NASA recently celebrated the end of the unlikely long run of the Kepler spacecraft. Sent up in 2009, this marvelous flying telescope lasted well beyond its projected mission terminus and slipped off to sleep, and out of communication with Earth, just last month.
Kepler’s main task was to look for exoplanets—planets outside our galaxy. And it found evidence of hundreds, from gas giants (like our Jupiter) to rocky planets orbiting at possibly life-sustaining distances from their suns.
So far, so wondrous.
But increasingly, it seems, journalists feel free to indulge in metaphysics and ethics when they are reporting…science. One sees such amateurish philosophizing all the time nowadays in National Geographic, Discovery, and other popular science journals, and one sees it here, too, in the pages of The Atlantic:
“The Kepler mission was named for Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German astronomer who proposed three laws that govern the motion of planets around the sun. Kepler’s work relied on the theories of Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century Polish astronomer who determined, much to the chagrin of religious leaders, that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but orbited the sun. Centuries later, the Kepler mission continued in these scientists’ footsteps in its own way. With each discovery of a planet around a distant star, the telescope seemed to scream, Here’s yet another reminder that we’re not the center of the universe, not even a little” (emphasis in original).
There is more than a little irony here in a paragraph featuring two Christians, Johannes Kepler and Nicolaus Copernicus. Kepler and Copernicus certainly did not believe that humanity was unimportant simply because we are far away from the physical centre of the universe.
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