Copernican principle

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In physical cosmology, the Copernican principle, named after Nicolaus Copernicus, states that the Earth is not in a central, specially favored position.[1] More recently, the principle has been generalized to the relativistic concept that humans are not privileged observers of the universe.[2] In this sense, it is equivalent to the mediocrity principle, with important implications for the philosophy of science.

Since the 1990s the term has been used (interchangeably with "the Copernicus method") for J. Richard Gott's Bayesian-inference-based prediction of duration of ongoing events, a generalized version of the Doomsday argument.


Origin and implications

Michael Rowan-Robinson emphasizes the importance of the Copernican principle: "It is evident that in the post-Copernican era of human history, no well-informed and rational person can imagine that the Earth occupies a unique position in the universe."[3]

Hermann Bondi named the principle after Copernicus in the mid-20th century, although the principle itself dates back to the 16th-17th century paradigm shift away from the Ptolemaic system, which placed Earth at the center of the Universe. Copernicus demonstrated the motion of the planets can be explained without the assumption that Earth is centrally located and stationary. He argued that the apparent retrograde motion of the planets is an illusion caused by Earth's movement around the Sun, which the Copernican model placed at the centre of the Universe. Copernicus himself was mainly motivated by technical dissatisfaction with the earlier system and not by support for any mediocrity principle.[4]

In cosmology, if one assumes the Copernican principle and observes that the universe appears isotropic from our vantage-point on Earth, then one can prove that the Universe is generally homogeneous (at any given time) and is also isotropic about any given point. These two conditions comprise the cosmological principle.

In practice, astronomers observe that the Universe has heterogeneous structures up to the scale of galactic superclusters, filaments and great voids, but becomes more and more homogeneous and isotropic when observed on larger and larger scales, with little detectable structure on scales of more than about 200 million parsecs. However, on scales comparable to the radius of the observable universe, we see systematic changes with distance from the Earth. For instance, galaxies contain more young stars and are less clustered, and quasars appear more numerous. While this might suggest that the Earth is at the center of the Universe, the Copernican principle requires us to interpret it as evidence for the evolution of the Universe with time: this distant light has taken most of the age of the Universe to reach and shows us the Universe when it was young. The most distant light of all, cosmic microwave background radiation, is isotropic to at least one part in a thousand.

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