Copernicus on a Budget

Searching for the multiverse

by Jackson Paine

Human curiosity has recently been defunded. In 2011, the Obama administration cut NASA’s budget by 20 percent. In spite of this, NASA has has achieved many accomplishments in the last year. They discovered running water on Mars this year, and, just last week, they discovered that at one point Mars had an atmosphere capable of supporting life. However, some of the more peculiar projects have been abandoned in the face of budget cuts. One of these oddities was the satellite LISA, which would have been sent to orbit the Sun and look for evidence of other universes. NASA backed out of this project in 2011 in order to focus on projects with more concrete goals. Efforts to prove multiverse theories are far from concrete, as they have some intriguing notions but in large part are just speculation. However, if we stop taking risks in space exploration, we may lose the drive that attracted us to look up at the stars to begin with. 

Now, for just a moment, consider Walmia, Poland in the late 1400s, where a scientist with questionable hairstyle choices once made his home. Copernicus was a mathematician who charted the orbits of planets and first proposed the heliocentric model of the solar system. His theory went against the accepted model of the time, which had been proposed by Aristotle hundreds of years earlier. Aristotle was an empiricist, gathering meaning on the natural world from direct experience. He saw that the Sun, moon and stars rose in the east and set in the west every day, and that objects, when dropped, fell toward the ground without fail. He deduced from his observations that there had to be some kind of attraction toward the center of the Earth. Therefore, the Earth must be the center of the universe. What did not fit the model were several objects whose orbits around the Earth were complex and erratic: the planets, coming from the Greek word “planeto,” meaning “to wander.” Aristotle’s empirical theories were adopted by the Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas and subsequently integrated into the church’s dogma. 

By the time Copernicus proposed his model for the heliocentric universe, he was refuting thousands of years of accepted theory, as well as the most powerful institution in Europe at the time, the Catholic Church. People saw Copernicus’ model as superfluous; it seemed unnecessary to change something that already made sense. Scientists had to fight and gather data for decades before the heliocentric model was accepted within just the scientific community, let alone the public at large. “It wasn’t really until the middle of the 17th century with Kepler that the details start to fall into place,” said Jonathon Lee, Professor of Philosophy. This occurred almost a hundred years after Copernicus proposed his theory. Now, the heliocentric universe is taken for granted. Hundreds of years of astronomical research and experimentation have their foundation in Copernicus’ challenge to the status quo of cosmology at the time. Because of Copernicus’ curiosity, we have Newton, calculus and space travel—consequences that Copernicus could not have known would follow his work. 

Copernicus’ work also had effects on the world of philosophy. By shifting the center of the universe from the Earth to the Sun, Copernicus challenged the human-centric conception of the universe. “For all intents and purposes, [the solar system] was their universe,” Lee said. If the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, then neither was the human race. Our certainty in anthropocentrism, or “the belief that human beings are the central or most significant species,” was challenged by Copernicus’ model.

Contemporary philosophy has evolved along the lines of deanthropocentrism: speculative realism. The word “speculative” in this context doesn’t mean hypothetical—it just refers to looking beyond our own experience. In the words of philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, the goal of speculative realists is “to achieve what modern philosophy has been telling us for the past two centuries is impossibility itself: to get out of ourselves…to know what is, whether we are or not.” Just because we cannot see the evidence of something firsthand does not mean it should be rejected outright. Speculative realism involves the things that exist beyond our sensory input. When we talk about an ancient extinct species, we go back to a time before humans, a time outside of our own experience. Even though it exists outside of mankind’s sensory experience, it is no less important than what we can touch or see. “The point here is not to be anthropocentric,” Lee said.

In contemporary cosmology there’s more room for speculation and less rigidness than there was in Copernicus’ day. However, the most commonly accepted theory of our time is Einstein’s general relativity. Einstein was praised for helping unite concepts such as gravity, space and time. While Newton asserted centuries earlier that gravity affected objects in motion and objects exert a pull upon one another, Einstein postulated that massive objects actually warp spacetime and pull other objects towards themselves, like balls on a canvas tarp. Everything has some pull on everything else, but bowling balls are going to have more pull than golf balls. Einstein also claimed, using this theory, that we exist within a “static infinite universe,” an assumption that is now being challenged by other physicists. In large part, it comes down to one question: Why just one universe? 

There are a variety of hypotheses on multiverses, from notions of parallel universes to pocket universes. Ultimately, each theory has one aspect in common: deanthropocentrism.

“With every Copernican revolution, you’re basically giving up a piece of anthropocentrism,” said Brooks Tomas, Professor of Physics at CC. “You’re constantly displacing yourself from the center…and when you find the Sun isn’t the center of anything either—it’s just a star within a solar system, within a cluster within a galaxy within a universe within a multiverse—that’s also giving up a little bit of anthropocentrism.”

Humanity is like a confused Russian nesting doll that thought it was the largest piece, but in reality is the smallest little woman in the center. Not only this, but once we broke out to the largest piece, we realized there were dozens of other Russian nesting dolls surrounding us. We’re not unique. We’re not the end-all be-all. We just happen to exist.

Some scientists are beginning to wonder if we are on the cusp of another Copernican revolution. Just as Copernicus discovered that Earth wasn’t the center of the solar system, multiverse theory, if proven, would have wide-reaching implications. Right now we think of the universe as a concept that includes every single thing; all reality that we know currently exists, exists within our universe. The idea of a multiverse shatters this conception. Suddenly the word “universe” changes from referring to everything, to just a piece of everything. 

Unfortunately, the theory will remain hypothetical until we fund efforts to prove it. To prove heliocentrism, Copernicus and the astronomers of his day just studied the sky attentively with their bare eyes. To prove or disprove multiverse theory, scientists need billions of dollars, years of labor and international cooperation. A hard sell for any project, let alone one that will likely not yield any economic results.

It’s easy to look at the multiverse theory and despair. It’s one thing for there to be more stars than grains of sand on a beach; it’s another thing entirely for our universe to affect the same ratio. How can we find meaning in a world that inhabits such a small part of the ridiculously vast multiverse? It feels like looking upon the face of a giant, knowing painfully well that your existence could end with an indifferent yawn.

In this quest we become more humble, more mature, both as individuals and as societies. We learn truths about our universe, one question at a time. Yes, Aristotle’s theories made sense within the model he had created. They worked logically, and people could see how he got from point A to point B. But in the end he was wrong—Earth was not the center. The fact of the matter is that Einstein could be wrong as well, and if we stop at his conclusions we could be missing our next opportunity to expand our knowledge of the universe. It takes guts and brains to challenge a model that isn’t broken, but it may prove worthwhile to search for uncomfortable truths.

Some people look at our expeditions into the cosmos as jettisoning money directly into space. Satellites don’t feed hungry children, and rocket ships won’t help a struggling economy. There are so many problems in our own world that it can be hard to justify probing space to satisfy our curiosity. But the moment we start taking everything at face value is the moment we lose something intrinsic to our humanity. If Copernicus never doubted Aristotle and the Church, we’d still be standing on our blue marble, arrogantly self-assured that we were the axle on which the wheel turned. Our greatest achievements do not emerge from moments of great confidence, but instead from moments when we take a minute to stop and ask “Why?” Neil Armstrong may have taken a giant leap for mankind when he set foot on the moon, but Copernicus’ speculation tied the laces of his moon boots. 

June Sassjackson paineComment