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Monday, June 13, 2005

Privileged Planet: Starry, Starry Night

Almost up to the very end, the film makes the case, with further examples, that Earth is ideally suited to astronomy. (See the next post for what happens then!)

According to the narrator, Earth is located “in the relatively safe and uncrowded region” between the Sagittarius and Perseus arms of the Milky Way.

I must say, it feels odd hearing this kind of thing without the “and therefore we are insignificant” theme that I grew up with.

Service note: If you are looking for the rest of my extended review of Privileged Planet, go here. If you are looking for information on the showing of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, go here and here to start, and then this one will bring you up to date. My extended review aims at determining exactly why the Washington Post thinks it is a “religious” film, or anyway, more so or in some different way than Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

Gonzalez restates that, when appraising a planet, location is everything. We cut to page views of the book Privileged Planet, a more detailed look at the authors' hypothesis.

The narrator notes that Gonzalez and Richards “now argue that Earth is also located in the best setting within our galaxy for astronomical research.”

“As it turns out, our position in the universe is not only critical for life, it is also surprisingly important for making scientific discoveries, ” Gonzalez goes on, driving the point home, that we are near the mid-plane of a very highly flattened galaxy, with low dust problems, so we can have clear views.

Again, does someone want to argue against this? Are there in fact better places for doing astronomy that are known to be habitable?

Against the background of stars and an observatory, the narrator says,

For more than a century, this nearly ideal platform for observation has enabled astronomers to study the structure of the Milky Way. Looking toward the constellation Sagittarius on a clear night, for example, we see that the stars in our galaxy are not uniformly distributed across the sky. Instead, they appear as a concentrated band, a flattened disk of stars, dust, and gas, one hundred thousand light years in diameter ....

[... and here we are, lost forever in this vast immensity, travelling alone, coming from nowhere and going nowhere ... Oh, wait a minute! That was not in the script! Wow, I forgot. This isn’t the Church of St. Carl (Sagan). No wonder I couldn’t find my place in the prayer book ... ]

Gonzalez explains that if we were living in the center of the galaxy, things would look much more “spherically distributed.” In that case, it would be much harder to distinguish between things that are inside the galaxy and things that are outside. Also, he notes, the center is much dustier than our region, so “views of the distant universe would be much more difficult to obtain, they’d be much more compromised.”

(It’s worth considering that, unless some really big sci-fi breakthrough occurs, we can’t really visit distant reaches of the universe, so we would never know about them if we couldn’t see them.)

The narrator says that if we were actually in one of the spiral arms, dust clouds and stars would make it difficult to determine the shape of the Milky Way or to distinguish the stars in our galaxy from the rest of the universe.

Jay Richards says, “We’re really in the optimum position for seeing the nearby structure of the Milky Way galaxy, as well as seeing the distant cosmos as a whole.” (A photo montage of galaxies near and far appears.)

He restates his position that the best overall position for habitability is also the best for scientific discovery, in this case on a galactic scale.

A figure of our flattened galaxy appears, rolls over a few times and veers off to the left.

I can certainly see why Gonzalez and Richards think that it can’t all be just a big accident. But, of course, St. Carl must have known most of this stuff too. Is there important evidence that contradicts Richards and Gonzalez?

Or could it be that the doctrines of the Church of St. Carl, as outlined in Cosmos, must be received on faith and can only be known by faith?

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