaxy and the universe as a whole is ideal for the growth of intelligent life. They show how the size of Earth, the moon and the Sun, as well as the other planets (“our helpful neighbors”), sustain the right conditions and provide the proper protection to nurture our growth.

Consider the perfect eclipse.

Perfect eclipses, where the moon completely covers the Sun’s photosphere revealing only its very thin chromosphere, provide a unique opportunity for scientific discovery. And the very fact that perfect eclipses are even possible stems from conditions necessary for Earth’s habitability.

The Sun is about 400 times farther away from us than the moon and it is also about 400 times bigger than the moon. The two lobes, therefore, look almost identical in the sky. If they didn’t, there would be no such thing as the perfect eclipse, making study of the Sun’s thin outer layer impossible. Perfect eclipses and the resultant rare shot of the chromosphere offer the optimal setting for discovering the nature of the Sun’s atmosphere, measuring the deflection of starlight, testing the Theory of General Relativity, and timing Earth’s rotation. And if the size of the moon differed even slightly, the perfect eclipse wouldn’t be possible.

But for Gonzalez and Richards, perfect eclipses are just the tip of the chromosphere, if you will. Consider this: if the moon were even a tad smaller, there would be no life on Earth to concern itself with scientific discovery.

The moon is just massive enough to stabilize this planet’s 23.5-degree axial tilt. If the moon were any smaller, the tilt of our planet could vary as much as 30 degrees over the course of a year. The authors explain how undesirable this would be. “When the North Pole was leaning sunward through the middle of the summer half of the year, most of the Northern Hemisphere would experience months of perpetually scorching daylight. Any survivors would suffer viciously cold months of perpetual night during the other half of the year.”

The authors discuss as virtually perfect for both life and discovery everything from water and carbon in our world to the Earth’s position in the Solar System, the Solar System’s position in the galaxy, and the galaxy’s position in the universe. They offer the historical context of their thesis, which shows that men like Copernicus and Galileo, whom the naturalists tend to revere, would have agreed with The Privileged Planet’s thesis.

Gonzalez and Richards address objections to their own thesis and offer explanations. Indeed, the only spin in this book is the one that gives our world the day and the night. Both of which, incidentally, are necessary for life and discovery.

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