In December, the trailer for a star-studded new documentary about the universe was uploaded to YouTube. “Everything we think we know about our universe is wrong,” promised Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Kathryn Janeway Star Trek: Voyager and, more recently, Galina “Red” Reznikov on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. “There is a crisis in cosmology,” said physicist Michio Kaku. What crisis?
“You can go on some websites about NASA and see that they’ve started to take down stuff that might hint at a geocentric universe,” the trailer continued, as we heard from Robert Sungenis, proprietor of the perhaps unsubtly titled blog Galileo Was Wrong, geocentrist, and Holocaust denier.
The film, called The Principle, promotes the long, long-debunked idea that the Earth is the center of the universe. When it started getting attention in April, Raw Story, Slate, the Washington Times, the Huffington Post, and countless others wrote about the film. It was a hit, for all the wrong reasons.
The Principle and its premise were almost instantaneously disavowed, even by the people appearing in it. Lawrence Krauss, one of the physicists in the film, wrote an article for Slate saying he had no idea how he’d ended up in the film:
Meanwhile, Mulgrew, the film’s narrator, issued a statement through Facebook that also tore down the trailer. “I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that,” she wrote. “I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused.”
But questions lingered. Did the filmmakers truly believe the Earth was the center of the universe? Who were these people, anyway?
* * *
My own search started with Cosmos.
The production company that did the animations for The Principle, BUF Compagnie Paris, also works on the newly rebooted Cosmos series, starring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. (For the record, I did reach out to a Cosmos representative about this, but never heard back.)
“They cleverly tricked a whole bunch of us scientists into thinking that they were independent filmmakers doing an ordinary cosmology documentary.”
If the actors in the documentary hadn’t been fully apprised of the film’s thesis, it seemed reasonable to think the special effects company hadn’t, either. I called the company’s Los Angeles branch. Yes, I was told, BUF worked closely on the film with the film’s producer, Rick DeLano, and even “were involved in some of the cut just on a friendship basis.” Robert Schajer, the Los Angeles visual effects producer for The Principle, told me he was under a non-disclosure agreement but would be more than happy to speak generally about the film.
“Both Cosmos and The Principle came out of our work on Thor,” he told me. DeLano, he said, had been nothing but supportive through the process — complimenting the company’s work, going so far as to show it off to others. I asked Schajer if he’d seen the trailer for the film, and he told me he hadn’t. Was he at least aware of the film’s thesis? That the Earth is actually the center of the universe?
He sounded taken aback. We were toeing into the conditions of the NDA, he said; any details of the exact work BUF did, he couldn’t comment on. He did say, though, that the company only worked as a “hired gun,” regardless of the content in a film they contributed to. Beyond that, his lips were sewed shut — although he could introduce me to DeLano, who might be able to help more.
* * *
“I want you to put the first feather in your cap right now,” DeLano told me when I called him. After “thousands and thousands of blogs,” had written about The Principle, after “millions of hits,” he said, I was the first one to talk to him directly. “So, feather in your cap.”
DeLano sounded furious. All of these so-called journalists writing, telling him about his own film, as if they knew what it was about based on the trailer on YouTube. They hadn’t the faintest idea about The Principle. Only an anointed group had even seen the final cut. Clearly “a profoundly impressive power” had colluded in a massive media effort to kill the film. “Somebody’s very scared of my movie,” he said.
“The film is not about geocentrism,” DeLano told me flatly. Rather, it’s about the Copernican principle — Copernicus’s idea that the Earth doesn’t occupy a cosmically special place in the universe. DeLano then took me on a circuitous talk — through dark matter, through Galileo, through the cosmic microwave background — before landing on his thesis: “The fact of the matter is we don’t know whether the universe has a center,” he said, “but we can obseeeeeeeerve through a telescope that there is a center and guess who’s sitting at the center of it — us.” His favorite phrase, employed whenever I failed to understand or follow, was, “Do your homework.”
“These are facts, Colin. They’re in my film,” he said. “These facts are so shocking that somebody very important has tried to take this film out.”
Why, I asked, had the scientists he’d interviewed readily disavowed the film after the trailer got attention?
“Scien-tist,” he corrected. “No s. Do your homework.”
He was right. At that point, only one scientist who appeared in the trailer had issued a statement: Lawrence Krauss, a well-respected, media-friendly professor of theoretical physics and cosmology at Arizona State University. Even though he denounced The Principle in no uncertain terms — he calls it “nonsense” — he wrote that he was unsure if he’d been interviewed directly by the Principle filmmakers, who’d then engaged in some creative editing, or if they had taken the footage from somewhere else. DeLano had an answer for that: Krauss had willingly been interviewed and signed a release for the film. I told DeLano I’d love to see that release. “Oh, I’m sure you would,” he said, but he wasn’t ready to tip his hand yet.
“The fact of the matter is we don’t know whether the universe has a center, but we can observe through a telescope that there is a center, and guess who’s sitting at the center of it—us.”
As we talked on the phone, he mentioned photons and preferred directions in space; the cosmic microwave background and its implications for the universe; the Copernican principle and its unresolved problems; satellites, equinoxes, and orbital motion. He’d talk about the “worldwide disinformation campaign” meant to discredit him and his film. He’d show me his evidence and become frustrated when I couldn’t share his excitement, when I couldn’t quite see how he hoped to blow the world’s collective noggin. He said he could prove what, according to him, Krauss really thought. He told me to look up an article, and read aloud a certain paragraph, apparently a quote from Krauss. It ends like this:
There was a pause. “Do you have any idea what you just read?” DeLano asked me. I didn’t respond.
But the conversation had turned. By the time I asked how he’d funded his film — a question he immediately dismissed as irrelevant — he was ready to hang up.
“Was it what you expected?” he asked me, talking about himself.
“Partially, it was.”
“I can certainly say the sentiment was fully reciprocated.” (Pause.) “Have a great day, Colin.”
“Thanks. You too.”
* * *
I did do more homework after our talk, as was commanded of me. Here’s what I learned about DeLano.
He’s the proprietor of a blog, Magisterial Fundies, which focuses on his theories, and The Principle specifically. He spars with detractors who’ve taken to other blogs to debunk geocentrism. He posts about recent — and legitimate — scientific discoveries, then uses them to bolster his ideas, which, after reading more of the blog, take on a Catholic hue. (Despite distancing himself from the term “geocentrism” in our interview, it crops up regularly in his writing.) Here’s a characteristic snippet from Magisterial Fundies:
Go back far enough in the blog’s archives, and you find political opinions, frequently about gay marriage: “May I say that the incredibly disoriented, intellectually and morally weak voters of Maryland, of Washington, of Maine, and of Minnesota, have contemptibly surrendered their children to indoctrination in radical homosexualist propaganda.”
The About section on the blog shows a small, pixelated photo of a man — DeLano, presumably. You can only barely make out bushy eyebrows, a suit jacket, and a smile.
Sometimes he’s effusive, as when I spoke to him; you can find him on YouTube, excitedly pacing, camera struggling to catch up. But he can be less energetic, too. Chatting about The Principle on what appears to be a Catholic radio show, he lays out what’s, to his mind, the crisis in modern science: “We are finding evidence that we are in a special, non-Copernican position.” The interviewer asks about the scientists he interviewed, if they’re in the mainstream. “I purposely set out to include as many of the big names as I could get, and also some mavericks, and also some flat-out radicals,” he says. You get the sense, based on how he refers to The Principle — always as “my film” — and the fact that he apparently orchestrated the interviews and, assuming they exist, any waivers, that he believes it’s mostly the result of his effort, whether that’s true or not. (DeLano says Sungenis is the executive producer of the film.)
Along with Krauss, at least two of the mainstream scientists who appear in the film aren’t so happy about it. Max Tegmark, a brilliant MIT cosmologist and science communicator, is spoken of admiringly by DeLano in the radio show. When I asked about his appearance in the film, Tegmark emailed: “They cleverly tricked a whole bunch of us scientists into thinking that they were independent filmmakers doing an ordinary cosmology documentary, without mentioning anything about their hidden agenda or that people like Sungenis were involved.” Ditto for South African mathematician and cosmologist George Ellis, a well-respected professor at the University of Cape Town who wrote The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time with Stephen Hawking. “I was interviewed for it but they did not disclose this agenda, which of course is nonsense,” he wrote me. “I don’t think it’s worth responding to — it just gives them publicity. To ignore is the best policy. But for the record, I totally disavow that silly agenda.”
DeLano isn’t alone in his beliefs. Multiple blogs are dedicated to geocentrism, as well as to debunking the idea. In a Chicago Tribune article from 2011, meekly titled “Some Catholics seek to counter Galileo,” Sungenis is quoted as saying, “False information leads to false ideas, and false ideas lead to illicit and immoral actions — thus the state of the world today. … Prior to Galileo, the church was in full command of the world; and governments and academia were subservient to her.”
Court records for DeLano turned up one unexpected hit: In 2002, a Rick DeLano was listed as a defendant in a $10 million suit alleging he and others had participated in a scheme to misrepresent stock in internet companies. “Defendants Perlman, DeLano, and Levy introduced Plaintiff to several individuals whom they claimed were officers and directors of these fifty-four companies (‘Companies’). Plaintiff alleges that these representations were intentionally and willfully misleading,” according to the records. In the suit, DeLano is listed as a California resident; his current phone number has an area code that puts him in California, too, which would also go some way toward explaining his relationship with the film production company. The case settled for an undisclosed amount.
* * *
The week after Easter, I called him again, and though he didn’t answer the first time, he eagerly returned my call. Compared to the last time we spoke, he was lucid and forthcoming, willing to expand on his theories and his film. He told me he was determining “who the fair-minded media contacts are,” and would divulge new information to them accordingly, perhaps even let them interview the director. He clarified that the goal of the film, in his view, was to consider geocentrism as one competing theory among many. When I asked if the film fully discounted geocentrism, he told me: “Of course not. That would be a lie.”
But when I asked what he could tell me about the company listed in the lawsuit I had turned up, the chat suddenly bottomed out. “That would have nothing to do with my film and I think this conversation is over,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
Then — click — we were done.
* * *
Despite its absurdity, the mere fact that DeLano, Sungenis, and the rest of their crew were able to fund and execute a slickly produced film, and to cajole famous physicists to sit and chat for it, makes the geocentrist fringe startlingly real: people who believe in these ideas not only exist, but have the wherewithal to make a movie. There’s nothing simple about producing a film, much less one with some of the most technically-minded people on the planet. In DeLano’s case, he is (or at least was) apparently steadily employed, eventually on chummy terms with a respected production company, and seems intimately familiar with science, even though his interpretations of it are a minority view, to put it charitably. If the film is absurd (it surely is), its creation was something clear-eyed, thought through.
Why did the creators bother to make the film if they realized that the respected scientists appearing would immediately denounce it? There’s the chance they didn’t expect the denouncements, but that seems unlikely. Another possibility, suggested by DeLano’s initial eagerness to talk to me, was that the establishment backlash had been part of the plan all along. Surely The Principle, after those countless media reports — including this one — is in a better position than it was before, even if potential viewers check it out only for novelty’s sake. Even if it’s fleeting, being the center of the universe has its perks.