Interview with Timothy Ferris

August 3, 2005

 

CI:      I feel like a dilettante because you are a journalist and I’m playing one. You’ve written a dozen popular books, and I’ve only written one. I want to talk about astrobiology, but I’ll start with your career. You’re a reporter. Did you cut your teeth at Rolling Stone?

TF:     No, I started in 1968 as a general assignment rookie reporter for UPI in New York, then as a reporter and feature writer for the old New York Post—when it was a disreputable liberal newspaper, as opposed to a disreputable conservative newspaper. After about three years as a reporter, I quit to write my first book and supported myself as a freelance writer. I was freelancing for Rolling Stone; it and the New Yorker were the two magazines I most admired, and Rolling Stone was more approachable.

As I was discovering that I didn’t yet know how to write a book and was getting myself into a jam, I was offered the job as the New York bureau chief of Rolling Stone. While I was there, I learned how to write longer forms, between five- and ten-thousand-word magazine pieces, which I still think are the hardest in non-fiction. Once you master those, you can write chapters in books. Books, while still not easy, are then potentially in reach. When I left Rolling Stone, I started writing books.

CI:      Do you still have a paternalistic interest in Rolling Stone?

TF:     I haven’t been following the magazine closely. I saw Jan Wenner recently. We’ve been brought a bit closer by the death of Hunter Thompson, who was a close friend of both of ours. I’m in touch with the magazine to a small extent. My son is a musician, so I got him a lifetime subscription. A lifetime membership to Rolling Stone costs $99, which is a great deal if you’re nineteen.

CI:      Your topic coverage for them was very broad. When did you start to home in on science?

TF:     I had been writing science occasionally; it was always most important to me. I had been writing about it at UPI and at the Post when I could. I did a cosmology piece for Rolling Stone that got a lot of notice. I was in the rock-and-roll world at the time, and the “rock star” people were struck by it, too; it was much talked about. One of the secrets of the rock world is that an extraordinary large number of rock stars, including people like Dylan, are avid readers. It indicated to me that perhaps there was an audience for science; maybe in the long run I could write exclusively about the things that mattered most to me. That was encouraging. Back then there were fewer science writers. It was often asserted, particularly in television-producer circles, that the general public didn’t care about science.

CI:      It may not be a stretch to connect it to the rock world. When I was an undergrad doing physics at Imperial College in London, I was interested in astronomy, so I started to hang out with the astrophysics group. There was a guy there who was halfway through his Ph.D. and was coming in less and less frequently, and his advisors thought he might drop out. His name was Brian May, and his little band Queen was doing quite well at the time.

TF:     I had an email from Mark Knopfler this morning, who’s just finished his tour. He’s back, reclining in his boat, looking out across the water to the Isle of White and reading Seeing in the Dark.

CI:      I’ve read all your books. The one that always struck me as a labor of love—tell me if this is true or not—was Coming of Age in the Milky Way. There was so much in it, it was so rich, so sweeping. I know it took a long time to prepare. Was writing that book an odyssey for you?

TF:     It almost broke me down. It was a young man’s project initially. When you’re young, you’re hot to do what’s never been done. In the course of more than a decade of work, I got a lesson in why it hadn’t been done before. I was almost foundering at the end but a Guggenheim grant helped me make it to shore. Those big survey books—and the one I’m writing now is like that—can take a lot out of you. In the late stages of that book, I developed a habit of hitting the gym almost every day. Physically, the book hurt me a bit; I realized that if you want to be a professional writer, you have to keep yourself in good physical shape—the process of writing won’t do that.

CI:      Have you ever had a point—as you get into it, and the sheer scope becomes visible—when you have that “Oh, shit” feeling of being in too deep?

TF:     It’s terrifying, particularly the first book. I often vowed I would never write another book if I could just finish this one. Fortunately, our memory for pain is poor. By the time a book comes out, you tend to forget all the anxiety and stress it produced. You go on a book tour, and everyone tells you how good it is, and you start to think that you can actually write well—and in that state of dangerous delusion, you sign another book contract.

CI:      Women have their own analogy in childbearing.

TF:     I don’t know if the two are comparable, but certainly that aspect of short-term memory for pain does come into the picture. [Laughs]

CI:      When you moved into film projects, that’s a stretch too—visual art is totally different. What were the things you found most interesting when you started to move into films and TV?

TF:     I’d always loved television. I had been involved with it since the age of sixteen, when I shot newsreel for NBC. I had a live show in high school, and was appearing on another weekly live show—a lot of TV was live back then. I always thought it would be gratifying to do television science documentaries. It’s pleasant to work on them, it uses a different side of the brain. There are different stresses associated with those projects; they’re very different from writing, since they involve a lot of people. I’ve been sitting here, going over the budget for my next film. It’s easy for that stuff to become frustrating if you let it.

CI:      What is your next film project?

TF:     The PBS production of “Seeing in the Dark.” A good model there is Mick Jagger. Mick can tell you what everything on every day of a Rolling Stones tour will cost. If you want good results, you need that level of attention to detail.

CI:      I always thought it strange that he could do that—my wife and I have argued over whether he or David Bowie had more sex and drugs than anyone in existence.

TF:     The answer is Mick—definitely more sex, I don’t know about drugs. They both quit drugs a while back. He’s an LSE graduate. I went over the day before they started their last American tour, when they were in their last night of rehearsal. That production is fascinating. They have a guy who gets up every morning and puts $60,000 cash in a fanny pack, and spends that cash that day and night on tips—keeps the wheels greased.

CI:      That’s why they say the rich are not like you and me. Writing is solitary and making movies or TV shows is intensely collaborative—and as you say, frustrating at times. What are the creative aspects of it that you enjoy, that you never find in writing?

TF:     It uses different parts of your brain, so it gives you a nice counterpoint. You’re writing for the spoken voice, which is a bit different than the page, though not as much as people might think.

CI:      Do you start with a visual arc or a narrative? How do you put it together?

TF:     I never know, I don’t even know if it’s an arc at all. Mostly I try to come up with scenes that I feel confident will work. I don’t worry too much about how they fit together, because generally the first way you fit them together doesn’t work anyhow. They need to have a certain amount of independence so you can rearrange them and still make a coherent film out of it. I love the emotional effect you get by combining music and visuals and the spoken word. It excites people about science. My productions tend to be relatively expensive because I like to convey the sense that science is of a quality comparable to art, that it’s worth aesthetic involvement as well as intellectual. That’s why I put so much emphasis on the musicians and the composers and the artists in these films.

CI:      You should have won a special Oscar for best use of Eno.

TF:     Yes, we had Brian Eno on Creation of the Universe. On ”Seeing in the Dark” we have Mark Knopfler and, I hope, Michael Bacon. The director of photography and the music people are usually the first to sign up.

CI:      Have there been any scientific concepts or topics that you’ve found either impossible or incredibly challenging to convey visually? What have been the most difficult?

TF:     “Creation of the Universe,” obviously; there’s a lot of cosmology in there, it was difficult. I said in our first production meeting that there are essentially two approaches to a difficult subject. One is to be so unambitious that you know you’ll succeed; that unfortunately describes two thirds of the science documentaries I’ve seen over the years. It’s an objection I had, for instance, to “The Elegant Universe.” If all you say about quantum mechanics is, “It’s so weird, you can’t understand it,” you’re not trying very hard.

The other approach is to go ahead and try—admitting that your audience isn’t going to get it all, or even most of it in one viewing, but hopefully making something they’ll want to see more than once. That’s the approach we took. I’m always gratified when I hear from people who’ve seen “Creation” numerous times, because that was how it was meant to be viewed.

CI:      A lot of the skill is coming up with those metaphors, those analogies, and doing it visually. That process must be fun. Do you do that alone, or do you work with other people?

TF:     I’ll take it anywhere I can get it, but I think my job is to come up with them.

CI:      If you had a good cinematographer who had a particular eye, would that creative process work?

TF:     Sure. The lighthouse in “Creation” was my work, but the lobster scene in “Life Beyond Earth,” which is much talked about, was actually an essay I had written and had never thought about putting in the movie. I was having lunch with my director and happened to mention it, and she suggested making a scene about it. That never would have occurred to me. It was an odd scene because there were no spoken words in it, but it worked. It was her idea, based on something I would have passed right by.

CI:      Among the minutiae about you, I noticed that you were selected as a potential Space Shuttle voyager as a journalist. That project is showing its age. Hypothetically, and given its frailty, if you got a call tomorrow inviting you on a space mission, would you go?

TF:     It’s easy to say yes to that. I calculated the odds of fatality when I entered the Journalism in Space Program—it’s the number one would get empirically based on the two accidents and the overall number of flights. It’s also the same number NASA quoted in advance of building the shuttle, the one prediction they got right. That hasn’t changed, but I’ve got a teenage son now, and at sixty years old I’m the sole lifetime companion for my wife. My life has changed, and it’s something I would have to discuss with my family. It’s much more complicated than it was back then.

CI:      What does your gut tell you?

TF:     My gut instinct is always to go, because I love that sort of thing—I love formula one racing, I love fast cars. I’m not exactly a thrill seeker, but that space walk would be such an amazing view. It would be quite remarkable. When you talk to astronauts nowadays, it’s such a changed business. I was telling all this to Kathy Sullivan—one of the best astronauts who has ever flown—and she was astonished; she said, “I’m flattered to learn anyone was paying attention.”

CI:      Maybe one of NASA’s failures was not that they got scared away from sending teachers and journalists into space after the first disaster, but that they weren’t sending poets, philosophers, people whose job it was to stare out of the window and think about it, right from the beginning. Over the occasional beer I’ve had with an astronaut, they’ve said that if they have a moment free up there, they go back to their checklist. That’s how they’re trained, that’s the way they think. There are some missed opportunities in the space program.

TF:     The teacher was Ronald Reagan’s idea. It was an unfortunate mistake—had a journalist died in that crash, the public would have understood that dozens of journalists are killed every year covering stories. Journalists take those risks. But a school teacher, with all those kids watching, was too much. It arose from Reagan’s dislike of the press and his sense that we ought not glorify them. We weren’t glorifying them, we were trying to do what you described—to get someone up there who could compose more evocative descriptions of the experience.

CI:      Or just reflect on it. Astronauts eventually reflect a lot, but there’s very little contemporaneous reflection.

TF:     I was sorry, because I lost the chance to write what would have been a really good comedic book. The title was Low Earth Orbit, and I knew exactly how to write a book about that experience that would have been funny as hell, as well as being evocative. I’ve never before or since been in the position where a decision by the federal government determined whether or not I could write a book.

CI:      That’s unusual. Here’s an unusual question on a random topic: does the number 10937 ring a bell for you?

TF:     No, what’s that?

CI:      That’s your asteroid.

TF:     I didn’t know I had an asteroid! Do I have an asteroid?

CI:      I was going to ask you what it was like. I presumed those special people who have them are always comparing their asteroids.

TF:     Nobody ever told me I had one.

CI:      I found it when I was doing my web research on you. I don’t know how big it is, I couldn’t find any details.

TF:     I’ll have to go image it. I’m pleased to know that. In the back of my mind occasionally, when I’m reading about asteroids, I think, ”What am I, chopped liver?”

CI:      Well, there you go. [Laughs] Let me ask a more conventional question: from a broad journalistic background and a gravitation towards science in general, how did you get drawn to the issues of life in the universe? Was the Voyager project your first involvement in astrobiological topics?

TF:     I’m not sure, it was a long time ago. I had a wide-ranging interest in astronomy since I was a boy. I read the Sagan-Schlovsky book carefully, and it helped to inform and awaken my interest in the subject. I was at Rolling Stone, and I proposed an interview with Carl. I did that, and then he and I became friends. I used to stay with him up in Ithaca and hang out. We listened to a lot of music together. He and Frank Drake had come up with the Voyager record idea, and he asked me to produce the record. That project was an intense endeavor, it had to be done fairly rapidly. When I look back to my writing at that time, I can see that I absorbed several of Carl’s points and his principle ways of approaching the problem, which I still think are extremely good. Many of the arguments he made, about why SETI is worth pursuing and how and why one might go about looking for life on Mars, are quite well-reasoned. Largely thanks to him, I had a good framework for thinking about the subject.

CI:      You must have met all the main players at the time through the Voyager project. Who else was involved in that project?

TF:     Frank Drake was involved, although I didn’t see him much at the time of the project. He had more of a formative role. The cast of characters is set out in the book Murmurs of Earth. Most of the people involved in the record weren’t exobiology people. It was a rapid immersion in music, particularly ethnomusicography, and strange ancillary items like Roger Payne’s hydrophone recordings of whale song—stuff like that.

CI:      Have you had letters and emails over the years critiquing the musical selections?

TF:     To some degree. Unfortunately the record was never properly released. It’s been difficult for people to evaluate the record because so few people have heard it. In our hurry—and also because none of us wanted to be spending taxpayer money on something with a commercial side—we never cleared the rights to the music for anything except the two spacecraft.

CI:      When I bought the CD, it came in a nice box with the book. Wasn’t it widely released in that form?

TF:     It actually wasn’t. What you have is a rare object. Many years later, Carl wanted to release the record; he had tried several times without success. John Lomberg, who has been in charge of the photos on the record, took it upon himself to make a deal to release the record—which he then released with my name on it as producer, without ever telling me it was taking place. The record you have was never properly mastered, because no one involved in the process understood how to make a record. Consequently, it’s technically flawed. It was released by a company that went out of business almost immediately—Warner New Media. I don’t know how many copies are out there, but not many. They’re sequenced correctly and everything, but the sound isn’t what you’d expect of a record. I did a much better job than that.

CI:      There’s a slight irony in the fact that the object winging its way through space is an obsolete technology even on Earth.

TF:     It is, but if I were making it again today, I would use the same technology on that record. It’s like Sumerian script, we know that it will endure. We don’t know the lifetime of optical dots on a DVD. Some of the people involved have since said, “If we’d had new technology, we could have put much more on it.” But it’s not necessarily the case that you’ll get a better record by having five times as much music; nor, when I look at the photos, do I think we would have been better off with five times as many photos. Limitations often create a better result. We can vouch for the survival time of the record, which is important.

CI:      If you want to take a broad view of the analog-digital debate, in one of Freeman Dyson’s articles on life he argues that, on purely thermodynamic and physical grounds, analog computing is more powerful and more energy efficient than digital. Analog probably rules, cosmically.

TF:     The fascinating thing about analog records is that you never know how much data are in the grooves. With a CD you always know exactly, down to the bit, which is cool on a superficial level; but it means that there’s an absolute limit to what you can extract. There was a guy who took Greek vases that had been scrolled around the outside, and turned them on a wheel as he used a stylus to scroll it. He thought he might be able to extract snatches of ambient noise taking place at the time the vase was made, conversations in the pottery studio 2,500 years ago. He wasn’t able to find anything, but I think things like that will be recovered in the future.

CI:      Let me ask a big-picture question. With your awareness of all the ins and outs of astrobiology, the history of life on Earth and the nearby universe, and extrasolar planets, what are the most exciting things happening right now?

TF:     The most exciting development beyond Earth is the detection of extrasolar planets, and the imminent prospect of obtaining spectra of the atmospheres of extrasolar planets; hence, the ability to start searching for signs of life. It may well be that the first detection of extraterrestrial life will be in the reflected starlight passing back up through the atmosphere of some unseen planet many light years away. That would transform the field. The odd and almost unique dynamic of exobiology is that it will be divided ultimately in a B.C. and A.D. manner: what was done before the first evidence of extraterrestrial life was detected, and what happened after.

Another advantage of extrasolar planet observations is that, unlike SETI, they depend on relatively few assumptions about other planets. We ought to be able to detect evidence of a wide range of life forms on another planet using those methods. That’s encouraging, particularly for those of us who feel that while life is probably commonplace in the universe, it’s difficult to know how often intelligence arises, and how long it lasts when it does appear.

CI:      There must be some concern that, in looking for biomarkers or biosignatures, there’s usually a predicate in the definition of biological processes that’s based on what we know on Earth. What if biology is weird out there?

TF:     That would tend to give us negative results, though we might have had a positive result if we knew more. The first planet on which we detect signs of life might not be the first life-bearing planet we examine. But if we do detect life as we know it, then tremendous resources will be devoted to the search, and we’ll begin the comparative process. Science isn’t very good at understanding phenomena of which it has only a single example. Once we have at least one more example of life, we’ll have a much stronger basis for understanding what life really is.

CI:      The way extrasolar planet work is moving relative to Solar System exploration, do you think the first evidence will come from a distant star or this solar system?

TF:     I don’t know. Life on Mars is still an open question. Lewis Thomas wrote years ago in the New York Times, when we started to see the first images of Mars close up, that Mars may have life, but if so, we’ve never seen a planet that has life and looks so desolate. But the Earth, for much of its history prior to the emergence of life from the seas, would have looked as desolate. We can’t look at another planet and say, “If it doesn’t look like Skokie, Illinois, it doesn’t have life.” I find the extrasolar planet work fascinating because we have hundreds of planets to examine.

CI:      And we’re down to planets only five times the size of Earth.

TF:     That’s a terrifically exciting prospect. The history of the Earth gives us some grounds for optimism that Earth-like planets might give birth to life, since life appeared on Earth so early in its history. Ultimately—and this is a point Sagan used to make—there are probably as many good arguments against looking for life in any particular way as in favor of it, but the deciding issue is phenomenological: if you don’t look, you’re not going to find it. We tried not looking for tens of thousands of years, and sure enough we didn’t find extraterrestrial life. The rationale for looking is not some perfect argument that it must be out there, it’s that otherwise we’re not going to find it.

CI:      But there’s still presumably a lot to learn from scouring our own planet and the archeological or historical record, including some surprising information about extremophiles.

TF:     That’s the second area that really excites me: the tremendously enlarged phase space within which we now examine life here on Earth. No one knows how far down into the Earth organisms prevail; those roots can be very deep. Some estimates have half the biomass down in solid rock. That’s exciting. Trying to understand life in a pan-stellar or pan-planetary context is salutary.

CI:      It seems like there’s tension between two ideas. One is the implication of extremophiles, which pry open the notion of what a habitable zone might be; and, countering that, the ”rare Earth” hypothesis, the Goldilocks idea that certain things about the Earth and our environment in the Solar System were ”just so” to make life possible. How do you view that debate?

TF:     I think those arguments are the post-hoc fallacy writ large. That doesn’t mean I’m right—I just come back to the same point: the way to find out who’s right is to keep looking. The people who think life is rare quite rightly get frustrated and say, “You could keep looking for life forever. If we examine ten thousand planets and they’re all sterile, you’ll still say, ‘Another ten thousand might pay off.’” And that’s true. Sometimes exploration takes place in the service of illusory goals—for example, Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth—but it’s still a good idea to explore.

CI:      A practical problem for scientists designing experiments to detect difficult, far-away things is that they need a premise of what they might find. As I understand it, Earth is seething with organisms that can’t be cultured in the lab, whose signatures in the environment are very subtle and easily confusable with non-biogenic processes. The whole business of knowing what we can detect is hard.

TF:     Suppose, though, that you looked at a high-resolution spectrum of a 1.5 terrestrial-mass planet at 0.7 AU from some star ten parsecs away, and you recognized things like water vapor, and things that didn’t make any sense at all. There would be a worldwide, instantaneous, tremendous interest in that planet. A lot of technology would be brought to bear on examining it and others like it. People could go on for a decade debating about signs of life without answering the question, but they sure as hell would keep investigating.

CI:      We both think the universe is likely to be full of bugs, microbes, small life organisms, but possibly bereft of large, sophisticated creatures. As far as the public is concerned, there’s a lot of excitement about astrobiology. Is there a sense that finding bugs out there won’t be satisfying? That what we’re looking for in some deep place is companionship, and if the universe is full of pond scum, the public won’t care much?

TF:     It’s easy to underestimate the public. When Carl and I and others were at JPL for the Viking landing and the first live picture came down from the surface of Mars, people all over the world were watching live—they were up at odd hours in Europe and Japan, where those pictures were shown live on TV. In the United States, that happened to be exactly the same time that our morning shows, “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America,” were on the air live, but they didn’t bother to cover it. They didn’t break and say, “Here comes the first live picture from the surface of Mars.” The network science people were tearing their hair out with anger and frustration because their producers said the public didn’t care.

Fast forward to the Pathfinder landing. With the internet, people didn’t have to rely on gatekeepers to tell them what to see. The number of hits on that website on the first day were larger than the cumulative TV audiences of those morning shows back at the time of the Viking landing. People voted for their interests; it turns out they were much more interested than the communication professionals ever knew. Throughout my career, I’ve written rather difficult and ambitious books. I’ve never tried to dumb things down for the audience. I ask a lot of my readers, and they’ve been up to it. I think there would be a lot of excitement over the discovery of extraterrestrial life, regardless of its form.

CI:      You’ve hit on a bigger point in our culture. It seems there’s a thirst for science in the popular culture that’s not being met. I like the story of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Leon Lederman: when he was retiring and worrying about teacher education, he floated proposals for reality-based science shows. He didn’t get far with that.  Is there a broad, unsatisfied interest in this subject matter?

TF:     Yes. All through my career, I’ve talked to everyone the same. Whenever anyone—a cab driver, a bartender, someone sitting next to me on a plane—has asked what I do, I tell them about the book I’m working on. Even with the difficult subjects, cosmology and such, people are interested. The idea that Joe Sixpack won’t be interested unless you tell him why it’s important is, I think, a journalistic fallacy that has lived on through repetition. It complements the gatekeeper idea because it says inherently that you and I are smarter than Joe Sixpack, so we have to tell him how to think. I’ve been a college professor for more than a quarter of a century, and in my experience, college professors aren’t smarter than Joe.

When we were making “Creation of the Universe,” my executive producer was reading a magazine devoted to professionals in cable television. At that time, cable had a penetration of only twenty to twenty-five percent of American households; they were concerned with what kind of programming people wanted to see so they could keep building their audience. They conducted a survey of about fifty different things: number one was news, number two was sports; it went all the way down, and there was no science. My producer called the person who had written the article and said, “We’re in the business of doing science, and we just wondered—how bad is it? How low is the number?” They said, “There wasn’t any box to check for science. That’s a good idea; when we do the annual survey next year, we’ll put science on there.” They did, and it came in third.

CI:      On the question of how the public might react—whether it’s extrasolar planets and atmospheric biomarkers, or subsurface Mars—suppose that happens, and in a pivotal enough way that the evidence is unambiguous; it becomes a news story that biology on Earth is not unique. Will that change us, in the broadest sense?

TF:     The change will be profound and long-ranging. The best historical parallel I can think of is the impact upon Europe of the discovery of the classical texts of Greece and Rome. The immediate results included the founding of universities with whole departments devoted to understanding Plato and Aristotle; an impetus to the development of the printing press, because there was a growing demand from ordinary people to learn to read in order to access these wonderful books. Those effects rippled down through the centuries. They helped create the modern world. It would be like that—it wouldn’t be a question of what happened in the first few weeks or months, but of what happened over a period of decades and centuries.

CI:      Do you hope that it might give us a larger sense of responsibility and stewardship of our own part of the universe?

TF:     It might very well. It takes time for these things to sink in. The realization of how thin the Earth’s atmosphere is—it’s a membrane, like the transparent membrane over the eye; that we’re on one planet among many; that our planet has been through enormous changes in its history, and we don’t understand the mechanisms behind many of those changes, many of which would be at best disaccomadating for us were they to occur today—these realizations are just beginning to penetrate into the general culture. It takes a long time for people to incorporate them into their thinking. Stewardship was relatively unknown in schools of engineering fifty years ago. You could get an A in an engineering class if you designed a factory that dumped raw chemical waste into a stream. Now you’d get an F for that design. These things penetrate into professional circles first, and then more widely. Kids now are indoctrinated with some degree of environmental consciousness. I tend to be cautious about predicting the effects of future discoveries, because people are very complex, and those effects are written out by individual decisions of hundreds of millions of people.

CI:      Let me ask about the future of life. We know from the history of species that 99.999% of them become extinct. We’re currently on an exponential cusp of technological change, and it seems hard to predict our role in the universe in the future. Is that something you think about, or write about?

TF:     The original philosophical question that interested me as a boy—and still does today—was, “How do we understand the relationship between the human mind and the wider universe, of which it forms a part, but from which it stands apart?” The question of who we are can be rephrased as a question of how we best understand our place in the wider scheme of things. One of the reasons we would like to know about intelligent life elsewhere is that we don’t know whether intelligence is a fluke or whether it typically arises, or what other species have done with it. I’m optimistic—I like people; I like what people have been able to create out of this life. If I was asked to predict how long people will survive, that number would be more like a million years than a hundred years.

CI:      There’s this interesting, slightly disreputable area of studies called artificial life. People who ascribe to the strong versions of it say that biology can be independent of the substrate of chemistry. Do you think the work on artificial life can inform us about what the universe might have created?

TF:     I don’t see why not. It’s always great to have original ways of looking at things; even ways that turn out to be wrong in an empirical sense can still be interesting—particularly when you keep in mind that in terms of space, scientific research fades into exploration, and the boundary between the two is not clear. The priorities and the imperatives and the history change a lot when you move from science to exploration. Columbus, for reasons of his own, resolutely disregarded all the best empirical information available to him about the science of the Earth. We don’t know why he did that, but he got a good result from it. He was wrong—he never would have reached Asia—but things worked out anyway. A lot of speculative stuff is written in cosmology, and at most only a fraction of it will prove to have an empirical basis. Cosmologists are often criticized for that. I find it rather charming and stimulating to have windows open and keep the fresh air of new ideas coming in.

CI:      Some computer scientists and physicists say that all you need for life is thermal disequilibrium and an information-carrying and propagating mechanism. That might well be possible without biology.

TF:     That’s true, as far as I can tell. It gets things down to their physical or thermodynamic essentials. It’s one of the many good metaphors that have been constructed out of thermodynamics.

There’s another example in economics. In Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, all the material progress in the world is referred to by a single word: “inequality.” It doesn’t force us to think that inequality is a bad thing. But any economist will tell you that a state of zero inequality is entropic and incapable of producing any work. It’s a matter of taste—at what point is a given society comfortable with certain levels of inequality? Different societies make different judgments, based on a lot of elements. I think those metaphors are useful.

CI:      Let me ask about intelligence and SETI. We share a planet with a handful of species that are fairly intelligent, but lack the benefit of opposable thumbs or technology. Is that a meaningful fact when we try to look for intelligence elsewhere? There are cetaceans and primates that have self-awareness, and possibly even transmitted knowledge.

TF:     They don’t have transmitted knowledge in the sense of the use of written language, although they have cultural transmission, such as teaching a newborn dolphin how to breathe. The mothers typically nudge him up to the surface, give him a hand with it.

CI:      What about the coupling between intelligence and technology?

TF:     I make a sharp division between species that demonstrate the capacity to use an abstract symbolic language—and there is only one such species on Earth—and those that don’t. By that definition, there’s only one intelligent species on Earth. On the other hand, if you don’t respect others, you don’t respect yourself. I would encourage humans to keep that in mind in our dealings with animals. We can be a lot more decent in the way we interact with other living things. The concept that they have rights is not a foolish notion, even though it’s often laughed at; universal suffrage was laughed at little more than a century ago. I don’t think we’ll be giving animals the vote, exactly, but there’s a lot of room to treat life more equitably. That doesn’t have to be based on its intelligence, but on the fact that it’s diverse and wonderful, and we’re dependent on it.

CI:      Do you feel that SETI is overly laden with anthropocentric assumptions, or that the methodologies have become too tracked on our particular capabilities—that they’re not out-of-the-box enough?

TF:     I’ve thought about that a lot. You think you have a fruitful imagination until you’re offered time on the Space Telescope and you have to think of something original to do with it. A number of different strategies have been attempted with SETI. Depending on how you define the phase space of the search, we’ve probably just scratched the surface. On the other hand, it’s discouraging not to receive a signal. If my little idea of interstellar networks holds up, signal detection ought to be easier than looking for individual broadcasters, but I don’t know how to measure that against the results to date. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using radio. We have optical SETI now, too.

It’s appropriate that SETI has been a private enterprise for a while now, because it had rough treatment when it was funded with public money. It’s not a big project, nor does it have to be. I don’t have much basis on which to criticize the tactics that have been used. They’ve tried to minimize unwarranted assumptions, and they’ve done a pretty good job. I may feel impatient that they haven’t found anything yet, but I have less ground for feeling that way than someone who has devoted his career to it for ten years. Carl used to say, and Frank made this same point, that undergraduate or graduate students might want to jump into SETI with both feet, but that we ought to discourage them—make sure nobody puts too many eggs in that basket. There’s no way of knowing how long we’re going to go without a result.

CI:      That’s the only substantive scientific criticism I’ve heard—that interpreting a null result is exceptionally difficult. It’s formally difficult to do the standard things, like writing a proposal to your funding agency, because you have to say what you would learn if you didn’t find anything.

TF:     SETI is more on the exploration side than the science side. If it’s criticized on scientific criteria, perhaps those criticisms are just, but as an exploratory operation, it has more of a Jules Verne quality. As long as somebody is passionate enough to want to keep funding the search, then the search can go on. It doesn’t hurt anybody. They can criticize it as science all they like, and maybe they’re right, but if we find a signal one day, nobody will care how good the reasoning was.

CI:      We anticipate many biological experiments out there, and that some fraction of those will have generated intelligence, and some fraction of those will have generated technology. Is it possible that biology itself is just a transitional phase towards machine intelligence or pure technology? It’s a scary prospect for many people, because in science fiction and popular culture it’s mythologized into “us against the machines,” but I look at technology and think we’re merging with machines.

TF:     There’s a joke about that in “Seeing in the Dark.” I had an irresponsible and technophobic talk drafted and outlined—which I never delivered, because it was irresponsible—but that I ended up putting in “Seeing in the Dark.” There is a computer sold every half-second in the world, we’re wiring them together as fast as we can. It’s easy to construct paranoid fantasies about that.

The serious side is that there are people of all political stripes, both conservatives and socialistic liberals, who are eager to restrict scientific research based on someone’s fearful projection of what might be done with it—that, for instance, stem cell research will lead to fantasies like the one in the movie “The Island,” in which humans are grown on farms in order to have bodies and parts ready for the wealthy. What I find healthy is to look back in history and ask, “What avenues of scientific research would you prefer had been blocked, so that we wouldn’t have some of our current knowledge?” Most people will come up with “the bomb.” They would like to have stopped Einstein’s 1905 paper and the subsequent work that led to the atomic bomb. Even if you could have done that, do you think the world would be better as a result? Historically, technological developments have not tended to drive away other developments, except insofar as people wanted them to—with the sole exception of colonialism and imperialism, which is an era that has come and gone. Smart machines would change the world, certainly, but I don’t fear that they’d leave a world with no place for us.

CI:      So you think we should ride the wild beast and enjoy this technology ride?

TF:     I think everyone investigating nature should be free to do so as he or she wishes. It is folly to try to restrict scientific inquiry based upon some scenario of how it might go wrong in the future. If it’s producing a deleterious result right now in the lab, that’s a different thing; there are laws and professional strictures that are concerned with disposition. At the height of political correctness, people sometimes used to ask me after one of my talks, “Aren’t you concerned that someone might be offended by what you’re saying?” I would say, “Let’s have a show of hands. Anybody here offended?” And no one would raise their hands. I would say, “If I’m going to be asked to restrict my speech on the basis that someone in this room is offended by it, then I want to know what’s giving offense, and we’ll talk about it. But I’m not going to restrict my speech based upon the notion that somebody somewhere else might be offended by it.” That’s what these extrapolations really are. We have a vague fear, and we’d like to use that fear to talk humanity into remaining more ignorant than would otherwise be the case.

CI:      We have plenty of problems to solve on this planet, as you know so well. It seems like the question, “Are we alone?” sets a deep psychological hook in most people. Why do you think that is?

TF:     It contains the answer to Socrates’ questions of, “Who am I? Who are we?” As long as we’re the only intelligent species we know anything about, it’s going to be difficult for us to understand ourselves. When we don’t understand ourselves, we are prey to all sorts of delusions. That’s why civilization is what happens in cities, that’s what the word means. Traditionally, it’s in cities that different kinds of people have come together, bumped up against one another, and come to know themselves better by virtue of the similarities and dissimilarities they find with one another. That’s been a tremendous asset for us, but we’re still all humans; all forms of life we encounter are just variations on the same form. Once we have some others to compare ourselves with, we will understand ourselves better. I believe that’s the fountainhead, the appeal of this ancient, mysterious question.