Tuesday, April 4, 2006

The center of the universe

It's probably not hard to believe, but there are still folks who believe the universe - the sun, the moon, the stars, everything - revolves around the Earth.

I remember reading a survey not long ago about how some 25 percent of Americans didn't know that the Earth, in fact, goes around the sun. But then some Americans don't know that George Washington was our first president, or that there are - surprise! - 50 states.

Don't laugh - I'm serious. Look it up. Jay Leno shows this all the time.

But now it seems "geocentrists" are getting serious airplay. I opened up Saturday's Citizen Patriot to find, in the "Religion & Ethics" section, the headline "This world view has sun revolving around the Earth."

Welcome, folks, to 1524 AD.

The guy in the article, Robert Sungenis, believes that "Galileo was wrong" and that the Bible is all he needs to know that geocentrism is the way to go.

"If you see the Earth as just a humdrum planet among stars circling in a vast universe, then we're not significant, we're just part of a crowd" Sungenis says. "But if you believe everything revolves around the Earth, it gives another picture - of purpose, a meaning of life."

The key phrase in there, I believe, is "believe."

This is kind of like saying America is God's chosen nation, a citadel on the hill that was blessed by the Creator to Do Great Things. And you could make a case, but I haven't read anywhere in the Bible "The U.S. can doeth no wrong."

You can believe the sky is striped, pickled, and polka-dotted, but that don't make it so.

Normally I wouldn't care much about some wacko spouting his wacky ideas, but because this article appeared on the front page of the "Religion" section, it's like saying the argument has some merit. Of course the journalist who wrote it gave time to scientists, who said geocentrism is (rightly) flat wrong. But that wasn't the focus of the article.

There was even a Catholic organization who offered $1,000 cash-money (how much is the world worth, anyway?) who could prove heliocentrism, or a sun-centered solar system, was correct.

Let's forget, for a moment, that heliocentrism has landed men on the moon, sent probes to the gaseous giant planets, landed a rover on Mars, and has provided evidence for the governing laws of the cosmos. Let's pretend all that is in doubt (which it isn't, if you're sane).

The rub here is that this guy believes he's right, and that's all he needs. No evidence, no proof, not even a large cadre of scientists and theologians who back him up.

The thought that the Earth isn't the center of the universe just drives this guy crazy, so he invents a system (or revives it, depending on your viewpoint) that makes his ideas correct. I heard a similar line of reasoning from a guy in the Nineteenth Century, who was so scared of hellfire that he invented a religion that didn't have a hell.

Today, we call these folks Jehovah's Witnesses.

We know the Earth isn't the center of the universe. Einstein even showed us that there is no such thing as the "center of the universe." We know the planets, Earth included, orbit the sun, which orbits the Milky Way galazy, which is part of a cluster of galaxies called the Local Cluster...and so on. The Earth is a humdrum planet, taking the entire cosmos into perspective. There's nothing special about us, except that we're alive - and that's only, so far, because of good luck.

Science works. It's not perfect, but it has a tremendous, prophetic power to make workable predictions about how the universe operates. Nothing comes close to making as accurate predictions as science. Believe what you want - that much we know.

But giving airtime to any nutjob who comes along and says "This I believe" is irresponsible. Questions and skepticism of science is fine - bring it on. The only requirement is you do a better job of explaining the world than what's already here, and you back it up.

Belief, unfortunately, doesn't have what it takes.

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