By the way, if you need help in implementing a plan of action to follow through on what Anita is saying, pick up a book by Thích Nhất Hạnh.
Doctors had given Anita Moorjani just hours to live when she arrived at the hospital in a coma on the morning of February 2nd, 2006. Unable to move as a result of the cancer that had ravaged her body for almost four years, Anita entered another dimension, where she experienced great clarity and understanding of her life and purpose here on earth. She was given a choice of whether to return to life or not, and chose to return to life when she realized that “heaven” is a state and not a place. This subsequently resulted in a remarkable and complete recovery of her health. Anita’s riveting talk will inspire you to transform your life by living more authentically, discovering your greatest passions, transcending your deepest fears, and living from a place of pure joy. Her true story will radically alter your current beliefs about yourself, your purpose on earth, your health, your relationships, and your life!
A fascinating new book seriously tackles the question of extraterrestrial life from the perspective of leading astronomers, astrophysicists, geneticists, and neuroscientists.
Theoretical physics may be difficult and complicated, “but it does have sex appeal.” So says quantum physicist Jim Al-Khalili. “It’s easy to find an audience for popular science or for a TV documentary about the Big Bang or about black holes,” he recently told me. Al-Khalili’s work in the field has led to the fascinating new book Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, which explores what he believes is the likely possibility of alien life.
The Iraqi-born, UK-based Al-Khalili’s intro opens with an anecdote: The Nobel Prize–winning physicist Enrico Fermi is jokingly discussing flying saucers with some colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory when he poses a simple question: “Where is everybody?” His point, Al-Khalili writes, is that the universe is so massive and contains so many planets, that it makes little sense for Earth to be the only place where life blossomed, unless our planet is “astonishingly and unjustifiably special.”
Aliens, out this week from Picador, proceeds in the way that one imagines that Fermi’s conversation at Los Alamos might have: serious scientists, in occasionally cheeky dialogue with one another, acknowledging that the question they’re pursuing—Is anybody out there?—has long been pursued by kookier personalities, conspiracy theorists obsessed with Area 51, and alien abductions. Instead, Al-Khalili’s book offers research-driven essays by prominent astronomers, astrophysicists, geneticists, and neuroscientists, and their pieces offer a wide range of ways to think about the question of extraterrestrial life. Several astrobiologists consider what life requires and which planets and moons might have the right mix: neuroscientist Anil Seth considers the “alien” intelligence of the octopus here on Earth; cosmologist Martin Rees speculates on the possibility of humans merging with machine intelligence and setting out to explore the universe as a new cyborg species.
But for the most part, these experts are weighing in on one fundamental question: Is life special, a unique and almost impossible trick that happened here on Earth? Or is it easy, almost inevitable, a spark that just arises where the conditions are right? It’s an age-old question, that, as Al-Khalili explains, we may finally have the technology to answer.
Photo courtesy of Jim Al-Khalili
VICE: What drew you to the questions that the book addresses? Are you someone who has had a lifelong interest in the idea of aliens?
Jim Al-Khalili: It’s not so much aliens, but more to do with the question of what is special about life. Probably all scientists find that topic fascinating. There are certain questions in science that we don’t have answers to, which we say, those are the big questions: What was there before the universe, before the Big Bang? How did life begin on Earth? How did chemistry turn into biology? What is the nature of consciousness? These are the questions that transcend disciplines. If you get a chemist, a physicist, a biologist, a computer scientist—all of them are going to be fascinated by this.
When I was young, I suppose I was interested in aliens like anyone else. I’m a sci-fi fan. But, for me, the question was really what is so special about life—how did it start on Earth and whether it is unique to Earth.
The book is serious, but the interest in extraterrestrial life has a reputation for being pretty quirky.
Someone once told me that half the internet is devoted to conspiracy theories to do with alien abductions and UFOs. Half is probably too much, but there’s so much out there, from X-Files to science fiction in movies, that it is surprising to think that scientists would treat the question of extraterrestrial life seriously at all. And that’s what made this so refreshing. The book is highlighting the fact that there are lots of questions that are of interest to scientists that you can actually treat seriously. If you really want to know the possibility of whether there are little green men out there, here are the serious scientific takes on it, from all angles. So, it’s meant to be of interest to the wider lay audience but dealt with in a grown-up way.
You mention that there has been a shift within the scientific community toward taking this seriously and away from the era of imagining little green men. Do you have thoughts on when and how that changed? This shift has come about because of advances in astronomy and space exploration in the last decade or two. We have started to send probes to Mars, to the moons of the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter, and we are seriously starting to be able to study the places where there potentially could be life in our solar system. And at the same time, in the past decade, we have discovered planets around stars outside our solar system, exoplanets. Astronomy has been advancing so quickly that what was unthinkable a decade ago is now reality. We can now not only pinpoint which stars have planets going around them, but we can look at those planets and even tell whether they have an atmosphere. Just from the light passing through the atmosphere from the star that they are going around, we can study that light and that can tell us the chemical composition of the atmosphere—and that can tell us what elements, what molecules, what compounds are in that atmosphere, and would they be there naturally or would there have to be life present to have made them. So, these advances in astronomy and space exploration suddenly mean that we can actually address this question. It’s got to the point now where I’m quite optimistic that in my lifetime, it’s likely that we will discover life elsewhere.
Wow. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that. Now, all these things are coming together. One of the contributors in the book, [professor of evolutionary biochemistry] Nick Lane, talks about the building blocks of life. What do you need? Is there anything magical? You get molecules getting more and more complicated, and then eventually you get something that can make copies of itself, and that’s the first precursor of life. Well, until recently we thought there was a missing step—”and then some magic happens”—and then you get biology from chemistry! But there seems to be no magical steps necessary. I now reckon that the consensus among most scientists is that it would be quite surprising if we don’t find life elsewhere, probably within our lifetime. It might not be interesting life—it won’t be men in flying saucers—it will be some form of microbial life. But, hey, for scientists that will be enough.
“Astronomy has been advancing so quickly that what was unthinkable a decade ago is now reality. It’s got to the point now where I’m quite optimistic that in my lifetime, it’s likely that we will discover life elsewhere.”
So on the big question in the book, which is something like “is life on Earth special and unique or is it common?”—and there are great arguments posed for each side—where do you fall on that spectrum personally? There’s a wide spectrum of opinion among informed scientists. So the fact that I sit somewhere in the middle is because I’ve been influenced by both sides. My kind of naïve view is that we only know of life happening somewhere: on Earth. We are beginning to see that the conditions on Earth are not unique. Forgive the metaphor, but a lot of stars have to have aligned for that—we have to be the right distance from the sun, we have to have an atmosphere, we have to have a moon that gives us tides, we have to have a big planet like Jupiter that is sucking up the debris so it doesn’t bombard us. But there are so many other star systems; there are so many other exoplanets, just in our galaxy alone, that there must be millions, billions of other Earths that have the conditions necessary for life. So in that sense we know we are not unique.
But that doesn’t mean that we know how life got started, just because those conditions exist. We know that life began on Earth very soon after Earth cooled down enough for life to possibly exist, almost 4 billion years ago. Now, over 4 billion years ago, the Earth was just a ball of fire. It wasn’t conducive to anything. So, as soon as the conditions were right for life, life got started. But it didn’t develop into complex life until much, much later. So I’m of the view that life as a simple single cellular form may well be not that difficult. It may be almost ubiquitous in the universe. But multicellular life, life that could then evolve into complex organisms, some of which could develop consciousness and intelligence and civilizations—that actually may be the harder step. How hard it is, we don’t know yet.
I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the role of human radio, TV, and satellite communication and how that factors into the search for alien life. Why do people assume that aliens would also use this same kind of signaling?
We’re starting with the assumption with the idea that the laws of physics and the forces of nature are the same throughout the universe. We know of four of these forces. Two of them are active inside of atoms, the nuclear forces. And the only other ones are gravity and the electromagnetic force. Gravity is limited technologically, but the electromagnetic force is versatile: Light is the electromagnetic force, and radio waves are the electromagnetic force. So it’s a means of sending information from one place to the other. So we’re assuming that whatever form life takes elsewhere, even if its not carbon based—it could be something really beyond our imagination—we still think they will make use of electromagnetic forces. It is a potentially universal way of communicating.
So if we are announcing our existence to the rest of the universe, then it may be that life elsewhere that is doing the same thing. Which is why the whole SETI program is about listening out into the universe to hear some electromagnetic signal that we don’t think could have just happened naturally. Of course, we’ve only been announcing our existence to the world for about 100 years or so, when we first developed radio. So our electromagnetic signals have only extended out to a radius of 100 light years. And actually there aren’t that many star systems within 100 light years. The universe is vast—there’s billions of stars in our own galaxy—but there are only a handful within that range. Of course, an alien civilization may have been announcing their existence to the universe millions of years ago, for all we know, so those signals, if we do receive those signals, they may have traveled across vast distances—it won’t mean that we can then say, “Hi, we’re here,” and then make contact with them. But just the knowledge that there is life out there somewhere would be profound.
Rachel Riederer is co-editor-in-chief of Guernica. Follow her on Twitter.
We’ve all experienced the explainable in life at one point or another, whether it be déjà vu or out of body experiences. Yet it can be easy to forget that what we consider unusual or out of the ordinary as adults were innately accepted and understood when we were children, prior to our conditioning. This is becoming more and more apparent as cases of children who remember past lives continue to surface around the world.
The story you are about to hear is true. Imagine you are the parents of a young child and as soon as the child can talk and express ideas, he begins to refer adamantly to a past life he has had. How would you respond?
In the case of this young man, there was more than just talk going on. He continuously insisted that he remembered a past life and that in that life he was murdered. The boy led his parents to a very specific spot and told them that this is where he had died. The parents felt compelled to give in and begin digging at the spot.
Can you guess what they found? Yes, a corpse! To add to the fascination of this amazing story, the boy also led his parents to the location of the ax that was used in his murder and this is thought to explain the red mark he was born with on his forehead.
The boy eventually told his parents the exact name of his murderer and after some time, the man was located and even confessed to the crime. The occurrence of past lives is still in the realm of theory from a standpoint of science, yet stories like these are extremely compelling and difficult to explain away. What do you think? Do we live multiple lives? Is it possible to remember them?
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” ― Charles Darwin
“But mounting evidence from archaeology strongly suggests that human societies were, for the greater part of civilized history, based more on cooperation and reverence for life and nature than on competition and obsession with death and technology.”
“Once we truly grasp the scientific reality of our living planet and its physiology, our entire worldview [is] bound to change profoundly, revealing the way to solving what now appear to be our greatest and most insoluble problems. From a Gaian point of view, we humans are an experiment — a young trial species still at odds with ourselves and other species, still not having learned to balance our own dance within that of our whole planet…” ~Elisabet Sahtouris
The following is an excerpt from the book Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution, written by evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris in 1999. Inspired and encouraged by scientists Jim Lovelock (Gaia Theory) & Lynn Margulis, Dr. Sahtouris shares here the vision of wholeness that Gaia science and theory provides us with..
“The same technology that permits us to reach out into space has permitted us to begin seeing the real nature of our own planet to discover that it is alive and that it is the only live planet circling our Sun.
The implications of this discovery are enormous, and we have hardly even begun to pursue them. We were awed by astronauts’ reports that the Earth looked from space like a living being, and were ourselves struck by its apparently live beauty when the visual images were before our eyes.
But it has taken time to accumulate scientific evidence that the Earth is a live planet rather than a planet with life upon it, and many scientists continue to resist the new conception because of its profound implications for change in all branches of science, not to mention all society.
The difference between a planet with life on it and a living planet is hard at first to understand. Take for example the word, the concept, the practice of ecology, which has become familiar to us all within just the few short decades that we have been aware of our pollution and destruction of the environment on which our own lives depend.
Our ecological understanding and practice has been a big, important step in understanding our relationship to our environment and to other species. Yet, even in our serious environmental concern, we still fall short of recognizing ourselves as part of a much larger living entity.
It is one thing to be careful with our environment so it will last and remain benign; it is quite another to know deeply that our environment, like ourselves, is part of a living planet.
The earliest microbes into which the materials of the Earth’s crust transformed themselves created their own environments, and these environments in turn shaped the fate of later species, much as cells create their surroundings and are created by it in our own embryological development.
As for physiology, we already know that the Earth regulates its temperature as well as any of its warm-blooded creatures, such that it stays within bounds that are healthy for life despite the Sun’s steadily increasing heat.
And just as our bodies continually renew and adjust the balance of chemicals in our skin and blood, our bones and other tissues, so does the Earth continually renew and adjust the balance of chemicals in its atmosphere, seas, and soils..
Certainly it is ever more obvious that we are not studying the mechanical nature of Spaceship Earth but the self-creative, self-maintaining physiology of a live planet.
Many still take the live Earth concept, named Gaia after the Earth goddess of early Greek myth, more as a poetic or spiritual metaphor than as a scientific reality.
However, the name Gaia was never intended to suggest that the Earth is a female being, the reincarnation of the Great Goddess or Mother Nature herself, nor to start a new religion (though it would hardly hurt us to worship our planet as the greater Being whose existence we have intuited from time immemorial).
It was intended simply to designate the concept of a live Earth, in contrast to an Earth with life upon it…
We now recognize the Earth as a single self-creating being that came alive in its whirling dance through space, its crust transforming itself into mountains and valleys, the hot moisture pouring from its body to form seas. As its crust became ever more lively with bacteria, it created its own atmosphere, and the advent of sexual partnership finally did produce the larger life forms ~ the trees and animals and people.
The tale of Gaia’s dance is thus being retold as we piece together the scientific details of our planet’s dance of life. And in its context, the evolution of our own species takes on new meaning in relation to the whole. Once we truly grasp the scientific reality of our living planet and its physiology, our entire worldview and practice are bound to change profoundly, revealing the way to solving what now appear to be our greatest and most insoluble problems.
From a Gaian point of view, we humans are an experiment — a young trial species still at odds with ourselves and other species, still not having learned to balance our own dance within that of our whole planet. Unlike most other species, we are not biologically programmed to know what to do; rather, we are an experiment in free choice.
This leaves us with enormous potential, powerful egotism, and tremendous anxiety ~ a syndrome that is recognizably adolescent.
Human history may seem very long to us as we study all that has happened in it, but we know only a few thousand years of it and have existed as humans for only a few million years, while Earth has been self-creating and evolving for billions of years. We have scarcely had time to come out of species childhood, yet our social evolution has changed us so fast that we have leaped into our adolescence.
Humans are not the first creatures to make problems for themselves and for the whole Gaian system.. We are, however ~ unless whales and dolphins beat us to it in past ages — the first Gaian creatures who can understand such problems, think about them, and solve them by free choice.
In fact, the argument of this book is that our maturity as a species depends on our accepting the responsibility for our natural heritage of behavioral freedom by working consciously and cooperatively toward our own health along with that of our planet..
And so an attitude of greater humility and willingness to accept some guidance from our parent planet will be an important factor in reaching our species maturity.
The tremendous problems confronting us now — the inequality of hunger on one side and overconsumption on the other, the possibly irreversible damage to the natural world we depend on, just as our cells depend on the wholeness of our bodies for their life – are all of our own making.
These problems have become so enormous that many of us believe we will not be able to solve them in time. Yet just at this time in our troubled world we stand on the brink of maturity, in a position to recognize that we are neither perfect nor omnipotent, but that we can learn a great deal from a parent planet that is also not perfect or omnipotent but has the experience of billions of years of overcoming an endless array of difficulties, small and great.
When we look anew at evolution, we see not only that other species have been as troublesome as ours, but that many a fiercely competitive situation resolved itself in a cooperative scheme. The kind of cells our bodies are made of, for example, began with the same kind of exploitation among bacteria that characterizes our historic human imperialism, as we will see.
In fact, those ancient bacteria invented technologies of energy production, transportation and communications [during] their competitive phase and then used those very technologies to bind themselves into the cooperative ventures that made our own existence possible.
In the same way, we are now using essentially the same technologies, in our own invented versions, to unite ourselves into a single body of humanity that may make yet another new step in Earth’s evolution possible.
If we look to the lessons of evolution, we will gain hope that the newly forming worldwide body of humanity may also learn to adopt cooperation in favor of competition. The necessary systems have already been invented and developed; we lack only the understanding, motive, and will to use them consciously in achieving a cooperative species maturity…
The new view of our Gaian Earth in evolution shows an intricate web of cooperative mutual dependency, the evolution of one scheme after another that harmonizes conflicting interests.
The patterns of evolution show us the creative maintenance of life in all its complexity. Indeed nature is more suggestive of a mother juggling resources to ensure each family member’s welfare as she works out differences of interest to make the whole family a cooperative venture, than of a rational engineer designing perfect machinery that obeys unchangeable laws.
For scientists who shudder at such anthropomorphism — defined as reading human attributes into nature — let us not forget that mechanomorphism — reading mechanical attributes into nature – is really no better than second-hand anthropomorphism, since mechanisms are human products.
Is it not more likely that nature in essence resembles one of its own creatures than that it resembles in essence the nonliving product of one of its creatures?
The leading philosophers of our day recognize that the very foundations of our knowledge are quaking — that our understanding of nature as machinery can no longer be upheld.
But those who cling to the old understanding seriously fear that all human life will break down [without] knowledge of nature in mathematical reference points and laws of physics. They fail to see what every child can see — that hummingbirds and flowers work, that nature does very well in ignorance of human conceptions of how it must work.
Machinery is in fact the very antithesis of life. One must always hope a machine, between its times of use, will not change, for only if it does not change will it continue to be of use. Left to its own devices, so to speak, it will eventually be destroyed by its environment. Living organisms, on the other hand, cannot stay the same without changing constantly, and they use their environment to their advantage.
To be sure, our machinery is getting better and better at imitating life; if this were not so, a mechanical science could not have advanced in understanding. But mechanical models of life continue to miss its essential self-creativity.
Fortunately, our survival struggle is leading to intuitive grasps of nature’s principles that are shifting our technologies into serving cooperative life purposes, especially clearly in the phenomenon of the global Internet.
We are learning that there is more than one way to organize functional systems, to produce order and balance; that the imperfect and flexible principles of nature lead to greater stability and resilience in natural systems than we have produced in ours — both technological and social — by following the mechanical laws we assumed were natural..
Every being is part of some larger being, and as such its self-interest must be tempered by the interests of the larger being to which it belongs. Thus mutual consistency works itself out everywhere in nature, as we will see again and again in this book.
For clues on organizing a workable economics and politics, we need not even look beyond our own bodies, with their cooperative diversity of cells and organs as a splendid example to us in working out our social future.
Diversity is crucial to nature, yet we humans seem desperately eager to eliminate it, in nature and in one another. This is one of the greatest mistakes we are making.
We reduce complex ecosystems to one-crop monocultures, and we do everything in our power to persuade or force others to adopt our languages, our customs, our social structures, instead of respecting their diversity and recognizing its validity. Both practices impoverish and weaken us within the Gaian system…
Our technology has ravaged nature and continues to do so, but the ravages of technology are rooted in our youthful species’ greed, our single bottom-line quest for profits motive. There is no intrinsic reason that we humans cannot develop a benign technology once we agree that our desire to maximize profits is completely at odds with nature’s dynamic balance — that greed prevents health and welfare for all.
As Janine Benyus has pointed out, we assigned one group of people called biologists to study how other species make their living, and a completely separate group of people called economists to determine how our species makes its living.
No other creatures take more than they need, and this must be our first lesson. Our second lesson is to learn and emulate nature’s fine-tuned recycling economics, largely powered by free solar energy. This does not mean going back to log cabins or tipis, but to eliminate waste and junk as we creatively develop diverse human lifestyles of elegant and sustainable simplicity.
The purpose of this book is to help pave the way to a happier and healthier future through an understanding of our relationship to the Gaian Earth system that spawned us and of which we are part — a great being that, however it may annoy us, is not ours to dominate and control. We can damage it, but we cannot run it; we had better try to find out what it is all about and what we are doing, and may do, to survive happily within it.
The aggressive and destructive motives of domination, conquest, control, and profit have been presented to us as unchangeable human nature by historians as well as by sociologists.
But mounting evidence from archaeology strongly suggests that human societies were, for the greater part of civilized history, based more on cooperation and reverence for life and nature than on competition and obsession with death and technology.
It seems our human childhood, which lasted far longer than has our recent adolescence, was guided by religious images of a near and nurturing Mother Goddess before a cruel and distant Father God replaced her in influence. As we come out of adolescence we often recognize the value of what we were taught in childhood, and this new historical view of ourselves supports the general thesis of this book.
Like Gaian creation itself, human understanding or knowledge ever evolves.”
The search for life in our solar system just become a bit more interesting. While scientists have not found life on Saturn’s moon, they have found the next best thing: a food source that could sustain potential life.
The surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as seen in 2007. Scientists have found food on that moon that they say could sustain potential life.Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.
The search for life in our solar system just became a bit more interesting.
While scientists have not found life on Enceladus, Saturn’s moon, they have found the next best thing: food that could sustain potential life. The food source is in the form of molecular hydrogen, which could feed microbes as it does here on Earth.
“We’re very excited to find what looks to be a food source for potential microbes, which is a pretty important step to saying this is a habitable ocean,” Hunter Waite, lead author of a paper published in the journal Science, told CBC News. Waite is also on the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team lead.
This graphic illustrates how Cassini scientists think water interacts with rock at the bottom of the ocean of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, producing hydrogen gas. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Scientists detected the molecular hydrogen in plumes of water vapour erupting from beneath the moon’s icy surface, a critical ingredient in a process known as methanogenesis. On Earth, this provides food and energy to microbes deep in the oceans.
And the only plausible source, they concluded, are hydrothermal reactions between hot rocks and the water in the moon’s ocean.
‘I think conditions for habitability are kind of nailed down.’ – Hunter Waite, Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team lead
Enceladus is a small, icy moon with a vast ocean beneath its surface. In 2005, Cassini discovered that water vapour was spewing out into space. Subsequent flybys took the spacecraft right through the plumes, where it detected organic material, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. And data suggests that there is a large liquid ocean with hydrothermal vents, locations where life thrives on Earth.
While it may seem unlikely that a moon almost 1.5 billion kilometres from the sun can retain a liquid ocean, the orbit of Enceladus around Saturn is more elliptical than most other moons in our solar system. Saturn’s massive gravity causes the squeezing and thus heating of the moon.
“I think conditions for habitability are kind of nailed down,” Waite said. However, he added that further measurements of both phosphorus and sulfur are needed. But everything else is there: water, organics, an energy source and more.
Jupiter’s moon Europa has warm, saltwater oceans that could sustain life. (NASA )
In order to determine whether the molecular hydrogen is being created by microbial life, further missions need to fly through the plumes, Waite said. Cassini is about to begin its “Grand Finale” tour, where it will plunge into Saturn in September, ending a 13-year mission that garnered some substantial scientific data and a better understanding of the complex system.
Scientists also revealed that in 2016 the Hubble Space Telescope imaged what are believed to be plumes from Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter. In 2014, Hubble spotted a similar display from that location, believed to also be water vapour.
The plume stretches as high as 100 kilometres above the surface of the moon.
The plumes of Europa are located in a warm region on the moon first identified by the Galileo spacecraft which orbited Jupiter in the 1990s. Data from that mission was also used in this current study.
The plumes of Europa don’t occur as regularly as those on Enceladus, the scientists noted. Though the observations do not provide “unequivocal” proof that they are water plumes, Europa researcher Bill Sparks from the Space Telescope Science Institute said he is fairly confident that they are similar to those seen on Enceladus.
The green oval highlights the plumes Hubble observed on Europa. The area also corresponds to a warm region on Europa’s surface. The map is based on observations by the Galileo spacecraft. (NASA/ESA/STScI/USGS)
Expanding search for life
This discovery also could help astronomers find life around exoplanets orbiting other star systems. At the moment, astronomers are searching for gases resembling that found on Earth on these far off worlds.
“If we find a new exotic form of life on an icy moon, like Enceladus or Europa, we might find that they are associated to completely different markers that aren’t associated to ours and sort of broaden our horizons and what kind of environment could constitute as being habitable,” Queen’s University astronomer Nathalie Ouellette said.
Waite said another question could be raised if we discover that Enceladus doesn’t support life with so many elements present.
“If everything’s right and it’s not there, what’s going on? Maybe we don’t understand [life] too well.”
Martin Rees is Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, at the University of Cambridge, the Astronomer Royal, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, and a former President of the Royal Society. The following interview was conducted at Trinity College, Cambridge, by The Conversation’s Matt Warren.
Q: How big is the universe … and is it the only one?
Our cosmic horizons have grown enormously over the last century, but there is a definite limit to the size of the observable universe. It contains all the things from which light has been able to reach us since the Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago. But the new realisation is that the observable universe may not be all of reality. There may be more beyond the horizon, just as there’s more beyond the horizon when you’re observing the ocean from a boat.
What’s more, the galaxies are likely to go on and on beyond this horizon, but more interestingly, there is a possibility that our Big Bang was not the only one. There may have been others, spawning other universes, disconnected from ours and therefore not observable, and possibly even governed by different physical laws. Physical reality on this vast scale could therefore be much more varied and interesting than what we can observe.
The universe we can observe is governed by the same laws everywhere. We can observe a distant galaxy and see that the atoms emitting the light are just the same as the ones in the lab. But there may be physical domains that are governed by completely different laws. Some may have no gravity, or not allow for nuclear physics. Ours may not even be a typical domain.
Even in our own universe, there are only so many ways you can assemble the same atoms, so if it is large enough it is possible that there is another Earth, even another avatar you. If this were the case, however, the universe would have to be bigger than the observable one by a number which to write down would require all the atoms in the universe. Rest assured, if there’s another you, they are a very, very long way away. They might even be making the same mistakes.
Q: So how likely is alien life in this vast expanse?
We know now that planets exist around many, even most, stars. We know that in our Milky Way galaxy there are likely millions of planets that are in many ways like the Earth, with liquid water. The question then is whether life has developed on them – and we can’t yet answer that.
Although we know how via Darwinian selection a complex biosphere evolved on Earth around 4 billion years ago, we don’t yet understand the actual origin of life – the transition from complex chemistry to the first metabolising, replicating structures. The good news is that we will have a better idea of how that happened within the next ten or 20 years and crucially, how likely it was to happen. This will give us a better understanding of how likely it is to happen elsewhere. In that time, we will also have technologies that will allow us to better search for alien life.
But just because there’s life elsewhere doesn’t mean that there is intelligent life. My guess is that if we do detect an alien intelligence, it will be nothing like us. It will be some sort of electronic entity.
If we look at our history on Earth, it has taken about 4 billion years to get from the first protozoa to our current, technological civilisation. But if we look into the future, then it’s quite likely that within a few centuries, machines will have taken over – and they will then have billions of years ahead of them.
In other words, the period of time occupied by organic intelligence is just a thin sliver between early life and the long era of the machines. Because such civilisations would develop at different rates, it’s extremely unlikely that we will find intelligent life at the same stage of development as us. More likely, that life will still be either far simpler, or an already fully electronic intelligence.
Q: Do you believe that machines will develop intelligence?
There are many people who would bet on it. The second question, however, is whether that necessarily implies consciousness – or whether that is limited to the wet intelligence we have within our skulls. Most people, however, would argue that it is an emergent property and could develop in a machine mind.
Q: So if the universe is populated by electronic super minds, what questions will they be pondering?
We can’t conceive that any more than a chimp can guess the things that we spend our time thinking about. I would guess, however, that these minds aren’t on planets. While we depend on a planet and an atmosphere, these entities would be happy in zero G, floating freely in space. This might make them even harder to detect.
Q: How would humanity respond to the discovery of alien life?
It would certainly make the universe more interesting, but it would also make us less unique. The question is whether it would provoke in us any sense of cosmic modesty. Conversely, if all our searches for life fail, we’d know more certainly that this small planet really is the one special place, the single pale, blue dot where life has emerged. That would make what happens to it not just of global significance, but an issue of galactic importance, too.
And we are likely to be fixed to this world. We will be able to look deeper and deeper into space, but travelling to worlds beyond our solar system will be a post-human enterprise. The journey times are just too great for mortal minds and bodies. If you’re immortal, however, these distances become far less daunting. That journey will be made by robots, not us.
Q: What scientific advances would you like to see over the coming century?
Cheap, clean energy, for one. Artificial meat is another. But the idea is often easier than the application. I like to tell my students the story of two beavers standing in front of a huge hydroelectric dam. “Did you build that?” asks one. “No,” says the other. “But it is based on my idea”. That’s the essential balance between scientific insight and engineering development.
Q: Michael Gove [the British politician who was a leader of the campaign for the UK to leave the EU] said people have had enough of experts. Have they?
I wouldn’t expect anything more from Mr Gove, but there is clearly a role for experts. If we’re sick, we go to a doctor, we don’t look randomly on the internet. But we must also realise that most experts only have expertise within their own area, and if we are scientists we should accept that. When science impacts on public policy, there will be elements of economics, ethics and politics where we as scientists speak only as laymen. We need to know where the demarcation line is between where we are experts and where we are just citizens.
If you want to influence public policy as a scientist, there are two ways to do it. You can aspire to be an adviser within government, which can be very frustrating. Or you can try and influence policy indirectly. Politicians are very much driven by what’s in their inbox and what’s in the press, so the scientists with the greatest influence are those who go public, and speak to everyday people. If an idea is picked up by voters, the politicians won’t ignore it.
Q: Brexit – good or bad?
I am surprised to find myself agreeing with Lord Heseltine [former UK Conservative government minister] and Tony Blair [former Labour prime minister], but it is a real disaster, which we have stumbled into. There is a lot of blame to be shared around, by Boris Johnson et al, but also by Jeremy Corbyn [leader of the UK Labour party] for not fighting his corner properly. I have been a member of the Labour Party for a very long time, but I feel badly let down by Corbyn – especially as Labour voters supported Remain two to one. He has been an ineffective leader, and also ambivalent on this issue. A different leader, making a vocal case for Remain, could have tilted the vote.
On the other side, Boris Johnson [now UK foreign secretary – who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU] has been most reprehensible. At least Gove has opinions, which he has long expressed. Boris Johnson had no strong opinions, and the honourable thing to do if that is the case is to remain quiet. But he changed his stance opportunistically (as in the Eton debating society) and swung the vote.
Q: But why is it such a disaster?
My concerns are broad geopolitical ones. In the world as it is now, with America becoming isolationist and an increasingly dominant Russia, for Europe to establish itself as a united and powerful counterweight is more important than ever. We are jeopardising something that has held Europe together, in peace, for 60 years, and could also break up the United Kingdom in the process. We will be remembered for that and it is something to deplore.
One thing astronomers bring to the table is an awareness that we have a long potential future, as well as the universe’s long past – and that this future could be jeopardised by what happens in the coming decades.
Q: More broadly, how much danger is the human race in?
I have spent a lot of time considering how we as a species can make it into the next century – and there are two main classes of problems. First, the collective impact of humanity as its footprint on the planet increases due to a growing population more demanding of resources. Second, the possible misuse by error or design of ever more powerful technology – and most worryingly, bio-tech.
There is certainly a high chance of a major global setback this century, most likely from the second threat, which increasingly allows individual groups to have a global impact. Added to this is the fact that the world is increasingly connected, so anything that happens has a global resonance. This is something new and actually makes us more vulnerable as a species than at any time in our past.
Q: So terrorism will pose an even greater threat in the coming century?
Yes, because of these technologies, terrorists or fanatics will be able to have a greater impact. But there’s also the simple danger of these technologies being misused. Engineering or changing viruses, for example, can be used in benign ways – to eradicate Zika, for example – but there’s obviously a risk that such things can get out of control.
Nuclear requires large, conspicuous and heavily-protected facilities. But the facilities needed for bio-tech, for example, are small-scale, widely understood, widely available and dual use. It is going to be very hard indeed properly to regulate it.
In the short and intermediate term, this is even more worrying than the risks posed by climate change – although in the long term, that will be a very major problem, especially as both people and politicians find it very difficult to focus on things further down the line.
I have been very involved in campaigns to get all countries involved in research and development into alternative, clean energy sources. Making them available and cheap is the only way we are going to move towards a low carbon future. The level of money invested in this form of research should be equivalent to the amount spent on health or defence, and nuclear fusion and fourth generation nuclear fission should be part of that.
Q: In the medieval world, people would start building cathedrals that only later generations would finish. Have we lost that long-term perspective?
That’s right. In fact, one very important input behind the political discussion prior to the Paris climate agreement was the 2015 Papal Encyclical. I’m a council member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which helped to initiate the scientific meetings which were important in ensuring that the encyclical was a highly respected document. Whatever one thinks of the Catholic church, one cannot deny its long-term vision, its global range and its concern for the world’s poor. I believe that the encyclical, six months before the Paris conference, had a big impact on the leaders and people in South America, Africa and Asia. Religion clearly still has a very important role to play in the world.
Q: Have you ever encountered anything in the cosmos that has made you wonder whether a creator was behind it?
No. Personally, I don’t have any religious beliefs. But I describe myself as a cultural Christian, in that I was brought up in England and the English church was an important part of that. Then again, if I had been born in Iran, I’d probably go to the mosque.