In this increasingly disturbed planet there has been a mounting interest not only in the possibility of exploring Mars with robots but even to settle it with humans. Launching people into space has become the obsessive passion of the director of Tesla, Elon Musk. His SpaceX plan is to have a crewed mission going to Mars in this decade and Musk tweets about the opportunities of shipping a million people to Mars in his starships by 2050.
Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s “career psychopath” adviser, who has nightmares about the disasters facing us on this planet, would like to avoid “the difficult problems of keeping humans alive for thousands of years on spaceships.” For this reason, Prof Stefan Collini writes that Cummings would like to explore outer space to find somewhere habitable in which humans could escape the destruction of their planet.1
As someone who no longer enjoys long distance global travel in contemporary jets, I find the prospect of weeks cramped in gravitation-free rockets a total nightmare. However, there are increasing numbers of scientists, writers, astronomers, cosmologists and true explorers who dream of even longer travels into our own Milky Way.
I confess I am absolutely staggered when faced with the estimate that this Galaxy holds some 100 billion stars and that this in turn is just one of billions of other galaxies in the universe. This makes our planet seem far smaller than a particle of sand in the Saharan desert. On the other hand, it makes life on other planets more likely. Even in the Milky Way a number of planets could have surface waters and an atmosphere made up of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. The synthesis and compounds of these elements could eventually interact to create primitive lifeforms which could then gradually evolve into more complex and increasingly advanced ones.
There is a widely discussed theory that life on this earth originated when spores, viruses, or even yeasts were dropped intentionally by unmanned rockets from advanced civilizations two or three billion years ago. This presumes that highly intelligent species developed much earlier in our gigantic Milky Way. I do consider global scientific efforts to identify our origins on this planet most worthwhile but extremely challenging.
The Nobel prize winning Swedish chemical physicist, Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927), believed that life did not start on its own on this Earth but was seeded with spores dropped into the atmosphere by unmanned rockets of more advanced civilizations. He called these microorganisms “panspermia” implying “seeds all over.” Forty years ago Francis Crick presented his theory of Directed Panspermia in his book, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (1981)2 which had the impact on readers — like myself — to ask whether we on this earth should try to infect other distant planets in the years to come in the hope of furthering new forms of life.
About four decades ago I had the privilege to talk to Francis at some length at his coastal home in La Jolla, California about his fascination with the use of asteroids, or even artificial ones, as transporters of our DNA lifeforms. Such contaminated deliveries could travel for endless centuries until they landed on some planet where primitive lifeforms, such as seaweeds, might evolve. But even his genius could not imagine any lifeforms that could transmit a record that would indicate human beings like us had once existed.
Crick gave an incisive explanation of why the microscopic organisms called Eukaryotes were the best “living” bacteria to take onboard rockets for eventual distribution on other planets.3 Billions of Eukaryotes could be packed into just a few cubic centimeters. Frozen alive most bacteria would survive until unfrozen for some 10,000 years. A single bacterium of the type that can live without oxygen, such as yeast, dropped into a prebiotic soup could infect an entire ocean of a presumably sterile exoplanet. These bacteria would also have a greater chance of survival than fully formed higher organisms. There were times when Francis made me wonder if our vast universe was truly ready for life.
Even though promoted by one of the greatest scientists, this Panspermia project was never accepted seriously by the “astroscientific” establishment. Distributing “Astrosperms” in our galaxy seemed both highly dubious and expensive. I also wondered whether human beings really wanted to spread such complex microscopic lifeforms as yeasts and viruses to other planets. Would the ultimate results, which would take a billion or more years, differ positively from the life which has evolved on this earth? If humans could be sent, that would be different, but trying to spread life to other galaxies, such as Andromeda which is a million light years away from our own galaxy, seems unimaginable.
At that earlier stage in my life I thought that the creation of more intelligent or cooperative life forms on other planets could be and should be an ultimate mission for us, the inhabitants of this earth. Lately, however, I come to see such an over-ambitious aim as a waste of our human capabilities. I now feel this would turn into an ultimate escape hatch from the challenge of improving our contentious species here on Earth.
I greatly admire the tremendous advances scientists have made during my lifetime in understanding the formation of life on Earth. However, the astronomers, cosmologists and physicists have not made equal advances in understanding the scope of this universe. We now speculate that more than 75% of material in the universe is composed of so-called “dark matter,” about which we know absolutely nothing. Evidence of its material existence is absent. Acknowledging such giant gaps does not help us to understand where this universe is headed or, indeed, whether there is more than one universe. Could there be a quantum universe? Were there any designs or inter-connections between the untold masses of galaxies? Major questions even float around as to where our Milky Way is headed in the billions of light years ahead? Einstein’s explanations of the junction between space and time did not help me. I find it almost impossible to grasp the incredibly large numbers involved when I can hardly acknowledge the fact that a single drop of water holds more than a thousand billion molecules!
Exploring the universe with telescopes on Earth, on the Moon, Mars and outer space is a pursuit that thrills astronomers, cosmologists as well as most curious human beings. After all, continuous search is what makes us human. I am fascinated by what the new giant telescopes are revealing: The Gran Telescopio Canarias has produced images of a galaxy 500 million light years away; The Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas has measured the incredible mass of a giant black hole in a galaxy some 220 million light years away. It was in 2009 using the Kepler space telescope that thousands of exoplanets, many of which were our size, were discovered. Kepler-22b, an exoplanet of our planet size was only 500 light years from our Earth and was orbiting within a possibly habitable distance from its star.4
Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz won the Nobel Prize last year for identifying the existence in 1995 of an exoplanet orbiting “star 51.” This exoplanet was 50 light years away but was orbiting a Sun-like star which in 1995 confirmed that there were other planetary systems similar to our own. However it turned out that this particular exoplanet was uninhabitably hot and the size of Jupiter.
Also admirable is NASA’s impressive exploratory efforts, like “Lisa” which is a Space-based observatory which will try to gather faint signals of gravitational waves in the cosmos. This kind of exploration will ultimately bring ever more insights into our vast universe.
Sweeping the entire sky with giant radio telescopes for signs of extraterrestrial life is becoming intense. The collaboration between VLA (New Mexico’s Very Large Array) and the Seti Institute which is funded by a senior Apple executive, John Giannandrea, will be using a dedicated supercomputer to cover any imaginable signals from Milky Way’s distant technologists. The Director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (which also runs the VLA), is Tony Beasley who stated: ”Determining whether we are alone in the universe as technologically capable life is among the most compelling questions in science.”5
If we did receive some signals, besides saying “Hello!” or “SOS” there is little agreement about how we should respond to other Milky-Way “beings.” There is even disagreement whether such contact would be with “aliens” or with possible friends. Unless we ultimately do make contact, nothing of what has happened on our planet will remain. Indeed, over the next few billions of years, nothing will be left of the Moon, Venus, all the planets and the Sun itself. Astrophysics tells us that our Sun is gradually burning itself out and may ultimately explode to close its existence like most other stars.
Which is truly a reason to ask whether any of our concerns about the history or the after life of our planet are of consequence? It would appear that the future of our entire galaxy with all its billions of stars is also doomed. Speculation is that the giant “Black Hole” in the midst of the Milky Way might swallow most of the surrounding stars. There are also cosmologists who speculate that all of the galaxies will gradually disappear as they come together in one gigantic black hole. Then there are astronomers who believe all the galaxies are moving further apart …forever?
Whatever happens and how it happens is now irrelevant for those astounding scientists like Francis Crick, who have speculated in depth on possible ways to preserve our historical significance. The amazing evolution from our microscopic DNA origins billions of years ago to becoming the conquerors and destroyers of this planet is truly fantastic, but as far as we can tell ultimately our short existence will have been totally insignificant. FULL STOP!
1“Inside the mind of Dominic Cummings,” Stefan Olini, The Guardian, February 6, 2020
2Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (1981)
4Clarke, Madigan, and Melo, Our Place in the Universe, Bluesci Issue 47, Lent 2020, p.15
5Hannah Devlin, “Is anybody out there?” The Guardian, February 15, 2020