Painful Truth: Not the centre of the universe

The human capacity to deny the obvious is truly infinite.

The latest explosion of ostrich behaviour comes courtesy of a minor scandal involving renowned physicists, a known anti-semite, and the former captain of the United Federation of Planets starship Voyager.

We’ll start with Kate Mulgrew, the actress who played Capt. Kathryn Janeway on the fourth Star Trek series. A snippet of Mulgrew’s voice turned up in the narration of a trailer released earlier this week for a movie called The Principle.

What is The Principle about? Judging by the barrage of talking heads, CGI of whirling galaxies, and stock footage from around the globe, it’s hard to tell. Dark matter? Physics? Religion?

That leads us back to the man who pushed for the movie’s creation, and who is featured as one of its talking heads, Robert Sungenis.

In 2006, Sungenis released a toe-crushing 1,000-page tome, entitled Galileo Was Wrong, which claims that the Earth is still the centre of the universe. Sungenis is a proponent of the – to put it lightly – dubious idea that the sun, moon, stars, galaxies, and all that we can see in the night sky orbits around the Earth.

Why would Sungenis believe this, exactly? It only goes against about half a millennium of recorded scientific observations.

Heliocentrism (the idea that he sun is the centre of the solar system) was an immensely useful idea for astronomers when it was first proposed. Until then, explaining the strange behaviour of the planets had baffled and frustrated starwatchers for thousands of years. A vast and shaky structure of “crystal spheres” had been thought to hold the many visible celestial objects, some of them rotating back and forth through complex epicycles to produce what Earthbound observers saw.

Sungenis likes to think that humans have an important place in the universe, but apparently not all humans.

Kate Mulgrew, for instance, wasn’t important enough to inform that she was recording dialogue for a movie about geocentrism – she’s had to publicly point out that she does not support this odd notion.

One of the key scientists quoted was Lawrence Krauss, who was apparently asked about cosmic microwave background radiation. This is a pretty big deal, physics-wise, but the film’s producers say it raises questions such as, is the Earth is the centre of the universe? (Short answer: no.)

Should you believe Sungenis? No. First, because there’s lots of evidence for a rotating Earth in a heliocentric solar system. Like the fact that you can use your GPS-enabled phone. Second, because Sungenis isn’t an expert – he’s a man with a doctorate from a diploma mill on Vanuatu with a history of anti-semitic writings. He is not qualified to talk science.

Despite the controversy, and despite the mountains of evidence on the side of Earth-orbits-sun, sun-circles-galaxy, Sungenis’s documentary will have fans. It will convince some people. Why?

For the same reason these ideas have taken hold of Sungenis himself.

“If you see the Earth as just a humdrum planet among stars circling in a vast universe, then we’re not significant, we’re just part of a crowd,” he said in an interview after the release of his book.

Sungenis wants to believe that he’s important, and to believe that, he has to believe that the Earth is special, and to believe that, he has to believe it is the literal centre of the universe, to the point that he’s rejected every piece of evidence, from Foucault’s pendulum to the moon landing.

I try not to let my need for importance blind me quite that much.

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