Recent Address


JOURNEY INTO SPACE - ARE WE ALONE?

I wonder if anyone else remembers the iconic radio programme 'Journey into Space'? It was written and produced by Charles Chilton, and ran on the BBC Light Programme between 1953 and 1958. I can still recall the haunting music that introduced it. Apparently it was the last UK radio programme to attract a bigger evening audience than television. This programme was probably my first introduction to the concept of space, an interest that has remained with me off and on ever since. In our reading earlier we heard about Enrico Fermi's tantalising question 'where is everybody?' Our sun is one star amongst 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is one amongst many billions of galaxies in the observable universe. We now know that many other stars have planetary systems orbiting around them, so unless our earth is truly unique you might conclude that life in some form should be found elsewhere in the vast universe. Enrico Fermi's answer to his own question was that the distances required for interstellar travel are so great and the theory of relativity's restriction that nothing can exceed the speed of light means that no aliens would undertake the long journey involved. Jim Al-Khalili comments that we should be able to detect the existence of technologically advanced alien civilisations even if they never leave their own planet. For the last hundred years, ever since we invented radio and television, not to mention the recent proliferation of satellites and mobile phone communication, we have been sending our electromagnetic chatter into space. Any advanced enough aliens that are relatively close to us" and this he now estimates to be within a hundred light years of Earth" would be able to pick up the faint signals betraying our presence. I will return to this topic later in my address.

Space exploration is indeed very expensive, and there are no doubt many who say that the money could be better spent in our own world. After all we probably know more about the surface of the moon or of Mars now than we do about the depths of of the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless mankind has always been fascinated by the heavens, and it is likely that Stonehenge was built at least partly for astronomical reasons. Professor Brian Cox suggested in our opening words that human beings are virtually defined by their ability to ask questions. If it wasn't for the courage of astronomers such as Copernicus and Galileo" often facing the wrath of the church - we might still believe that the earth was at the centre of the universe and everything revolved around us. You may be familiar with the photograph known as 'Earthrise' taken in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission. This shows part of the moon's surface and a rising blue earth, and it has been called the most influential environmental photograph ever taken. Many astronauts have spoken of the effect on them of seeing the earth from space, and how beautiful it appears. With regard to the usefulness of space exploration, I was interested to see a report recently that the oil company BP is to use technology from NASA's Mars rover to improve how it drills for oil, and expects to have unmanned production platforms within a decade.

When I first prepared a version of this service for our Hinckley chapel about 18 months ago, there had just been a solar eclipse in America. Eclipses aren't all that rare around the world, but they still seem to have a real effect on human consciousness. You can imagine that primitive peoples really thought the end of the world was nigh. One observer of the American eclipse at Hopkinsville in Southern Kentucky is reported as saying: bit's in the book of Revelation that stars fall out of the sky and the sun is blotted out and the moon becomes blood. How can it not be some kind of spiritual thing, no matter what choir you sing from, I wonder if the 1999 total eclipse in parts of Britain was seen in similar religious terms? I suspect not for the most part, though it's worth recalling that the American writer and novelist John Updike has said that 'astronomy is what we have now instead of theology'. There's probably quite a lot in that observation. It intrigues me that discoveries in space still cause a lot of interest and indeed excitement. Just three weeks ago the front pages of our newspapers were full of the first image ever seen of a Black Hole, or rather of the area around it glowing red and yellow, and looking rather ominous. One awed scientist said: 'It's like looking at the gates of hell at the end of space and time. Certainly if a Black Hole came anywhere near us we wouldn't need to worry about Brexit any more. And on Thursday this week it was reported that the latest spacecraft lander on Mars had detected seismic activity there, a Mars quake.

There are many reasons put forward for space exploration, some practical and some philosophical. .Professor Stephen Hawking, who knew a thing or two about black holes and similar phenomena, believed that we must continue with space exploration for the 'future of humanity'. He is reported as saying: 'I don't think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our natural planet.' I'm not sure whether he was saying this because of concern about population growth around the world, or the environmental problems that we are causing to our planet, or that we will run out of fuel sources, or possibly all of these. As we know, the idea of colonising Mars has been part of human imagination for many decades, and in recent years there has been a lot of activity in sending unmanned craft to the red planet. Some of these attempts such as Beagle 2 have failed but others have been successful and the Mars Curiosity Rover is still active on the surface of the planet, several years after its launch in 2011. NASA is currently working on its Orion spacecraft with a manned mission to Mars earmarked for launch in 2032. One hopes that the international community will be persuaded to work together on these initiatives as they are so expensive. Personally I would like to see us go back to the moon and develop that as a possible launchpad into deeper space, not least because gravity is so much less there, requiring less fuel for launching craft from there. Just recently the Chinese have sent a probe to the far side of the moon. It's difficult to believe that the last landing on the moon was almost forty-seven years ago, in December 1972, and perhaps it's not surprising that some people now question whether that actually happened.

Will we find life beyond our planet? The answer is of course that we don't know. As I indicated at the start of this address the universe is so vast with so many billions of galaxies, stars and planets that I find it difficult to believe that the conditions haven't been right for life to develop elsewhere. Enrico Fermi suggested that the distances in space are so great that that is why we have not had contact from other possible life-forms. But recently another, rather depressing reason has been suggested. What if civilisations are almost programmed not to survive beyond a certain point? When you think how much scientific and technological progress has been made on Earth in the last two hundred years, where will technology be in, say, a thousand years? We may have run out of resources for living or, heaven forbid, we may have blown ourselves to pieces. After all, the state of the world is not exactly easy today. Another possibility, equally unwelcome, is that in technological civilisations the robots eventually take over. It is interesting that in recent years a number of scientists, including Stephen Hawking , have expressed concerns about the way that artificial intelligence could develop in the future. In 2017 it was reported that Facebook had shut down an experiment after two robots began talking in an unknown language which only they understood. Let us hope these warnings are heeded.

In February this year an astronomer from St Andrews University suggested that it might not be such a good idea for us to be sending electronic transmissions into space, trying to see whether there was 'anything out there'. As he put it rather dramatically, these radio signals could demonstrate to aliens that the Earth is a good place to find lunch. Rather to my surprise, The Times newspaper then ran an editorial, saying that it might be best for us to keep quiet, since we don't know what we might find. I think this is probably now a bit late, as we have been broadcasting radio signals out into the ether for decades. On the other side of the argument, one wit has said that there might be aliens out there who are eagerly looking forward to the next broadcast of the Archers omnibus on a Sunday morning. I will conclude with some words of Professor Brian Cox, who I think has done a brilliant job in recent years in helping to explain astronomy and physics to us ordinary mortals. He has said: At the end of my live shows when I talk about how insignificant we are physically, I also point out how rare we might be, that we could be the only people alive in our galaxy. If that's the case, we are valuable. We are part of the greatest of all mysteries, the mystery of life.

27 April 2019