Taxi drivers

Taxi drivers help solve the mysteries of the universe

While taxi drivers can generally speak their minds on most major issues, their wit and wisdom tend not to make the pages of academic books. But a British scholar who has collected some of their metaphysical musings for a new title on the mysteries of the universe thinks that omission is a mistake.

“Taxi drivers talk to people from all walks of life and have a very down-to-earth perspective – they tend to know what the interesting questions are,” explained Charles Cockell, professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh, whose last book Taxi from another planet: conversations with drivers about life in the universe chronicles discussions with taxi drivers in cities around the world, including London, Washington DC and San Francisco.

The idea for the book, published by Harvard University Press in August, came about during a taxi ride to a reception at 10 Downing Street honoring British astronaut Tim Peake in 2016, Professor Cockell said.

“My driver asked me if I thought there were alien taxi drivers on other planets,” he recalled. “It seems like a simple question, but it goes beyond the notion of intelligent life in space to look at how they might organize themselves and would they come to a capitalist system involving taxis,” Professor Cockell said. .

A conversation on another taxi ride – this time from Leicester train station to the UK’s National Space Center – led Professor Cockell to ponder how arrivals from space could join the workforce global work (“Good luck to them…as long as they don’t come to Leicester”), while a taxi trip to California raised questions about whether Mars should be considered the “planet B” of the Earth.

A long taxi ride through the Yorkshire Moors to the underground laboratories at Boulby Mine to oversee a test of planetary exploration rovers has also led to discussions of the economics of space travel to Mars. “These space billionaires, they’re welcome. It’s way too extreme and I love Yorkshire,” said one driver.

“The conductors aren’t too hooked on the details of space, but it allows them to get to the fundamental questions about life in the universe,” said Professor Cockell, a biochemist who previously worked at NASA in California and Stanford University.

“Taxi drivers are more connected to the hive mind of humanity – we all live in our bubbles to some degree, but that’s less true for taxi drivers,” he continued. “It’s good for everyone to have some insight into their work by asking what people outside of academia think about things.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com