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The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities Hardcover – 9 Sep 2014

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scientific American (9 Sep 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374129215
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374129217
  • Product Dimensions: 15.9 x 2.6 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 394,879 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dr. Caleb A. Scharf is Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University, and has an international reputation as a research astrophysicist, and as a lecturer to college and public audiences. The UK's Guardian newspaper has listed his blog Life, Unbounded, as one of their "hottest science blogs," while an editor at Seed Magazine called it "phenomenal. Informed, fresh, and thoughtful." Scharf is author and co-author of more than 100 scientific research articles in astronomy and astrophysics. His work has been featured in publications such as New Scientist, Scientific American, Science News, Cosmos Magazine, Physics Today, and National Geographic, as well as online at sites like and His textbook for undergraduate and graduate students, Extrasolar Planets and Astrobiology, has been called "the gold standard" for the field. His articles and reviews have appeared in such prestigious publications as Science, Nature, The Astrophysical Journal, and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Dr. Scharf is a regular keynote speaker at academic meetings, such as for the American Physical Society, museums, and both public and private venues, including the American Museum of Natural History, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. He has been a guest on Krulwich on Science at NPR, William Shatner's "Weird or What?" and has served as a consultant to editors and producers at National Geographic Magazine, The Science Channel, The Discovery Channel, and The New York Times.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Paying Guest on 25 Sep 2014
Format: Hardcover
More fine writing from Caleb Scharf, as brilliant and engaging as his "Extrasolar Planets...." Less of a textbook; fewer difficult formula (of 100, I could only solve one.) Lots of info here, like lunar reflectivity, very deceptive; it seems bright to us, but the Moon reflects only about 10% of th light that hits it, "about the same as a lump of coal" (71). Of the Sun, he says: "Thus ends the ten-billion year spree of this one star that we decided to take an interest in" (66).
Scharf's book questions the "rarity" of the habitable conditions of Earth.
Scharf notes that astronomical time is not human time, and he writes of "a few hundred million years" as if brief--and after a chapter, you agree. "The cosmos ticks to the beat of a different clock" (48)--why, humans arose over only a couple hundred million years. Back 4 billion years, our favorite star produced 30% less energy, but there's evidence the world held water even then. Not clear how.
He calls the Newtonian clockwork solar system "The Grand Delusion," title of his second chapter. We can tell from the myriad planetary systems that have been identified since the first in 1992, and the 2nd a in '95. There is a stochastic, random or "chaotic" (mathematically) element in our solar system; and, until the invention of computers, the n-body problem was, as Newton concluded, insoluble. Now hundreds of millions of variables in millions of computations can approximate, say, our solar system in 500 million years. Doesn't look that good. Possible Mercury (most elliptical except Pluto) into Venus, possible Venus into Earth, etc.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 29 reviews
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
On the razor's edge of existence! 14 Sep 2014
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
In this thoroughly researched and well-written book, A leading astrophysicist, Caleb Scharf, demonstrates that we are not insignificant in our place in the cosmos. The Copernican idea has been taken by many scientists and philosophers to imply that we are an irrelevant and unimportant part of a vast universe. In this book, Scharf challenges this notion. He offers us the very latest from astrophysics and biological sciences to demonstrate that all of us here on this pale blue dot are very rare indeed. In the concluding chapter of his book entitled "(In)Significance," Scharf concludes "even the underlying properties of the universe suggest that it is finally balanced, near a boundary. A little too far to either side and the nature of the cosmos would be radically different." One of these boundaries against which we are very finely balanced is the existence of life itself. All of us here on the pale blue dot are on a razor's age. A little bit too far this way or that, and none of us would be here. What is the significance of all of this? Scharf does a good job of using available science to demonstrate that this is very significant indeed.
43 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Rarity vs. The Design of a Loving God 19 Sep 2014
By Let's Compare Options Preptorial - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
I loved this book! Pinker's latest (The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century) decries and bemoans science (and other) writers that are boring, and asks why we can't just ENJOY what we read, WHILE learning. Caleb takes Pinker's challenge on, and knocks the ball out of the park.

The book is a page turner, and not at all what I expected. As a mainline scientist, I "assumed" Dr. Scharf would give another "scientific apologist" argument that we're not pond scum because, even though tiny, we're rare little (tiny) diamonds in this vasty deep. Frankly, the bend-over-backwards arguments that humans are "really not that small" because we're rare, or because the universe is "accidentally" fine tuned, or because we're not using all our brains, etc. pale in comparison to the mind blowing spiritual theories that we're holographic reflections of a living God with universes folded in our spirits. Human potential is exponentially greater in that rift.

Although Dr. Caleb certainly doesn't say "We're clearly the product of an intent filled, Skillful Designer who knows math at a level we can't imagine yet-- including probability," he also does not grope around at the other extreme, trying to say we're "important" only because we're rare. I wont give away the ending, but in its own way, it is deeply spiritual, incredibly optimistic about human potential, and NOT in the sense of "look at the number of zeros in this cosmic constant, it has to be designed and purposeful."

What I love best about his approach, second to the can't-put-it-down style and cutting edge astrophysics and math, is the humility. Like Max Tegmark (Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality) Doc Caleb doesn't assume we "get" what looks random, or that it is necessarily Darwinian. He leaves the door wide open to the possibility that what we call probability is our catch-all for what we don't get yet. He doesn't go as far as Tegmark in the "matrix" possibility that this is all running on a cosmic computer, but does lend subtle and astonishing credibility to the impossibly precise and unlikely math "running" throughout the cosmos, and in everyday life.

I'm both a scientist (molecular biology, neuro and robotics) and as you can tell, quite certain about our spiritual side. I wanted to give a huge thumbs up for this book for folks like me that might hesitate to buy it because it might be another in the "Take heart, we're unlikely!" series. It's much more than that, and I promise even if you love spirit as well as science, you'll come away with as much wonder and astonishment as the pure Darwinian/ "Wow-- just look what these dice can do" folk will. In my professional life, most of my scientist friends are Agnostics (none are Atheists), so go right ahead, feel sorry for me, but do pick this up!.

DISCLAIMER/DISCLOSURE: The author/publisher sent me a copy of this to review. BUT, if I didn't like it, I'd either have told you, or skipped the review. My priority is Amazon shoppers, not publishers or authors, even though this one is a gem.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
good science and 15 Oct 2014
By Sunny - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Randomness, nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory: these are three of the main ideas that flow through Caleb Scharf's The Copernicus Complex. He writes with clear reasoning and logic ... no turbulence here. Scharf successfully uses them as the foundation of an approach to finding our place in the universe.

Scharf introduces and analyzes many other seemingly diverse concepts in pursuit of his objective: to explain how to find our significance in the cosmos ... not in a theistic or religious sense, but in a biological, scientific sense. The concepts he discusses include the Copernican principle of mediocrity, the anthropic principle, Bayesian analysis, chaos theory, biochemistry, evolutionary biology, the fine-tuning of physical constants, some history of science, and philosophy of science. He smoothly integrates these subjects in support of his objective.

Scharf's overarching philosophy is a welcome new approach. The reader will find many familiar subjects here, and the author gives each a fresh look and interpretation. The effect of this on his project is to strengthen the reader's understanding and support of his concluding arguments.

Although he doesn't offer specific answers to the questions "Is life common in the universe?", and "Are we (in)significant within it?", it is clear to me that he supports the idea that life, simple and complex, inevitably arises at the right time and in the right places. He suggests that those times and places are not as rare as some argue. Life is the most complex construction of ordinary chemistry and physics that the universe produces. It is a natural outcome of those forces. Life is not the incalculably rare winner of some cosmic lottery, nor the product of nonphysical "essences."

To that end Scharf demotes the usefulness and importance of both the rare earth and the anthropic principle hypotheses. Whether these are correct or incorrect is not the point. Rather he questions their usefulness. Can they help guide science, astrobiology and SETI in particular, in a search for evidence of life elsewhere? This is the core of his thesis ... good science and, by extension, good scientific and philosophic attitudes in a quest for knowledge requires evidence and diligence in its confirmation.

Scharf gives us several hints along the way about how to achieve his objective. Here are a couple:

"It's not obvious that life needs anything more than a rough-and-ready environment to originate and survive in. So true cosmological fine-tuning should be more about the particular ease with which life can occur – and for now, at least, no distinction between intelligent life and "simple" life, since there's nothing simple about life in any form." p 35

Scharf's exposition of horizontal gene transfer between different species of bacteria suggests that even when the earth was populated only with these single-celled organisms life was not so simple. This hints that the rise of true multi-celled organisms was not that difficult, probably gradual and not explosive, and not because special conditions suddenly arose.

"… any thinking life-form anywhere in the universe may always perceive "special" characteristics in its own circumstances – specifics that, if different, would derail the chances of complex life occurring. This perceptual bias may be irresistible regardless of whether complex life is rare or as common as muck. Until we either discover life elsewhere or somehow rule it out, any post hoc interpretations of the significance of our circumstances are almost meaningless. …" p 203-204

"We are, I think, still unlikely to be central to the universe, either astrophysically or metaphysically. But this does not preclude the possibility that the pathway of emergence that produced us is unusual in its details. We need to get comfortable with that degree of specialness, because it influences our outlook and our scientific strategies for reaching out to the universe." p. 230

For reading about chaos, Scharf suggests James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science. Another good work on this subject is Stephen H. Kellert's In the Wake of Chaos.

The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf is informative over a wide range of subjects, which he cleverly integrates into a single theme about the significance (or not) of humankind and life in general in the cosmos. It should be required reading for students and professionals of astrobiology and SETI. The lay reader who is moderately familiar with these subjects will find it an enjoyable, accessible, and, not least, a thought provoking read. I recommend it and give it five stars.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Optimism in stochasticity 18 Sep 2014
By Mr A. J. Rushby - Published on
Format: Hardcover
An excellently written and well researched book. Scharf's prose is emotive and evocative, yet completely appropriate for the subject matter, and I was engrossed to the end. He provides an original and thoughtful approach to the anthropic vs copernican argument regarding the discussion of life elsewhere in the universe and instead espouses an intermediary principle that falls between the two. Non-linearity and the influence of random and stochastic processes are a common theme throughout, but the takeaway message is one of optimism. Highly recommended!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Excellent, minor reservation 2 Oct 2014
By Stephen B. Gray - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've read lots of books like this but his takes a somewhat different approach and makes some excellent points. One of the best was his observation that what seems like an incredible coincidence to the person experiencing it is the commonness of such events when looked at from a broader point of view. I experienced an unbelievable coincidence in Naples, Italy about 20 years ago, but when I think about all the residents of Naples or Italy, someone is probably experiencing something just as amazing almost every day. Seems obvious in retrospect but I never quite realized his point before.
But his main point about living on the edge between chaos and predictability could use more exposition and examples.
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