Six Mind Expanding Space Theories

From Supernovae to super humans, Lord Martin Rees has seen the future – and wants you to know what’s coming next

Lord Martin Rees, one of the world’s most eminent astronomers, came to Second Home to discuss his vision of the future. Emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and UK’s Astronomer Royal, he has also co-founded the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks (CSER) and authored over 500 research papers on topics from black holes to quantum physics to the Big Bang. Here are the six most mind blowing facts from his Second Home lecture.

1) Robots in the Cosmos

There have been two rather spectacular feats of robotics recently — the Rosetta probe was launched and eventually went in a big elliptical orbit and caught up with a comet. It sent back pictures and landed on the surface of the comet then continued to follow the comet. People thought it might have broken up into two, but it didn’t. The other exciting discovery was the New Horizons’s flyby of Pluto and its moon, Charon. These two probes, Rosetta and New Horizons are remarkable because they are sending back pictures from 10,000 times further away than our moon, and using technology which is 15 years out of date.

2) Privatised Space Travel

The future of manned spaceflight lies in the private sector. The reason for that is that they can accept higher risk than NASA could impose on civilian astronauts. The Space Shuttle was launched 140 times, it failed twice, each of those failures was a big national trauma. Whereas test pilots are happy to except that sort of risk. Space X will be launching people within a few years into low-Earth orbit and there are plans to take people on a five-day trip round the back side of the moon and back, going further from Earth than any humans have ever been. I’m told they’ve sold a ticket for the second flight, but not the first, and that may tell you something.

3) Life on Mars

By the end of the century there will be communities of people living, either freely floating in space, or perhaps on Mars. They’ll be intrepid, rather crazy libertarians, and they won’t be the typical people who are astronauts now. The post-human era will begin away from the Earth, maybe in one century or two.

4) Pale blue dots

It’s very exciting that there are stars with planets like the sun orbiting them, and if you extrapolate to the galaxy, then it’s a fair bet that there will be about one billion stars with planets like the Earth orbiting them in our galaxy. All the evidence is indirect — you don’t see the planets; you infer them by the way they affect the motion of the star or the brightness of the star by moving in front of it. It’s hard because they are much fainter than the star by a factor of a billion or so and very close in the sky to the star. By observing slight changes in the overall spectrum, when the planet is in transit in front, and disappears behind, you can separate out the planet spectrum from the star spectrum. We’ll be doing this in the next 20 years.

5) Is there any life out there?

We don’t know how life began on Earth. There are theories, but there is no consensus on how it happened. Therefore, we don’t know whether it was a rare fluke that we wouldn’t expect to happen anywhere else, or whether it was a kind of thing that would’ve happened anywhere in any of these Earth-like planets. Russian investor Yuri Milner has put $100m into looking for evidence of something artificial, some beeping that’s not from anything natural, that’s coming from space. This is going to involve radial and optical searches more sensitive than those done before. None of us hold out for more than a few percent chance of any kind of success, but the stakes are so high that it’s worthwhile.

6) Homo Deus

Humans will adjust themselves, and within a century or two their progeny will be almost a different species — they would be evolving, not on the Darwinian timescale, but on a timescale of technology. So the post-human era will begin away from the Earth, maybe in one century or two. If you imagine a time chart of the Earth’s history, there’s been four and a half billion years before any civilisation emerged, then it’s existed for a few thousand years at most. There are billions of years ahead when the machines will dominate.

Go here to read the full talk


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