THE IMPORTANCE OF THE EARTH
By William Lyon Phelps
Perhaps nothing nowadays is a more common target for ridicule than the hustler and booster, whether he boosts as an individual or as a member of a service organisation. The man whose motto is "bigger and better business," a bigger town, with a bigger population and bigger buildings, is laughed at for his enuthusiasm and for his perspiring efforts. Much of this laughter is merely the cynical adverse criticism of men who have never done anything themselves, never will do anything, and so pretend to be faintly and superciliously amused by the optimistic exertions of others. We may dismiss these unproductive and complacent occupiers of the seats of the scornful, for they are comparatively few in number and their opinions of no moment. But the rational basis for laughter at the booster is that the hustler and the booster often have a false standard of excellence.
When a noisy man roars in your face that the population of his particular town has doubled in ten years we have a right to enquire, what of it? Is it a cause for rejoicing? When you climb into a trolley car on a rainy day you do not rejoice because the population of the trolley car doubles in three minutes. A mere increase in the number of persons at a given spot does not necessarily mean that collectively or individually they are any better off. What we wish to know is something quite different from the word "more." Is the community growing in intelligence? Are there better schools, better theatres, better art museums, better churches, better orchestras-are the inhabitants of this locality growing in grace and in the fruits of the spirit?
The last thing I wish to be guilty of is to make cheap remarks against science or scientific men to whom I, in common with others, owe so much; but, strangely enough, some of the professional men of science, who are often the first to laugh at the booster because he applies the quantitative rather than the qualitative standard of measurement, are themselves guilty of the same fault on a larger scale. They do not apply standards of size to a growing business or a growing village; they apply these standards to the universe.
Now, as is well known, the Ptolemaic system of cosmogony stated that the earth was the centre of the universe and that around the earth revolved the sun, the moon and all the innumerable stars. Thus man regarded himself as of high importance because he was the centre of everything.
Along came Copernicus, whose book was published in 1543 but not generally accepted until long after its appearance. Copernicus wrought a far greater miracle than Joshua. The Old Testament hero made the sun stand still only for an afternoon; but in the sixteenth century Copernicus commanded the sun to stand still and (relatively speaking) it has not budged since. Copernicus was a magician.
Many astronomers have recently been fond of reminding us that our sun itself is only a tiny star-one out of many billions-and that our earth is but the tiniest speck. They are fond of drawing diagrams showing the comparative size of our sun and that of other globes in the starry skies, and the earth dwindles to a mere point. "Therefore," say these scientists, "how unimportant is man and how ridiculous that he should consider either himself or his earthly abode a matter of any importance to God or to space or time or gravitation"; the conclusion following that religion and morals are matters of small consequence and we need not bother our heads about them.
Now it seems to me that expressions of this kind are as fallacious and as injurious as any booster's standard of mere quantity; for what are these gentlemen trying to say except that as the earth is so tiny in comparison with other stars it must necessarily follow that man himself is a very unimportant factor in the universe? On the contrary, I believe the earth to be the most important spot in the entire creation and that the most precious thing on the earth is man-men, women and children.
The ordinary ignoramus looks at the starry vault and exclaims: "There are all those stars and every one inhabited with life!" As a matter of fact the latest researches of science show that the rarest thing in the entire universe is human life. There is not one vestige of evidence to show that life exists anywhere except on the earth.
The universe is frightfully hot. The fixed stars have a temperature ranging from nearly two thousand degrees to more than thirty thousand degrees, which is considerably hotter than the Needles in California. Furthermore, among all the heavenly bodies planets are the most scarce, and the only conditions which can produce a planet occur almost never. Now the planets in our particular little solar system had the good luck to come into being, and of these planets only the earth can support human life. The late Percival Lowell, an eminent astronomer and a gallant gentleman, looking at the sky through the clear air of Arizona, thought he saw evidence of the intelligent work of beings on Mars, but he saw it because his telescope was not good enough; "bigger and better" telescopes destroyed the illusory things he thought he saw.
I advise all those who believe in the insignificance of man because he lives on a small ball to read the last chapter of Sir James Jeans's book The Universe Around Us. Sir James does not himself say that man has a divine destiny, because that is not the subject of his book. But he does say: "All this suggests that only an infinitesimally small corner of the universe can be in the least suited to form an abode of life."
People used to be flabbergasted by the consideration of the vastness of the starry heavens while retaining their respect for man and their own self-respect; but of late years many astronomers, by applying the "big and little" method of measurement, have tried to convince us that man is of no importance. Thus astronomy, instead of filling its students with majestic wonder, fills them with despair. To these scientific boosters it is the devout and not the undevout astronomer who is mad.
Fear not, little flock. We are no longer the geographical centre of the universe, but--so far as evidence goes-we are the only part of it that amounts to anything.