Most Controversial Film of Our Time?
Something history-changing was about to happen, and Max Tegmark didn’t even know it.
During a late night of work, the MIT Professor of Physics was completing a model of the universe’s Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The CMB of the universe is, in Max’s words, a “weather map” of the cosmic radiation that spans across the entire universe, showing various hot and cold spots of radiation. In Max’s own words: “No one had ever made a picture of it before because they couldn’t clean out all the junk.”
His computer program could.
And, according to his interview in the new documentary The Principle (#AreYouSignificant), it was three in the morning by the time he finished his model of the CMB, and when he pressed “enter” to see the results, he could only muster one word in response.
The results were unexpected. They were revolutionary. And they were extremely controversial. Why?
Because the data, in one fell swoop, shattered one of the most fundamental principles and assumptions of modern science, the Copernican Principle, which states something that we all take for granted now: the earth is not at the center of the universe.
If Max’s data was accurate, it would change history. Everything we thought we knew about Earth’s seemingly insignificant, random location in the universe would be wrong. Physicists would be asking what was previously an unthinkable, even ludicrous question: what if the earth really is at the center of the universe?
But Max wasn’t entirely sure. It was such an unexpected result that he wondered if there had been a malfunction in the equipment. Other physicists needed to independently verify the data with other instruments of measurement.
On March 21, 2013, that verification happened. The European Space Agency announced its newly received all-sky data from the orbiting Planck space observatory. I suspect that physicists across the globe emitted a collective “whoa” when they saw the results.
Max’s data had been verified, and the world of cosmology was turning upside down.
What if Everything We Know Is Changing?
It’s the kind of problem that is not some inconsequential squabble between physicists in some obscure corner of a university. This is the kind of problem that could redefine how human civilization views the universe and its place in the cosmos.
We’re talking about a revolution in cosmology on par with any of the breakthroughs brought into science by household names like Einstein, Newton, Galileo, and — especially in this case — Copernicus.
The film called The Principle, which premiers in Chicago tomorrow, documents this emerging revolution in great detail, and the film’s official website summarizes the whole thing as follows:
Everyone knows that the ancient idea of Earth in the center of the universe is a ridiculous holdover from a superstitious age, right? Modern science has proven that we are nothing special! We inhabit, in Carl Sagan’s words, “….an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
Well….prepare to be shocked!
“The Principle,” destined to become one of the most controversial films of our time, brings before the public eye astonishing results from recent large-scale surveys of our universe — surveys that disclose unexpected evidence of a preferred direction in the cosmos, aligned with our supposedly insignificant Earth.
“The Principle” features narration by Kate Mulgrew (“Star Trek Voyager”, “Orange Is The New Black”, and “Ryan’s Hope”), stunning animations by BUF Compagnie Paris (“Life of Pi”, “Thor”), and commentary from prominent scientists including George Ellis, Michio Kaku, Julian Barbour, Lawrence Krauss, and Max Tegmark.
Tracing the development of cosmology from its inception (Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid at Giza), through the great revolution of Copernicus, to the astonishing new discoveries of Earth-oriented alignments in the largest structures of our visible universe, “The Principle” leads us face-to-face with the question, and the challenge — what does this mean for the future of mankind?
An Analysis of the Film
The film opens with a flurry of quotes from an array of prominent physicists around the world from different universities — from MIT in the United States to the University of Adelaide in Australia. What they say is startling, some of it is bewildering, and the rapid cuts from scene to scene race by at a dizzying pace. The tone of each physicist’s voice has a sense of urgency, a hint of something very big going on, like the tremors of a revolution about to break out.
And then, after the rapid-fire introduction, the film settles into a lush, evenly paced, methodical presentation of the history of cosmology beginning at Stonehenge. The animation, done by those who worked on the Academy Award winning Life of Pi and the blockbuster Marvel movie Thor, is breathtaking and riveting. It sucks you in — from the ancient moonlit, misty nights at Stone Henge to the starry canopy above Galileo’s roof — you’re watching every little shade of color and movement, and you’re hanging on the words of the calmly eloquent narrator Kate Mulgrew.
We learn how the ancient astronomer Ptolemy placed the earth at the center of the universe with all bodies moving around it in uniform motion. But then, in the 1500s, Copernicus launches his revolution against Ptolemy’s theory and claims that the earth revolves around the sun; and not only that, but the earth is not the center of the universe. In fact, it is quite insignificant.
The film then leads the viewer gracefully by the hand through the rest of cosmology’s colorful, surprisingly compelling history, all the way to the present.
The New Data’s Startling Conclusion: Earth Lies at the Center of the Universe
Fast-forward to 2014. The universe, with the unexpected data that it has given us, is keeping physicists up at night. The Principle looks at three specific areas of this revolutionary data. The following is a very general sketch of these three areas. The documentary goes into much greater and much more fascinating detail, but this gives you the general sense of things:
1. Galaxies Arranging Themselves in Concentric Shells
John Hartnett, Professor of Physics at the University of Adelaide in Australia, explains how analysis of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has yielded some startling results of its own: the distribution of galaxies throughout the universe contradict Copernicus. Galaxies are spaced out with preferred red shift spacing of about 250 million light years between them, like concentric shells, with the earth near the center of this periodic spacing of galaxies.
2. The “Axis of Evil”: A Universe-Spanning Axis that Correlates to the Earth
Dubbed “the Axis of Evil” — perhaps because it is so perplexing to physicists — this newly discovered axis is the heart of MIT Professor Max Tegmark’s discovery. He observed that the anisotropies — i.e. temperature disturbances in radiation — were all pointing toward the earth. These temperature disturbances create a preferred direction spanning the entire universe — something that contradicts Copernicus — and it creates an axis. The earth has a special location — the center — on this axis. In fact, the entire span of the universe has a correlation to the earth’s equinox and ecliptic, which is another way of saying that the earth lies at the center of the universe.
3. The Fine Tuning Problem
The “fine tuning problem” is defined this way in the documentary: “the universe operates in a narrow margin of physical constants and could not have come into existence by chance.” As one scientist stated in the documentary, life on earth requires a “phenomenal amount of parameters” — temperature, solar radiation, star radiation nearby, etc. — to be possible.
This “fine tuning” in the universe — i.e. a carefully calibrated fine tuning across all of the cosmos that seem to be designed to sustain life on Earth — combined with the other more recent discoveries about the universe, is creating serious headaches for physicists who refuse to entertain even the possibility that Copernicus was wrong. “People want to save the existing models because there’s a lot that’s invested in them,” as one scientist in the film observes.
The Empire Strikes Back
The urge to protect the existing models of Copernicus runs deep. The Principle has a memorable moment showing an animated version of Edwin Hubble in his observatory. When Hubble sat behind the lens of his telescope outside Los Angeles in the early 20th century and observed surprising things about the red shift in the universe, his response was revealing. It showed a deep unwillingness — a close-mindedness — to consider anything that threatened the established models of cosmology — particularly that of the Big Bang, as referenced in the documentary:
“Such a condition would imply that we occupy a unique position in the universe, analogous, in a sense, to the ancient conception of a central Earth…This hypothesis cannot be disproved, but it is unwelcome and would only be accepted as a last resort in order to save the phenomena…Therefore we disregard this possibility…the unwelcome position of a favored location must be avoided at all costs…such a favored position is intolerable…”
In The Principle, John Byl, Professory Emeritus of Mathematics at Trinity Western University, summarized it well: “Big Bang cosmology assumes that the only thing that exists is the physical world. There’s nothing beyond that.”
God or the Multiverse?
As physicists have tried to preserve their Big Bang model and the assumption that Copernicus was correct, they have produced new theories to explain away our single earth-centered universe. It seems that these scientists are determined, no matter how much effort it takes, to make sure that our universe — and earth’s special position within it — remains insignificant.
For example, in The Principle, Bernard Carr, Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Queen Mary, University of London, references the theory of a multiverse — or an infinite number of parallel universes — to show that our universe is really nothing that special:
“The fine-tunings — if we’re the only universe — the fine-tunings are really hard to explain unless you’re going to invoke a Creator or something. On the other hand if you have got a multiverse then it’s fairly natural by a simple selection that we are going to be in one of the universes which is going to allow life to arise.”
Physicist Lawrence Krauss, the Director of the Origins Project in Arizona State University, calls the theory “cosmic natural selection.” In other words, if you’ve got an infinite number of universes, one of them will eventually produce our earth-centric universe. It’s the whole evolutionary natural selection argument — i.e. “If you’ve got enough monkeys typing on computers for an infinite number of years, then eventually they’ll produce the works of Shakespeare” — applied to large-scale cosmology.
But the problem with the theory of the multiverse — as physicists in The Principle point out — is that it is completely unobservable and unverifiable. The data, however, the hard evidence, has shown us only one universe, and this universe — as we now know, shockingly — has Earth at its center. Choosing to disbelieve the data’s most logical, verifiable conclusion in favor of an unverifiable theory — all for the sake of preserving a preferred worldview — seems odd to me. But that’s what some of the scientists interviewed in The Principle seem to be doing.
The irony is striking. In the days of Copernicus, a stubborn commitment to the established models of cosmology provoked the Church to resist Copernicus. Today, perhaps the tables have turned. The scientific community is showing a similar stubbornness in preserving their established models.
Of course, there is far more information in the documentary — which runs an hour and a half — about the new discoveries, the new data, the new theories like the multiverse, and the debate that is raging in the scientific community. As lengthy as this article is, I am only scratching the surface of the rich information presented in The Principle.
And it’s presented in a compelling, fast-moving but thorough way, with some of the most exquisite animation I’ve seen in any documentary (or film, for that matter). The documentary itself, as far as film craft, is a work of art.
Finding Our Purpose
Despite the bickering about what it all means, in the documentary, Professor Krauss — although he flatly denies the possibility of there being a God behind all of this — sees this revolution as a good thing: “It’s an exciting time for cosmology because everything has changed.”
Despite using words of great tension like “revolution” and “persecution” and “suppression,” the documentary maintains a refreshing optimism about where the scientific community might take these new revelations. “We are asking about ultimate things.” says Julian Barbour, a physicist and author of “Mach’s Principle.”
The documentary even expresses a desire to see “faith and science” work better together “this time around” — as compared to the days of Copernicus.
The film is also not shy about its primary observation, which is best summarized by a comment that Martin Selbrede, Vice President of the Chalcedon Foundation, makes:
“We need to get away from the Copernican Principle and the notion that man means nothing — from us being just a molecule to a human being that’s in a special location for presumably a special purpose…Men are driven by their purpose, and they can [now] see themselves in a very different light.”
We are not, as he says, “simply chaotic blobs.”
As MIT physicist Max Tegmark remarks without a hint of uncertainty: “we are very significant.”
Whether you agree with the documentary’s ultimate conclusion about what this new discovery in cosmology means, it is undeniable that there is a dramatic transformation happening in the field of cosmology right now — a revolution even.
It turns out that we’re just a tad more important than we thought — to say the least.
“The Principle” premiers in Chicago on Friday, October 24, 2014, and it will likely have a wider release in theaters in the weeks to follow. You can find out more at its official website .