The Privileged Planet: Questions and Answers

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What is The Privileged Planet?

The Privileged Planet is a science documentary based on the 2004 science book of the same title by astrobiologist Guillermo Gonzalez and philosopher Jay Richards. In recent years, a growing number of physicists and astronomers have again raised the question of “purpose in the universe.” This is the terrain of The Privileged Planet. The documentary does not wade into the often acrimonious debate between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design. Rather, it considers purpose within cosmic evolution as an important and timely question that thoughtful audiences can discuss respectfully. The book and the film are grounded in the many scientific discoveries made in the 20th century and particularly by the current generation of scientists who can peek farther than ever before into the night sky. The book has inspired a broad and civil discussion among astronomers, physicists, and astrobiologists.

What sorts of issues does The Privileged Planet explore?

While exploring perennial questions, the film takes viewers on a tour of some of the key mysteries that 21st century astronomy hopes to solve: What does a planet need to support life? Are Earthlike planets rare or common? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? The film also explains the many ways in which Earth is ideally suited, not only for complex life, but also for observing the universe around us. The film considers:

  • How Earth is precisely positioned in the Milky Way—not only for life, but also in a way that optimizes scientific discovery;
  • The harmony of Earth and the Moon: how they work together to sustain Earthly life as one intricate system-and how that system produces perfect solar eclipses just where there are observers to see them;
  • How Earth’s atmosphere helps protect us from harmful radiation, yet has a tiny window open to the radiation crucial for life and scientific knowledge; 
  • How Jupiter and Saturn protect Earth from cataclysmic destruction;
  • Why the best scientific evidence refutes the misnamed Copernican Principle—the idea that there is nothing special about Earth or its place in the universe; 
  • How the laws and constants that govern the universe must be narrowly fine-tuned for the existence of any complex life, and take an elegant form that can be uncovered by the human mind; and,
  • Whether the sheer number and size of galaxies means that Earth’s capacity to sustain life is just the result of blind chance.

Who is featured in The Privileged Planet?

In the film, scientists from a variety of perspectives weigh in on the various topics. Gonzalez and Richards argue that our planet is exquisitely fit not only to support life, but also gives us the best view of the universe, as if Earth—and the universe itself—were designed both for life and for scientific discovery. Additionally, the documentary features interviews with leading scientists including Dr. Paul Davies, Dr. Donald Brownlee, and Dr. Robert Jastrow—none advocates of intelligent design. The film is narrated by Welsh actor and Lord of the Rings star John Rhys-Davies. It also includes Hubble space telescope photography and state-of-the-art 3D computer animation, including a highly accurate model of our Milky Way galaxy.

What do other scientists say about these issues?

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Nobel-prize winning physicist Charles Townes asked, “What is the purpose or meaning of life? Or of our universe? These are questions which should concern us all. As a scientist, I have been primarily trying to understand our world—the universe, including humans—what it is and how it works. Of course, if the universe has a purpose, then its structure, and how it works, must reflect this purpose.” Townes added that we need to enter into a “serious intellectual discussion of the possible meaning of our universe.” Such a conversation is the subject of The Privileged Planet. 

What have scientists said about The Privileged Planet?

The Privileged Planet book has been respectfully reviewed in several major science publications. It has already received the following endorsements by leading scientists and historians of science:  

This thoughtful, delightfully contrarian book will rile up those who believe the ‘Copernican principle’ is an essential philosophical component of modern science. Is our universe designedly congenial to intelligent, observing life? Passionate advocates of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) will find much to ponder in this carefully documented analysis.

Owen Gingerich, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Author of The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus

In a book of magnificent sweep and daring Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards drive home the arguments that the old cliché of no place like home is eerily true of Earth. Not only that, but if the scientific method was to emerge anywhere, the Earth is about as suitable as you can get. Gonzalez and Richards have flung down the gauntlet. Let the debate begin; it is a question that involves us all.

Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology, University of Cambridge Author of Life’s Solution

This new book is an excellent and timely contribution to the broadening and increasingly important discussion of origins.

Henry F. Schaefer III, Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry, Director, Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry, University of Georgia

Not only have Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards written a book with a remarkable thesis, they have constructed their argument on an abundance of evidence and with a cautiousness of statement that make their volume even more remarkable. In my opinion, their Privileged Planet deserves very careful attention.

Michael J. Crowe, Cavanaugh Professor Emeritus, University of Notre Dame Author of The Extraterrestrial Life Debate: 1750-1900

Gonzalez and Richards’ argument, though controversial, is so carefully and moderately presented that any reasonable critique of it must itself address the astonishing evidence which has for so long somehow escaped our notice. I therefore expect this book to renew—and to raise to a new level—the whole scientific and philosophic debate about earth’s cosmic significance. It is a high class piece of work that deserves the widest possible audience.

Dennis Danielson, Professor of English, University of British Columbia, Editor, The Book of the Cosmos

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