“Is it life, Spock? Life as we know it?”
“Ah…uh…ah hell, Jim – I dunno.”
As we see in Caleb Scharf’s The Copernicus Complex, actually doing science can be a grueling drudgery of data collection and probability calculation that sometimes results in a muscle-pulling shrug and the nagging suspicion that you may have wasted 20 years of your life. Reading science, however, is totally easy, even when it’s hard – as this book is occasionally. The subtitle is “Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities.” I would subtitle it “Why We Don’t Know If We’re Alone in the Universe.” Our best scientific minds are chipping away at these questions: Are we special? Are we alone? Could there be other life? Where? How? How would we know? In these 270 odd pages we are brought up to speed on the state of our understanding of these questions, such as it is.
Scharf’s tour takes us along the very edge of scientific inquiry, ranging from astronomy to gastronomy, ever-fading-from-view galaxies to intestinal microbes so necessary to us, they may well be considered organs (or midichlorians?!) Thomas Bayes, the 18th Century father of probability, becomes our Virgil, as we answer nothing definitively, but wend our way thru rococo possibilities and – if we’re lucky – likelihoods. If you expect simple answers, a) you probably don’t really enjoy science and b) this book will frustrate you. On the other hand, if you are willing to explore, a) you will finish this book with a better picture of where we are and why and b) you may develop bitchin ideas for a sci-fi novel, such as:
Like any good science book, it provides not just answers, but a different way of looking at its topic and better questions.