EVERYTHING that the world believes about the Earth’s place in the universe could be wrong, according to a soon-to-be-released documentary.
The Principle takes an in-depth look at the Copernican Principle – the foundational idea of the world’s views on the universe and existence, which states that the Earth is not in the centre of the universe, nor is it in a particularly favoured position.
The film traces the development of cosmology from its beginnings through to the 16th century, when the Copernican Principle overthrew the established ideas on the universe.
But, most importantly, it examines the astonishing new results from large-scale observations of the universe which call this foundational assumption about the nature of our cosmos, and our place in it, into question all over again.
In doing so, the documentary looks set to become one of the most controversial films of modern times.
The movie has already stirred up significant controversy in the US, with one of the scientists interviewed for the film claiming he was tricked into taking part, despite that fact that all interviewees signed release forms.
The film is directed by American Catholic Rick DeLano, who says he’s been looking into the question of geocentrism – the theory that the Earth, rather than the Sun, is in the centre of the universe – since 2006.
“The larger question of the Copernican Principle began to become the focus of my own research once the large-scale surveys of the cosmos began presenting us with increasing evidence of a special direction in the cosmos, related to our location,” he says.
“The problem of so-called ‘dark energy’ caused a significant minority of even mainstream theorists to begin developing models which place Earth in a special, central location.”
DeLano began working on the film in early 2011, and says the project quickly gained momentum.
“We kept finishing the film, only to have opportunities to interview more scientists come up. The film really took on a life of its own,” he says.
The crew interviewed some of the world’s leading atheistic scientists, such as George Ellis (University of Cape Town), Michio Kaku (City University New York), Lawrence Krauss (Arizona State University) and Max Tegmark (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
DeLano says the media’s reaction to the film has been “comically absurd”, with various sources discrediting the documentary without even having seen it.
“The amazing controversy it has stirred up just on the basis of its two-minute first trailer indicates we have clearly touched a nerve,” he says.
“No one bothered to check with us when these hysterical claims of having tricked the participants, or hijacked footage off the internet, or deceptively edited the scientists, were credulously picked up and echo-chambered throughout the world.
“The fact that the claims are so obviously, ridiculously, and laughably absurd, has presented us with a wonderful opportunity to tell the real story, which we have begun to do.”
But rather than feel worried or concerned about the “media freakout” that has occurred, DeLano sees it simply as a certain fear of having established beliefs turned on their heads.
“I think The Principle contains evidence so shocking, so challenging to the “everybody knows we’re nothing special” world view, that the media attacks upon it will be seen, in the end, as a clear indication of how important, and dangerous, this film really is to that presently dominant world view,” he says.
To understand the world view of the universe and the Earth’s position in it, it’s important to recognise the development of the modern world’s cosmological ideas.
The Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy developed the first major understanding of the universe in the second century AD. Known as the Ptolemaic system, it states that the Earth is stationary and in the centre of the universe – a geocentric cosmology.
Ptolemy’s model became the prevailing idea of scientists and cosmologists, with only small adjustments over the centuries. It wasn’t until the 16th century that an alternative to the Ptolemaic system was produced, based on the ideas of the Polish Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.
The Copernican system places the Sun at the centre of the solar system, with the Earth and other planets moving around it – known as a heliocentric cosmology.
According to cosmology lecturer at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle Philip Matthews, although Copernicus’ views were first presented in 1543, it was much longer before they replaced the Ptolemaic system.
“A century later it was Galileo Galilei who provided the first observational evidence of the heliocentric model when he looked through what was primarily a child’s toy, the first telescope,” he says.
“He saw that Jupiter also had moons going around it, and that meant it couldn’t be the case that the Earth was the centre of the universe, because at least one planet had other things going around it.
“The actual proof for the idea that the Sun was the centre of our solar system didn’t come until much later than that, but he was the first to give that observational evidence.”
But Dr Matthews acknowledges that since then, the Copernican model, or the Copernican Principle, has evolved into something very different.“It’s changed now to mean something that’s referred to as the Principle of Homogeneity,” he explains.
“Homogeneity means that being on planet Earth is nothing special, in astronomical or cosmological terms… that’s what the modern Copernican Principle means now.”
It’s that idea that the film-makers believe has been extended to suggest that there is no creator, as the Copernican “revolution” resulted in a movement away from God and towards science.
“Two atheists interviewed in the film, Max Tegmark and Bernard Carr, explicitly state that the ‘multiverse’ is a logical extension of the Copernican Principle,” DeLano says.
The multiverse hypothesis claims that since our universe seems incredibly unlikely, as it is too finely tuned within amazingly precise constants, then it must be just one of an infinity of other universes.
DeLano says that if it can be shown that the Earth is indeed in a special place, and consequently that there is a creator, it would be “absolutely devastating” to arguments against creation.
“If we are in a special, non-random location with respect to the large scale structure of the cosmos, the coincidences have just mounted past the point of credibility,” he says. “Somebody put us there.”
And that’s exactly what The Principle intends to show, by presenting evidence of a preferred direction in the cosmos, aligned with our apparently insignificant Earth.
It also purports to show that there has never been an experiment performed that can directly measure or prove that the Earth moves around the Sun.
“[Viewers] can expect to be absolutely shocked, to have everything they thought they knew about our place in the cosmos challenged,” DeLano says.
“Hopefully their minds will be opened to the possibility that the ancient, Earth-centered cosmology is, in important ways, beginning to re-emerge as a possible explanation for what we observe on our cosmos’ largest scales.”
But Dr Matthews says while it is entirely plausible that the long-established Copernican Principle could be wrong, there are bigger problems facing cosmology.
“I think it probably is wrong, but even if it is proved to be wrong, it’s not that significant,” he says.
“One of the biggest problems we face currently is the nature of the universe itself, what it’s made of… that’s a much bigger problem than the Copernican Principle.
“We’re a long, long way away from understanding the universe… and I don’t think we’ll ever be smart enough truly to understand it.”
Dr Matthews says he’ll watch The Principle out of curiosity when it is released – perhaps with some sceptism – but also with a certain amount of hope.
“If it promotes interest among lay people about the strangeness of the universe and the fact that science clearly hasn’t got all the answers, and that some form of supernaturalism is a necessary condition of understanding how the universe operates, then I think it will be a good thing,” he says.
The documentary will only screen initially in the US, but if the hype surrounding it is anything to go by, it will also hit Australian cinemas soon after. Perhaps the film-makers’ claim that we’re on the brink of a scientific revolution is just a promotional ploy, but if they’re right, The Principle could be the catalyst to end centuries of debate over our creation and existence.