Review of Rare Earth

(A fascinating book with a few unfortunate lapses)

As a non-scientist, I found Rare Earth fascinating. The authors (both of them University of Washington professors) argue that it requires an incredible string of lucky circumstances for a planet to be habitable and that, even though the universe is unimaginably enormous, it is still quite likely that Earth alone supports complex life. They also point out that the extinction of life on our planet is inevitable. It could happen at any time by some catastrophic event and even we dodge the kind of catastrophe that doomed the dinosaurs, the changes in the sun will eventually do us in.

I will leave it to scientists to debate the hypothesis, but I do have a minor quibble. The authors state: "During the Middle Ages, Earth was not only regarded as the center of the Universe but again was believed to be flat. St. Thomas Aquinas made Earth a sphere again but codified its place as the center of the Universe." Ward and Browlee probably learned this myth in grade school and since then never questioned it.*

The truth is that in the Middle Ages all educated people (including Aquinas, of course) knew that Earth is a sphere. For example, the geography of Dante's Divine Comedy clearly assumes we are living on a globe. Also it should be noted that being at the center did not imply privilege. Satan was frozen at the very center of Dante's universe whereas the poet had to travel to the outer spheres of the heavens for the Beatific Vision of God. Perhaps astrobiologists like Ward & Brownlee will have the same experience!


*The authors also seem to buy into a more consequential myth regarding "overpopulation." And although it is not part of their central thesis, in several places they suggest that the evolution of intelligence, because it results in the development of technology, will itself lead to extinction of complex animal life.

Homily Utilizing Rare Earth

Beyond the Secular Paradigm

Accident or Design (Correspondence with NYU student Alex Olivier)

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant (A Review)

Secular Humanism in Popular Culture: Nothing Sacred

Did the pope endorse evolution?

Homily on the Moral Law

Hawking, Galileo and the Pope

Stem Cell Research: Teaching of Bible & Catholic Church