DS: This DSI
sojourn is with one of todayís leading voices in astronomy, Chris Impey,
author of The Living Cosmos, and,
most recently, How It Ends, a
book I recently reviewed.
While we will discuss Impeyís life, career, and earlier works, this interview
will focus most on this latest book, its ideas and implications. His website is http://www.chrisimpey.com/.
Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, and while I have a plethora of topics to
query you on, I always allow my interviewees to introduce themselves to
potential readers who have not heard of their work, so could you please distill
who you are, what you do, what your aims in your career are, and your general
philosophy, if you will, on life, science, and the cosmos, and why someone who
knows nothing of you would find this interview interesting enough to read?
CI: I was born in Scotland and had a variety of interests growing up before the science bug bit me in high school. At college in London I studied physics and was drawn to the enigmas of the very small and the very large. I tried an internship at CERN and enjoyed it, but saw the way the field of high energy physics was headed towards large, impersonal collaborations. Astronomy still had the romantic ideal of the solo researcher, gathering data to test a hypothesis. Even as the groups and collaborations have grown, there are still moments of solitude and tranquility in the dead of night at a telescope.
After graduate school in my home town Edinburgh and postdocs at the University of Hawaii and Caltech, I settled down to a faculty job at the University of Arizona, where Iíve been for 26 years. My research focuses on the growth and evolution of massive black holes in the center of galaxies, and how they are fuelled and grow relative to the galaxy theyíre embedded in. Iím an observer. I also love teaching and work hard to use the latest methods to engage students in the classroom. Iím down to less than half lectures and try to get students working in groups, even in classes of several hundred. I wrote a couple of astronomy textbook with the planetary scientist Bill Hartmann, but tired of the grind of textbooks and dealing with the lousy economic model of textbook publishing. Five years ago I started writing popular books and have three out and three more on the way, so it has become a major part of my career. I still find it slightly amazing that I get paid to figure out how the universe works.
DS: Let me start with the basics. Most young boys have a love of big things: dinosaurs, skyscrapers, the night sky. As a child I visited the Hayden Planetarium at least once a year, on school trips, but having left New York City in 1991, I have not been back since. In my youth, the space race was all the rage, and it seemed likely that the visions of tv shows like Space: 1999, which envisioned moonbases, or Stanley Kubrickís film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which would see voyages to Jupiter, were feasible. I realize this is not your particular area, but could you opine on why NASAís mission has been so gutted? Is it their fault alone, or the general intellectual laziness of the masses in recent decades? Or, is that the end of the space race and Cold War was the death knell for manned space exploration? Is it lack of will, vision, funds? Or are Americans just narcotized by easy pleasures? And, do you think that the Neil Armstrong moon landing was decades ahead of its time?
Apollo was an anomaly in several ways. NASAís budget in the late 60ís
was far higher than it was before or ever has been since. The Cold War sparked a
race to the Moon and we benefited with lots of technological advancement beyond
the space program. NASA lost much of its best talent in the 70ís to Silicon
Valley and elsewhere and the vision wandered and suffered, I agree. Now,
governments are caretakers of the space program, in my opinion, until the
private sector takes over and dominates. This happened with computers and the
Internet, and it will happen with space. And it will be good for the
visionaries. Even if we have to deal with advertising and zero-g sex motels the
benefits for science and exploration in the end will be enormous.
DS: Let me
posit this: ĎKnowledge for all should
never take a backseat to the problems of the few.í Do you agree
with that sentiment? If so, how do you reckon the fact that itís been nearly
four decades since a man walked on the moon? The space program, which alighted
the minds and hearts of young boys like me, is a hulk of its former self. It
angers me that there is always an excuse. In lean times itís Ďwe canít
afford it whenÖ.í And in phat times itís Ďthatís just pork,í or some
such. Iím all for feeding the poor, and vaccinating babies, and this and that,
but I see it as a false dichotomy. Again, ĎKnowledge
for all should never take a backseat to the problems of the few.í Your
Humans are curious animals, built to explore the next valley or cross
that body of water. Space is an outward projection of our innate desire to
explore. I take the long view and think our current malaise is a bump in the
road. Iím confident we will be back in space to stay, but it may be twenty or
thirty years before we get traction and momentum.
DS: I mentioned
the intellectual laziness of recent decades- especially in the arts and
sciences. Yet, what do you feel the effects of the Internet have been on kids? I
feel that kids are certainly vastly more well informed, but they lack the skills
to think for themselves. Homogenization of thought is part of the culture. In
other words, kids are more knowledgeable than their counterparts 30 or 80 years
ago, but far less wise. Do you feel that youngsters, these days, often get a bum
rap, with all the negative nonsense spewed about the eternal education
Iíve taught college freshmen for 25 years and they mark time while I
get older, but it does let me compare. Factoring out any tendency for me to get
cranky as I get older, I donít see any fundamental difference in 18-year-olds
in the mid-80ís and now. They are just as full of promise and potential and
hormones and poor judgment as ever. The web is a tool that has benefited
everyone in society, a democratizing influence, and although itís fashionable
to say that kids today multitask so much they canít write properly or string a
coherent argument together, I think any effect is subtle. The education crisis,
if there is one, is the crappy treatment of teaching as a profession, the lack
of proper reward and accountability for teachers, and the shortening of the
school year compared to all other countries.
DS: As a
corollary, we always hear in the media how dumb American kids are, yet on
science subjects, I think the Internet- vast wasteland of pornography, Nigerian
scams, Viagra ads, and MySpace, actually makes kids vastly more scientifically
literate, even if there are specious sources of information like Wikipedia
online. Do you agree? If so, why is there such apathy toward NASA and space
CI: Kids are savvy but not wise, informed but not engaged. Science is attractive to them if its well-taught or appealingly presented. Science literacy as measured by the NSF has not changed much for 25 years and has slightly increased in the last decade.
DS: On to your
writings, but not their content; letís first deal with style.
Weíll have plenty of content later. Do you see writing as simply a tool
to convey your ideas, or do you approach it as an art form? Before Stephen Jay
Gould, probably the best known science essayist was Loren
Eiseley. Have you read him? What amazes me is not only his great poetry in
prose writings, but how, even if the science he speaks of has grown outdated, he
has an ability to tie things back into the personal makes for such compelling
reading. Gould used digressions. What is your favorite and/or best strategy for
hooking a reader into whatever topic you are discussing? To me it seems humor is
CI: Iíve read Eiseley, and admire him. I read Gould, and always learned a lot but found the smugness hard to take at times. Sagan was an excellent writer, poetic at his best. I have used humor, as you say, to leaven the abstract topics I write about. I prefer the dry and ironic form of humor popular in my homeland; irony is of course a rare commodity in the modern world, which is a shame. Occasionally I veer into being a little too glib or flip but I consider my sense of humor as a writer to be a strength.
DS: Let me delve
into some of your personal life. Where were you born and when? Any siblings? Did
any of them go into science?
CI: I was born in Edinburgh in 1956, but lived there only a few year before my fatherís job took him and us to London and then to New York. I have two half-brothers ten and eleven years younger than me. Oneís a fireman and the other works in construction. Iím the only scientist in my proximate family. I spent half my childhood in the UK and half in the US so am bimodal in my loyalties, liking both countries equally.
DS: What of your
parents? What were their professions?
CI: My father was an electrical engineer and later a management consultant for the aerospace industry. My mother had various small businesses revolving around cooking.
DS: Did your
parents encourage your pursuit of science? Often you hear of parents chiding
such Ďhighí dreams as unrealistic? Did they want you to Ďbe reasonable,í
and get a job where you could Ďmake moneyí?
My parents never projected any particular aspirations onto me, in terms
of specific career, but were always encouraging me in school and supporting my
choices. That is really the ideal and the best you could ask for. Once they knew
astronomy was a passion they encouraged me to give it a shot.
DS: What was
your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other children?
Were you a young nerd? Were you smarter than average? The classic bored gifted
CI: I was operationally an only child, since my brothers came along so much later. I did like to read and was shy, but not a class nerd. In fact, I was into art, writing and history for a long time so didnít hang out with science kids much in school. I never thought myself gifted in any way. But I knew I was smart, and knew instinctively that smartness was not enough, I had to work really hard to get what I wanted in life. There were plenty of lessons alongside me in school of smart kids who squandered their talent or not so talented kids who really excelled.
What were some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or
people who graced your existence with those ĎI
remember exactly where I wasí
moments? When did you gain a fascination for things astronomic?
Growing up in two countries, those memories are split. A sampling.
Remembering seeing JFK in a motorcade out of the 2nd floor window of
our brownstone in New York, two months before he was shot. Driving with my dad
on holiday in southern England during a gloriously hot (and un-English) summer
and hearing the Stoneís Satisfaction just after it came out, and
thinking it blew all other music away. As a young teen getting to meet Muhammad
Ali in his prime on a photo shoot. Watching Neil Armstrong step on the Moon with
my parents on a grainy black and white TV. Trekking to Everest Base Camp as a
grad student and being blown away by the vastness of the landscape. I didnít
have any astronomical ďahaĒ moments until I was a grad student and first saw
a dark sky in Chile. That was literally breathtaking.
quite an assortment of touchstones. Perhaps, in the near future, you should
ponder a memoir, with a titles such as An Astronomer Reflects On (His)
Life On Earth. What sort of books did you read, as a child? I read
science books, by and large, as well as atlases. The How, Why And Wonder
Books, bios of scientists, skyscrapers, airplanes, dinosaur books, books
on astronomy. To this day, one of my favorite reads is a little known University
of Chicago book, from 1988, called Cauldrons In The Cosmos, Nuclear
Astrophysics, by Claus E. Rolfs and William S. Rodney. Itís a book
thatís not too techy, not too dumbed down, but very well written. Name some of
your favorite science books, as well as those you think among the best ever
I read classic SF, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, and I also read
Asimovís science books. I loved Jules Feifferís The Phantom Tollbooth
for its whimsical take on numbers and words. Baumís Oz series. A Stitch in
Time. The most influential of all was The Ascent Of Man by Jacob
Bronowski, which I read as a teenager. He was a brilliant polymath who wove
science and art and history together into a seamless cloth.
Bronowskiís book and television series were among the earliest things that
fostered my love of science. What about stars and space moved you more than say,
digging up bones in the desert?
The idea that I could grasp ancient light and be a time traveller,
looking back to the early days of the universe, was compelling. I live in the
desert and enjoy rocks and had times as a kid when I was a fossil hound. But the
lure of ďupĒ was stronger.
DS: A friend of
mine has told me that Iím Ďtoo normalí in comparison to what others think
of as an artist- i.e.- someone with tattoos, Leftist beliefs, body piercings,
New Age beliefs. Similar stereotypes abound for scientists. Are you Ďtoo
normalí for a typical scientist? Or, have you always been willing to go out on
a limb, intellectually?
CI: I have one tattoo and one ear pierced so maybe Iím hedging my bets. Normal is a non-normative word; I donít know anyone who is normal when you get to know them. But you are right that the inside is what counts, daring in terms of ideas and concepts. I try to push the envelope but recognize that we all have a safe zone we like to inhabit. It takes a catalyst or an external change or a lot of self-awareness to take intellectual risks.
DS: Has your
career arc been what youíd have hoped it would be, in terms of achievements?
If not, what are the things you are zeroing in on now?
Iím having a good career so far and itís not over by far. Being a
professor is more than I might have hoped for early on; now I see its pluses and
minuses. Iíd like more time to write and be adventurous with media and web
ideas Iíve had. But Iím not ready to quit my day job just yet.
DS: In a similar
vein, I have to ask if your love of Ďout thereí was evidence
of a loneliness Ďdown hereí? Often artists and scientists use
their work to escape awkward social lives. Is any of this cogent to your growing
I have had solitary times in my life, growing up and as an adult. But
Iíve always found my own internal resource to be strong and sustaining. I
donít have a lot of friends but most of them Iíve kept for 20-30 years,
including some in the UK and Europe. Good friends should be rare; that level of
friendship connotes deep sharing and commonality.
To get more personal, are you married? If so, is your wife in the sciences? Do
you have any children? If so, are they similarly scientifically inclined? Would
you encourage them to pursue a career in the sciences?
I was married for 20 years, am now divorced, and have been in a great
relationship for two years. My two children are grown, both went to my
university, and neither are doing science, which is fine with me. As my parents
did for me, Iíll encourage them in whatever direction they want to take. My 23
year old is a musician and my 19 year old wants to be a teacher.
Are there any philosophic foes or enemies you have in science? I ask this
because when I interviewed the philosopher Daniel
Dennett I was taken aback by the amount of vitriol he still held for the
aforementioned Stephen Jay Gould, as they were opponents in some evolutionary
quarrels. Have you a scientific bÍte noir, and if so, who, why, and what is the
substance of your disagreement?
Astronomy is quite a convivial profession. Iíve encountered rivalries
and ďwarsĒ but they are almost artificial, to the extent that I suspect the
parties involved keep the volume pumped up to get attention or because it just
feels good. Science battles bemuse me, since the universe doesnít care what we
think or believe, so this must always be about egos not science. I have no
enemies, that I know of (an important caveatÖ). I think most enmity in the
sciences stems from insecurity not from any substantive disagreement.
To what extent has politics affected your career? I.e.- have you ever been
dependent upon government granting in pursuit of your work? Many scientists
claimed the Bush administration, especially, had been hard on the sciences. The
Obama administration, though, has reversed many of those anti-science policies.
Any horror tales, because astrobiology, if funded by the government, would seem
to be an easy target to call Ďporkí?
Iíve been funded by the NSF and NASA continuously for 25
years and itís not getting any easier. Peer review by those agencies is
admirably free of politics or overt agendas. In the larger arena, I, like many
of my colleagues, found a certain anti-scientific way of thinking common in
members of the previous administration. As for pork, they havenít got rid of
earmarks so always look there first. But peer review in competitions that are 5
or 6 to 1 over-subscribed is brutal; very few weak or silly ideas get funded.
How about the other end of the spectrum; has Left Wing Political Correctness
affected your branch of science? Often in fields such as sex research, cloning,
stem cells, etc. politics plays a huge role, but Iíd imagine that it is not so
big a deal in your field. Is this correct?
Astronomy is either above the fray or below the radar; maybe both.
Politics seems not to be prevalent in making the big decisions on resources,
with the exception of which state gets the facility or the new research center.
What are your political views? Are you registered with any party, or an
Independent? How does your science background affect your political decisions,
if at all? Do you look to a candidateís opinions on conservation, global
warming, etc., when voting? If so, do you think that most scientists share your
concerns? And do you think the general electorate does? If not, why not?
CI: I am unaffiliated politically. Depending on the topic I may or may not adhere to one of the major parties views. I look for rational thought in a legislator, and a willingness to admit error or change views according to evidence (as all scientists must). Science issues donít weight heavily for most people; surveys show that itís the economy first, second, and sometimes even third.
alone query: would you agree that the scientific method is manís
greatest invention? Why or why not?
CI: Yes. Itís the net that can catch a thousand fish.
DS: A few years
back you published The Living Cosmos. That book was the first
sense of your ideas on life in the cosmos, as well as a display of your more
humorous, anecdotal style, which stands in contrast to, say, the learned
didactic model of Gould, the scornful imperiousness of a Richard Dawkins, or the
pervasive sort of secular ecumenism of a Carl Sagan. Briefly, give a prťcis on
what that book was about, because your latest bookís focus seems to be a
counterpoint, in taking on death. Also, in the years since the publication of The
Living Cosmos, is there anything in the text that youíd change, either
for a change of opinion or because the latest science has outdated a claim you
CI: I have got to update The Living Cosmos, not in the way I would have most liked, with the announcement of life beyond Earth being discovered, but with a lot of new stuff on exoplanets. Cambridge University Press bought the rights from Random House and it came out just this summer. That book was a state-of-the-art snapshot of astrobiology in the broadest sense. So not just the search for life in the Solar System and beyond, but the research or extremophiles and the origin of life, the status of SETI, and a cosmological sense of how probable life is in space and time.
DS: Before I hit
the meat of your latest book, How It Ends, let me digress, a
moment or two, and touch on a recent controversy, from this past decade. Famed
astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson- a man whom I hope to one day interview, and
generally respected as the heir apparent to Carl Sagan (in terms of interpreting
things cosmic to the masses), made what will be seen as one of the great
scientific gaffes of this century, when he led the anti-scientific and dogmatic
charge against Plutoís planethood, labeling it, instead, a dwarf planet!
I see the demoting of Pluto as an example of poor ad hoc reasoning
and specious semiotics. If a dwarf tree is still a tree, and a dwarf kangaroo is
still a kangaroo, and- of course, human dwarves are still humans, then logically
a dwarf planet has to still beÖ.(drum roll, cymbal crash) a planet!
No? Yet, the 2006 International Astronomical Union agreed with Tyson. Agree or
I could duck it by saying Iím not a planetary scientist, but I do have
an opinion. Rocks get formed and grow and smash to reach all different sizes, so
any size boundary is essentially artificial and arbitrary in a continuous
distribution. Thatís the main point. If Pluto is a planet, then so are one and
maybe as many as five other outer Solar System bodies. Fine. If Pluto is not a
planet, its only failing in the three-part definition is that it does not clear
out its ďzone.Ē The whole issue is a kluge and a muddle.
DS: While there
is at least a reason, in archaeology, for the great and apt term Brontosaurus
(thunder lizard) to have been displaced by the wan and inapt Apatosaurus
(deceptive lizard- a name even Stephen Jay Gould decried as an
example of science missing the boat)- and that is historical scientific priority
based upon an error that went unchecked for decades (even if scientific priority
favors ego over aptness), there is no such compelling reason for Plutoís
demotion. The arguments seem to be that, as a member of the Kuiper Belt, Pluto
is mostly ice, not rock. But, the gas planets are gas, and Saturn may not even
have a solid surface. Then thereís its eccentric orbit, the fact that it major
moon- Charon, may form a true double planet system (i.e.- the duoís
gravitational center lies outside of both objectsí masses), and that another,
farther planet (or dwarf planet), Eris, is even larger. Yet, by
the drawn up terminology, Pluto orbits its star, and is rounded into a sphere by
its own gravity. It Ďfailsí solely due to a rather odd third condition:
clearing out its path of other objects. Yet, that seems a bit specious. If there
was another object in its direct orbit, the definition would seem valid. Yet,
Mars is technically in the asteroid belt (with two captured asteroids as moons)
and it is a planet. This seems to me to be yet another example of little more
than scientism, rather than science. Other examples would be the claim for brown
dwarfs as neither planets nor stars (after all, just when would Jupiter become a
brown dwarf?), and the endless claims for dark matter- sans any real evidence on
a physical scale.
Yet aside from the biases within, what would one call an ice object the
size of Venus if discovered out in the Kuiper Belt? After all, it would be
larger than Mars or Mercury. How about a planet roving interstellar space-
especially one unattached to any star system? And what of Charon? If it is truly
part of a double planet system, and not technically a moon of Pluto, then why
are Ceres, Pluto and Eris the only claimed dwarf planets? Most of all, are not dwarf
planets, as I stated earlier, still planets? And, while
there may be planets or dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt, how about the Oort
Cloud- any planets likely lurking out there?
CI: My answer will definitely be shorter than the question, given my lack of special expertise in this area. Extragalactic astronomy is thankfully mostly free of these kinds of sematic and definitional issues. I care more about the architecture of other solar systems, which will be so different as to reset our whole mode of definitions in this one.
DS: How about Nemesis?
There has been this belief, for centuries, that there is a small companion- here
we go again, dwarf star dubbed Nemesis, that has an even more eccentric orbit,
and spends tens of thousands, if not millions) of years out in the Oort cloud.
Do you buy it? After all, it has been posited that the close passage of Nemesis
is responsible for periodic extinctions on earth due to comet or meteor impacts
that the gravity of Nemesis stirs up. Or is Nemesis doomed to go the way of Vulcan,
the nonexistent infraMercurial planet, and Clyde Tombaughís Planet X?
CI: On this issue, the lack of evidence for either a periodic signature in extinctions or impacts, and the lack of evidence for a large enough body to fit the bill, are becoming compelling. So I donít buy the Nemesis or Vulcan or Planet X claims, if we are talking about something larger than Mercury.
DS: Ok, now on
to specifics in How It Ends. You write, on page 38: Ďif
God can reassemble the atoms that comprised Socrates at the moment of his death
in 399 BC, He can also assemble the atoms that comprised Socrates when he was
much younger, in 440 BC. In fact, because thereís no overlap in the sets of
atoms, he could assemble both side by side.í
The section this is in is from The Materialist Quandary.
In an interview I did with philosopher
Mark Rowlands, he noted a concept he calls the
river of selves, which he explained as,
ĎAccording to the river of
selves idea Ė an idea associated with Parfit Ė there is no single person
that inhabits our body through our lives. Instead, each one of us is a
succession of people, each person a survivor of the one who went before. It is a
strange idea, but one for which good reasons can be given. So, even when we are,
as we might say, a Ďshellí of our former selves, we still exist as a person,
and that person, if not identical with our former self, is still a survivor of
that self. So you, for example, are a survivor of your twenty-year old self, and
a much closer survivor of the you that existed yesterday. We have to distinguish
the issue of survival, on the one hand, from the issue of the health of the
survivor on the other. It is only in some circumstances that their health
becomes so bad that the issue of survival is brought into question (this goes
back to the distinction between accidental and essential changes we encountered
All of these selves are, if Parfit is correct, distinct. Therefore, the question of which is more essential to you becomes moot Ė there is no persisting you in relation to which the question can even be raised.í There seems to be some overlap here. Rowlandsí view refers more specifically to an almost moment to moment change of self- the mind (be it illusion or real) whereas yours is literally an atomic level differences, and, given the change in cellular replacement throughout the body, which Iíve read occurs, in differing people, at anywhere from 4-8 year intervals, any Ďperson,í such as Socrates, would be wholly different, physically, at any given periods greater than this turnover ratioís periodicity. Yet, the two Socrateses, in your example, would share similar (if not exact- due to aging and memory degradation) memories up to the earlier versionís existence, so are they the same person or not? And why is this important?
Except for some particularly stubborn and long-lived cells in the lining
of the gut, we are not the same people we were when we were born. The
continuation of the sense of ďIĒ and consciousness while the atoms flow
through us like a river is a deep philosophical puzzle. The catch is that the
God-like power I referred to in the book does not exist, so itís an entirely
hypothetical, and so philosophical, argument. Identical twins are clearly
distinct and even cloned humans would be distinguishable, so strong is the
influence of environment. So the odd issue only arises for atom by atom
reconstructions Ė Star Trek style. Rowlandsí idea is a little
different: that the self does evolve but has continuity, and I agree with that.
DS: I ended my
review of your book this way: ĎThe book ends with a rephrase of the old
saw of life being the journey not the destination. Iíd add, though, that,
despite physical endings, and the possibility of immortality for sentient
individuals or races, mere existence IS
immortality. To have been is always to be, at least in spacetime. Or, more
poetically, the scratch left by a life is more important than the scratcher (or
his intent). Thus posited, this portion of Impeyís claws have scratched well,
if not drawn blood.í Your Socrates example seems to lead to my
conclusion- i.e.- letís say someone invents a time machine (not outlawed by
currently known physics) and, indeed, does return to 399 and 440 BC and does
track down the older and younger Socrateses. Well, given we are accurate in our
time jumping abilities and physically arrive wherever he is located at the time,
there is no way we could never NOT encounter Socrates. He will always be in
those times. He can not NOT be there. Thus, it seems to me that what may be a
materialist quandary on the level of what constitutes Ďthe self,í is, in
fact, not only a boon, but virtually a guarantee of materialism forever
imparting immortality in the spacetime continuum, for between every objectís
dates of creation and destruction (even if by Ďobjectí we only refer to a
continuing pattern of atoms) that object will ALWAYS be immutably extant. Have I
mis-extrapolated? Why or why not?
CI: I think you are correct in principle, and you might be in practice if we could venture inside the event horizon of a spinning black hole. If general relativity is correct, there are time-like curves where you could travel and meet former and future versions of yourself,
Or anyone else with the misfortune to be there (or then).
DS: You mention
James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, the two most well known champions of the Gaia
Theory, and comment on their differing worldviews (his is pessimism whereas hers
is optimism). What is your take on it?
CI: Lovelock is a cheerful curmudgeon. He knows that we are ill-suited to making the tough long-term decisions needed to avoid climate mayhem, so he is suitably dour. Margulis is a biologist, and loves life, literally and metaphorically. So sheís upbeat.
DS: You contrast
them with the more dour assessments of geologists Dougal Dixon and Peter
Ward. When I reviewed Wardís The
Life And Death Of Planet Earth and his Life
As We Do Not Know It, both de facto sequels to Rare Earth,
the book of his you mention within your text, I found his pessimism, mostly
based on the sunís increasing brightness, based upon the Fallacy of
Uninterrupted Trends. If Gaia, as example, proves correct, then life,
while it would eventually succumb to an expanding red giant sun, will likely
persist well beyond the billion or so years Ward gives it, at the outside. I was
also put off by Wardís tendency to try to diminish othersí accomplishments
for the sake of his own ego, such as his attempts to redo the current
classification system of terrestrial life. Are you closer to Lovelock or Ward in
a vision of earthly lifeís future?
CI: The astronomical trend of solar brightening is unavoidable. But Earthís climate has had violent swings over millennia going back through 5 million years of ice core and loess records, and some of that is geological-astronomical interaction. The man-made part is of course under our control if we wish. I prefer to be an optimist, which the act of continuing to live and make plans for the future implies.
DS: In short, Wardís very pessimistic about life in the cosmos; even life on earth. He uses the old canard about the chance of intelligent life ever arising again being minute. Yet, he seems to have no concept of contingency, nor how history works. In fact, ANY specific event, millions or billions of years hence is highly unlikely, but not any general event. But, that something will occur is inevitable. Many paleontologists think dinosaurs were headed toward higher intelligence (albeit with still millions of years to go) when the K-T Impactor hit. There were several species with large brains, binocular vision, manipulative hands, and possibly endothermy. In short, such pessimists are very selective (as are some optimists) in their look at facts. Are you an optimist, pessimist, or realist, in this regard?
CI: SETI people divide into optimists and pessimists too, and I prefer to avoid the dichotomy. With a sample of one we are not doing science yet (recall Manís greatest invention earlierÖ). But I think it unlikely that a billion habitable worlds in the Milky Way alone are all sterile.
DS: You later
write of Panspermia. Your thoughts on it seem to be that it might work within a
solar system, but not galactically, nor across galaxies? Why?
CI: Jay Melosh, until recently a colleague at the UA, did the calculations. The odds of a single rock making it from our Solar System to a planet in a nearby solar system in the age of the universe are much less than one. Case pretty much closed.
DS: On page 163
you write: Ďitís common for the ideas of scarceness and
specialness to be conflated.í I agree, and this is the bane of
Political Correctness, with the substitution of the word unique
for scarceness; because while all people are unique to the 100th
percent, most people are frustratingly similar to the 98th or 99th
percent. Your claim related to the Anthropic Principle. Let me take off from
that, I believe, ill-founded claim. First, can you briefly explain the Anthropic
CI: At one level, itís a truism Ė we can only observe a universe with properties such that we could exist. At a deeper level it says that fine-tuning in physics means that this is a truly special universe, with conditions that would lead to life or us built in from day one.
DS: To me, the
Anthropic Principle is sort of a corollary to The God Of The Gaps
sort of reasoning, albeit it is more inward centered. Nonetheless, both are
examples of poor logic. To me, one of the best examples of logical thought,
Occamís Razor, which basically states, ĎThe simplest answer that best
fits the known facts is likely the correct answer,í should be a tool
more wielded in scientific exploration. Why does it seem to not be often applied
CI: Yes, the Anthropic Principle is based on faulty logic and is not predictive. Occamís Razor has been useful in practice but canít be considered a law of nature since we have no theoretical edifice to explain it. String theory is fundamental but surely not simple.
DS: Let me hit
into a very non-Occam thing: dark matter. Science often comes up with ad
hoc solutions to things not fully understood yet. Dark matter is the
current king of this trend, although string theory and superstrings were hot a
decade or so ago. While I am not an expert on physics, I am an expert with
words, and reading between the lines, and in doing so, it seems to me that much
of what is accepted these days is on thin ice. No, Iím not advocating
Intelligent Design, nor anything like that. What I mean is that the seeming
excess measured gravity about galaxies, which has led to the idea of dark
matter, has also been posited as being caused by the unseen presence of other
cosmos next to ours. Some call this the multiverse theory. I prefer a term like omniverse,
for multiverse implies universes quite like ours whereas omniverse invites
differing forms of cosmoses. But, whatever the term is, is not this growing
evidence going to invalidate the Big Bang, sooner or later, and reduce the
cosmic background radiation detected as stemming from a mere (lower case) big
CI: I agree that dark matter as a premise puts cosmologists in a precarious position, postulating something difficult to detect to save a theory (Newtonís gravity) thatís hard to test on galactic scales. Iím not sure it connects to the multiverse since the multiverse is so schematic a theory as not to predict dark matter properties the way supersymmetry theory does in physics.
DS: What are
your views on alternative cosmogonies, such as the Plasma Theory or Terence
Wittís Null Physics?
CI: Iím not familiar with either. Pushing the conventional big bang to the limit is still a fruitful and exciting endeavor, so Iím not high on alternative cosmologies right now.
DS: If so, that
there are other universes, then the question of our universeís origin is sort
of mooted, as it is reduced to a domain of a larger thing. It also implies that
there is, as geologist James Hutton famously stated, Ďno vestige of a
beginning, no prospect of an end,í even if individual universes may
come and go. No?
Yes, the multiverse turns the big
bang into a meta-beginning and our universeís demise into a meta-ending. No
tears need to be shed.
DS: What are
your specific thoughts on the Big Bang? Is it doomed to be supplanted by a
better theory? And what of the Cosmological Constant? Einsteinís Ďgreatest
errorí seems to be true- if current models hold, and an icy death is
forecast for the universe, under current theory.
Big bang cosmology is in rude health. The enigma of dark matter will
probably be unraveled in a physics experiment down a mine somewhere in the next
few years. Dark energy is a bigger problem, and might yet bring the whole
edifice tumbling down. But thatís what makes cosmology fun.
DS: To return to the omniverse posit, while this may not be Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence, it again removes a sort of hubris from us- especially from those who feel that the Anthropic Principle (Weak or Strong) is at play. I.e.- if there are any number of possible universes, then even if an infinitesimal fraction are life-suitable, an infinite number of universes will have life; therefore, the Anthropic Principle, as well as the Big Bang, become tautologies. Do you agree?
CI: Yes, but there is a lot of loose talk about infinities in cosmology, and mathematicians would take them to task for it. No sensible physical theory can be based on infinite space and/or time (as Newton was aware even as he proposed them), so the tautology is moot.
point on the mootness. You also mention the Drake Equation. For those not in the
know, what is it?
CI: The Drake equation is a series of numerical factors that combine to give an estimate of the number of currently communicable intelligent civilizations in the galaxy. The first factors are astronomical and measurable or measured; the later factors are biological or sociological and undetermined.
Do you think the Drake Equation is a good approach, and if you believe
that there are likely civilizations out there, then does the Fermi Paradox (Where
are those civilizations, and why havenít they come here?) become an
anthropocentric tautology? After all, why would they really give a damn about
us? An interstellar spacefaring race would be as far above us as we are a bee
CI: Even Drake was honest in calling his equation a container for ignorance, not any rigorous methodology. Fermiís question is well-posed, but unanswerable. There are very many plausible reasons why ďtheyĒ might exist and we donít know about it or havenít seen them. Stephen Webb wrote a book with fifty plus answers to his question.
DS: On to
possible alien life forms. Pop culture deems all intelligent alien life as being
humanoid. Not just the Star Trek and Star Wars
models, but even the Alien from the film series is still clearly humanoid. Yet,
Iíve read of life posits in gas planets- such as Saganís claim for Jovian
life, on neutron stars, Panspermia posits spores that wander the cosmos in
clouds, and even Star Trek came up with a thing called The
Crystalline Entity. If so, is something like the SETI program a waste of
time? Could the money spent there more wisely be spent studying the possibility
that UFOs are real? After all, both ventures seem to have equally slim chances
CI: SETI is discovery science, a shot in the dark, quite different in motivation and method than normal science. So either worth doing or not on those terms; people will disagree. Anthopocentrism is laughable. Only convergent evolution of the strongest kind would produce creatures like us. Our imaginations are hampered in thinking about how strange life might be. Even with the same biological basis, the function and form could be wildly different, perhaps unrecognizable.
DS: How about
the other moons in the solar system? Which is likeliest to harbor oceans and
possibly life? Saturnís Titan? Jupiterís Europa? Another one? Pluto? If
either moon has an ocean, is there likely to be convergent evolution- i.e.-
creatures like starfishes, fish, crustaceans? If not genetically, then in
CI: Iím bullish on Titan as a place to find Life 2.0, with Europa a close second. Simon Conway Morris pushes convergent evolution but cherry-picks his arguments. The jury is out on whether biochemistry is universal, let along humanoid forms.
DS: Is there a
difference between a planet and a world, in the sense that one can have a worldview,
yet no one thinks of a planetview?
I think of a planet as a ball of rock, metal, ice, and liquid, perhaps
with some clinging gas. Whereas I think of a world as a place with something
extra going on. The etymology of the word world is based on the Old German for
human affairs, so world implies us.
extrasolar planets. Should we, now 15 or so years into the discovery of the
first one, stop being surprised that planetary systems do not all resemble ours?
CI: Yes, the Copernican principle doesnít have to hold in detail. Gravity is all about non-linear dynamics, so wildly divergent outcomes from similar initial conditions are to be expected.
DS: Letís come
down to scale a bit more. The last decade has seen the discovery of other stars
with planets (called exoplanets), numbering about 550- but mostly all are gas
planets; albeit smaller planet discoveries seem on the horizon. In an essay I
wrote a few years back, called The
Day, I try to posit what human reaction will be to such a discovery
of an earthlike planet. Since such is likely to occur in the next quarter
century, what are your views? I think that if an earthlike atmosphere is
detected, itíll only be a matter of time before a space race begins to get to
and exploit it. Do you?
There is a good bet that the nearest star system has one or more
Earth-like planet around either main star. Weíll know in 3-4 years. Then
itís a generational experiment to send fleets of imaging nanobots to explore
the system up close. If we think an Earth is nearby, weíll go.
DS: Let me ask you to get a little speculative. Where do you think humanity will be in 2111, at least in terms of outer space exploration? Will there be moon and Mars bases? Will some of the outer planetsí moons be explored? Will we be close to FTL travel, and launching explorations to the nearest stars?
A hundred years is extrapolating off the edge of the map of science. But
I think we will have fully explored the Solar System and some will be living
off-world by then. We will have sent robots to the nearest stars but the human
journey there will take longer.
DS: Now, let me
ask you to get alot more speculative. How about centuries hence? Is space
ultimately where mankind will end up? Or, are we hermetically sealed to this
solar system, if not planet? And, do you think advances in computing (quantum
computers) and genetic engineering, will solve some of the issues plaguing space
travel. I refer to speculative ideas like those put forth by the aforementioned
geologist and speculative science writer Dougal Dixon in books like Man
think itís a coin toss between us destroying ourselves by toxins or microbes
or an environmental catastrophe or global war, and us claiming our destiny in
space. Thatís a shame, because itís much too important to ride on a coin
DS: Of course,
all such goals are predicated upon faster than light (FTL) travel being
developed, but is that an insuperable goal? After all, technically, there have
been claims that masslessness could facilitate super-FTL speeds. Is it just a
matter of will or resources? Our history shows that if something is practicable,
we eventually achieve it, even if a gap of centuries yawns between conception
and completion. Or do you believe that the size of the cosmos quarantines all
species to their own star systems, for better or worse? I.e.- there will never
be an Asimovian Galactic Empire.
Special relativity is an excellent theory, and itís a bitch for stellar
travel. I donít see any way around the mass-energy limitations unless there is
wildly new physics that we havenít discovered yet. So no galactic empire,
unless you are patient and durable as a civilization. At a tenth light speed, it
would only take 10-15 million years. Eminently doable for a mature civilization,
if they chose to do it.
DS: Yet, letís
assume we could technically develop an FTL system to get us to that first
earth-like world in a century or two. My question is, would we be socially
responsible enough with that planet when we have not exactly given a damn with
out homeworld? And, imagine there was an incipient indigenous intelligent
species? Would we do, as weíve done throughout our history, enslave or
I think our genetic makeup would be unchanged so I would fear the worst.
DS: Assuming we
can become a spacefaring race before the end of this millennium, do you think
weíre likelier to meet only microbes or simple life forms, no life at all, or
be wiped out by a super-race, like the Krel from Forbidden Planet,
the Borg from Star Trek, or the Aliens from Alien?
No life at all. I think itís relatively rare and time and space are
vast so we may be isolated in practical terms.
DS: As for FTL
speed, do you agree with the Nikolai Kardashev scale for civilizations? I.e.-
Type I as a civilization able to harness all of its planetís power, Type II as
a civilization able to harness all of its starís power, and Type III as a
civilization able to harness all of its galaxyís power? If so, do you think
there is any limit to lifeís ability to shape its environment? Could,
theoretically, a super-race, whose universe was dying, cook up a new universe to
escape into, one whose parameters were designed to meet their own needs? Would
they not be de facto scientific Gods, if you will, not unlike the Q
from Star Trek?
CI: Yes, a civilization as advanced compared to us as we are to hunter-gatherers could do amazing things. Iíd make baby universes and chat by gravity waves and orchestrate gamma ray bursts for entertainment. But thatís just me.
DS: Do you
believe Invasion Of The Body Snatchers or even The Day Of
The Triffids-like scenarios are unrealistic?
CI: Not really, delightful books and movies both, but fanciful.
DS: I think
UFOlogy is a valuable cultural artifact that in centuries hence will be studied
more rigorously- less for its claims of alien intervention on this planet and
more for its cultural relevance. Agree or not? Also, I feel magazines like Fate
are far better indicators of the cultural zeitgeist than People or
Time. Comments? Also, I think the UFO believer may, unfortunately,
be harbingers of a new technology based religion. Agree or not?
I place UFO belief firmly in the spectrum of quasi-religious cults and
conspiracy theories, which take many forms, are immune from evidence or logic
(except their own internal kind), and benefit from groupthink. I agree itís an
intriguing cultural artifact that would tell actual aliens a lot about us.
DS: When we
speak of intelligent life, I find little is made of the Lowest
Common Denominator. To me, our species would already be out amongst the
stars were we not tied down to the dumbest possible actions due to the dumbest
members of any group. This is why the overwhelming majority of great discoveries
and creations occur by individuals, not groups. Thoughts?
Three sigma people or outliers have an upside and a downside. The upside
is the extraordinary insights they have and things they accomplish. The downside
is the fact that nature selects against such aberrations and that the ideas
might be rejected as the body rejects an unfamiliar organ.
DS: Who would
you rank amongst the top 10 astronomers or astrophysicists of all time, and why?
Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Isaac
Newton, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg. Certainly, some, if not
all of these would be on your list. No?
The difficulty is separating astronomy from its parent discipline,
physics. But I would go something like this: Newton, Einstein, Galileo, Kepler,
Brahe, Herschel, Hubble, Copernicus, Chandrasekhar, and Sagan.
DS: How about
the most important moments in either of those two fields, from antiquity up to
the discovery of extrasolar planets?
Easy Ė Newtonís Principia and Einsteinís general relativity.
DS: Speaking of which, let me toss out that old question: if you could sit down and break bread for an evening with folks from the past- scientists or not, which folk would you most like to engage with, and why?
See the top ten above! But thatís too many men; Iíd invite women
scientists too to make for a more pleasant evening.
scientific theories are disbelieved at first, then grudgingly accepted, then
become dogma, then are tossed out, is basically the posit Thomas Kuhn makes in The
Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Do you agree? If so, what are some
of the other theories, like the Big Bang, that might, by this centuryís end,
seem laughably silly?
Kuhnís ideas have ebbed and flowed over the years, but still have
weight. Itís a lot messier than he made out, see Paul Feyeraband for an
extreme view. Iíd only put one in three odds of the big bang still being the
current theory in a century.
DS: Do human
beings assume they know too much about big things? By that I refer to concepts
of Deep Time, as the aforementioned geologist James Hutton elucidated, or even
to such throwaway terms as a light year? After all, a light year
is almost 6 trillion miles- not million nor billion, but trillion!
If my math is correct, thatís about 12 million round trips to the moon and
back. Yet, Star Trek and Star Wars make interstellar
travel seem like a lark. Is there a disconnect between reality and the grand?
And does this make the UFO scenario highly unlikely? In short, Ďare we
alone?,í and Ďwill we ever contact other species in the
cosmos?í are wholly different questions.
Yes, the issue is the amazingly fast speed of light, which brings these
distances into the familiar realm of lookback time. With this as our benchmark
we can talk sensibly about such large distances.
DS: Are you
religious? Are you agnostic? I prefer a term like irreligious
because theist and atheist still tie in to that
binary thought mode which I think limits most people- be they in day to day
events, the arts or the sciences? What religion, if any, were you raised in?
CI: Iím agnostic
and was not raised in any religion. My mother was Presbyterian but not strongly
and is now Quaker. My father was lapsed Anglican. I believe, like Feymann, in
the primacy of doubt. Atheists have the comfort of certitude; agnosticism is
actually a challenging position to take in the face of certainty on either side.
DS: What of the God
of the Gaps? I.e.- the fact that religion basically uses this philosophy
to explain away things it cannot: if it is inexplicable, then it must be the
domain of God. What are your objections to this? To me, this is antithetical to
the scientific method, which I think is the single greatest human invention-
even if not a material thing.
Theologians despise god of the gaps arguments, believing that diminishes
the power and scope of the Creator. As a scientist I think there are gaps we
havenít explained yet. But as an optimist I think we will.
DS: Do you
believe in an afterlife (or afterdeath)? Could there be a scientific explanation
for an after-existence? I.e.- could the mind be a synergy that can detach from a
single corporeal form? If so, does this mean that there could be immaterial
life, or life simply as energy, floating free through the cosmos? Could
matter-based life evolve eventually into just energy-based consciousness?
CI: No. I think the end is really the end. Thatís all she wrote. Thereís no scientific basis for believing otherwise.
DS: A recurring
problem I had with your viewpoint in the book is that you seemed to write of
eminently feasible ideas, like Panspermia or space arks, or even civilizations
so far above us as to be God-like, yet you seemed to balance that with a
pessimism re: our speciesí ability to get to such a state. You seem dour on
Faster Than Light travel yet, theoretically, we know itís feasible; itís
just a cost context given our current technology. Why is there this schism in
believing what is achievable and what is not?
CI: I like to air out possibilities, but our imaginations are large and our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, so to speak, so many of the thing we can speculate about turn out not to be possible. Thatís not depressing. It just means we should keep thinking up ideas, which is what we are good at.
at the bookís end, you write of our reality possibly being a simulation, which
might exist in a larger reality, which itself might be a simulation, etc. This
is a rephrasing of the idea that the smallest particle in our cosmos might be a
cosmos unto itself, and our cosmos just the smallest particle of a larger
cosmos- both extending infinitely larger and smaller. But, at some level- even
if we are a simulation, there would have to be a Ďbase levelí real
existence; thus our simulation has a fundament of reality, even if X
factors removed. Thus, if it quacks like a duck, or seems to be real, it is for
all intents and purposes real, and thoughts to the contrary are just idle
philosophies. Or, as Rene Descartes said in Meditations On First
Philosophy: ĎCogito ergo sum.í No?
I reined it in with my words, but was being ironic to the point of tongue
in cheek by airing out the simulation hypothesis late in the book. I donít
think itís truly credible, itís more of a thought experiment, and of course
it may be impossible to test, therefore not truly scientific as a hypothesis.
To switch gears: what do you see as the role of a Ďpublic intellectualí in
this century? And do the constant controversies that surround someone like a Noam
Chomsky make you, and others less apt to speak out? Or, do you think itís
best to stay focused in your area of expertise? How about someone like a Richard
Dawkins and his rabid form of atheism?
I think scientists can and should speak publicly on issues they are
knowledgeable about, and of course as citizens on any topic. Too few do. In
part, thatís because it is a foreign arena compared to the classroom or the
colloquium. Dawkins speaks his mind and occasionally oversteps his expertise. I
agree with most of what he says but am fairly sure his combative approach is
DS: Aside from
people simply misunderstanding how science works- as in Creationism and its
offshoots, there are people within science, who seemingly do not know how to
wield the scientific method- i.e.- there is a rich tradition of crackpottery in
astronomy, from Richard Hoagland and the Face on Mars- which you deal with in Lonely
Planets, to Immanuel Velikovsky and his claims of Venus emerging as a
comet from Jupiter, to the ancient astronaut claims of Erich Von Dšniken. What
have been some of the more recent loopy claims that astronomy has proffered,
putting aside UFO stuff?
There are many fairly wild theories about dark matter and dark energy out
there, and alternative cosmologies too. I get about one screed per week from
members of the public, often with advanced degrees, about alternative theories
of nature. I politely decline to read them as I donít even get enough time to
read all that my own students write.
DS: Let me
digress on to human perception, and its place in science, as well as its
fallibility. People have a tendency to recall times when a coincidence occurs-
such as thinking of an old girlfriend, then having someone mention her, while
forgetting all the times when they think of something, and no seeming
synchronistic after-event occurs. Is this as an in to why people believe in
irrational things? I think that we may be evolutionarily hard-wired to link
things together, this is also why some saw the face of a man on a
mountainsideís rocky outcropping in New Hampshire (the Old Man of the
Mountain, which no longer exists), or the similar aforementioned Face on Mars.
Confirmation bias, which you allude to, is well known in psychological
research, and important in forming belief systems, scientific or otherwise. And
yes, we are hard-wired to see patterns to the extent of seeing them when
theyíre not real. It was an excellent survival mechanism long ago.
I once wrote a poem based on the famed Pale
Blue Dot photo, and also a sonnet on the Hubble
Deep Field photo. The former was taken as Voyager 1 left the solar system,
and shows the whole planet Earth afloat in a thin shaft of sunlight. The latter
is a time lapsed photo that shows all of the galaxies that occupy a tiny speck
of the night sky. Both seem to me to be amongst the most important and powerful
photos ever taken, for their images really slap some reality into those filled
with human hubris. Do you agree? And, how have these photos resonated as
theyíve made their way into the public consciousness? Also, do you see them,
and other grander things that science can offer, as stimulants for young people
to Ďenter the frayí?
Pale Blue Dot and the Hubble Deep (or Ultra-Deep) Field are iconic
images, each has inspired many people to learn about astronomy or enter the
field. The Eagle Nebula shot from HST is in that category, and, I think,
WMAPís image of the microwave sky.
I think science writing is in a Golden Age, since the mid-1970s or so. From E.O.
Wilson, to the essays of Stephen Jay Gould, to Sagan to Jared Diamond to Martin
Rees and Timothy Ferris to Robert Bakker and Jack Horner, Daniel Dennett, Steven
Pinker, and a few dozen others, the world of science is bristling not only with
ideas, but people who can clarify and excite the public. Science books often
make best seller lists, yet, if that is so, and more Americans than ever are
college educated, then why are Americans so ignorant on things like abortion,
stem cells, evolution, race, sexuality, and on and on?
As Dickens said, it was the best of times, the worst of times. Too many
things are competing for young brains and eyeballs so good science writing
doesnít often find a wide audience. But the public, according to NSF surveys,
is 90% enthusiastic about science and think it beneficial to our civilization.
DS: Let me now
quote from an essay I did on Harold
Bloom: ĎÖ.the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the
Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests
purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract
basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any
measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this.
It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply-
especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead
observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the
Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts-
or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to
see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good
predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic
(Keatsí Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose
will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or
Functionary3 .í What are your thoughts on
this? Where would you place yourself on such a scale?
I think this is rather an elitist view of intelligence and I disagree
with the premise and the scalings. Many people, if not most, are capable of
insights. Few of them change the world, but the ďGreat MindsĒ school of
history is old and worn out in my view. I am smarter than the average bear but
not by much.
When I interviewed Steven Pinker,
he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at least socially,
academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is something I donít
think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is wholly Ďoutsideí
the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with an IQ of 180, and a
Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the 180 may be better
suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or Visionary Mind, will
be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ measures narrow problem
solving, but is utterly useless in regards to creativity. To use an analogy:
think of vision tests. The person with 20/20 person may see better and more
clearly than the 20/50 person, in normal light. But the 20/50 person can turn on
X-ray vision. While the vision is not clearer than 20/20 it does see something
the 20/20 will never see. Any thoughts?
I agree that IQ as measured traditionally is a very narrow construct.
Think of an autistic person who is a math whiz or a great painter, as an extreme
counter-example. Humans are all problem-solvers by nature and by evolution.
Creativity is the purest form of that skill. Schools and most jobs today do
little to elicit the creativity that most people harbor. Thatís a tragic loss
to our civilization.
I bring this up because of its connection to art and science. I disagree with
Stephen Jay Gouldís assertion that science and religion are Non-Overlapping
Magisteria. While the two have different aims, and sometimes different fields of
concern, there is often a grand overlap of concern, and the two methods are
fundamentally incompatible. Similarly, I see a connection between art and
science, as different approaches that use different ends of the same method-
i.e.- science uses creativity in service to discovery, while art uses discovery
in service to creation. Do you see any connections between science and religion,
science and art, as those that I mention?
I also disagreed with Gould on the science and religion front. They
coexist in the human intellect and mind so they must have so overlap or at least
resonance. I think the creative processes of artists and scientists are
strikingly similar, just the tools and methods that are different. Those fields
can definitely learn from each other. I had a wonderful collaboration with the
artists Heather Green on art pieces that were supposed to be the frontispieces
for each chapter in The Living Cosmos. But Random House nixed color. We
wrote and published an article for Leonardo on the collaboration.
I believe the public embrace of irrationality has to do with the conflation
people make between the unexplained and the unexplainable. The former, it seems
to me, is an ever decreasing quantum, whereas the latter is mere evidence of
current limitations to human thought. Thoughts?
Yes, there are things we canít explain but that doesnít mean we
canít in principle. This confusion is what philosophers call a category error.
DS: On the
subject of human thoughts, let me turn to a related topic, human discourse. One
of the reasons I started this interview series is because of the utter dearth of
really in depth interviews, in print or online. With the exception of the Playboy
interviews, such venues are nonexistent. Furthermore, many people actively
denigrate in depth and intelligent discourse, such as this, preferring to read
vapid interviews with 10 or 12 questions designed to be mere advertisements for
a work, sans only the page numbers the canned answers are taken from. Why do you
think this is? What has happened to real discussion? Old tv show hosts like Phil
Donahue, David Susskind, Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, even Bill Buckley- love him or
hate him. Only Charlie Rose is left on PBS, but his show airs near midnight. Is
conversation, which an interview is merely a rigorous form of, dying?
CI: Conversation is alive and well in universities, salons, coffee houses, and living rooms everywhere. But I agree that the public discourse is shallow and trivial for the most part. Long interviews are like novels, requiring some dedicated attention, but paying back with real insights. I like the form, and last year published a set of 40 interviews I did with astrobiologists, a spin-off from research for The Living Cosmos, in a book called Talking About Life: Conversations on Astrobiology. It was published by Cambridge University Press. The interviews were enjoyable and inspiring to me as a scientist.
Of all the essays and books you have written, which have had the most impact- in
terms of public reaction, and which have had the most resonance to other
scientists? Have their been any essays in which you have posited things that
youíve later had to say, ĎWhoops!í? What were they, and how
big were the gaffes?
My biggest reaction came from a scientific paper early in my career, on
the largest galaxy in the universe, ten times larger than the Milky Way. That
generated a surprising amount of reaction for a technical paper. Iíve made
goofs and gaffes but moved on; itís good to have a short memory. Iím an
observer so mistakes are not as well tolerated. If youíre a theorist you get
to call your mistakes speculative theories and they add to your gloss. Iím
DS: Let me end
this interview by asking what big things that are still unknown to current
science do you want answered before your life ends? Do you think that these
unanswered questions can be answered in your lifetime? If not, why not? And, are
you doing anything to elicit these answers?
I want to know if there is life elsewhere. I want to know the physical
nature of dark matter and dark energy. I want to know whatís inside the event
horizon of a black hole. Thatís all. A modest list. Not too much to ask.
what is in store, in the next year or two, for you?
Another book, this time on beginnings. And yet another, on my time
teaching cosmology to Buddhist monks in India. That, plus teaching, research,
and running the academic program of my large department, will keep me busy.
DS: Thanks for
this discourse, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.
CI: It has been a pleasure to engage in the long conversational form and explore so many topics. Answering these questions has provoked me to think of more questions to ask in my work. It never ends. Thatís a good thing.
Return to Cosmoetica