Taxi drivers

Taxi drivers inspire astrobiologist to tackle life’s big questions

Much like barbers and bartenders, taxi drivers have long been known to offer a source of opinions on just about everything under the sun. But in a new book, famed British astrobiologist Charles Cockell uses the memories of his interviews with taxi drivers – usually on their way to an international scientific conference – as a springboard to tackle some of the toughest questions about life in the cosmos.

Many of the questions posed in Cockell’s book – “Taxi from Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers About Life in the Universe” – will be familiar to those with a rudimentary knowledge of astrobiology and space science. But to his credit, Cockell manages to add his own take on many of these age-old puzzles, and in doing so has hit unique high marks.

“As soon as you open that door and sit down, taxi drivers begin questioning, building on what they perceive to be important and probing what you have to say in response,” Cockell writes.

The title of the book was inspired by one of Cockell’s drivers who wondered if another Earth-like planet might be home to alien taxi drivers conversing with their fares the same way they might in New York or in London.

“After that day, I began to use taxi rides as an opportunity to ask questions, talk, and reflect on life in the universe,” Cockell writes.

Cockell introduces each new chapter with questions generated by real-life conversations with drivers he’s had since 2016. It’s a clever narrative device that University of Edinburgh professor Cockell uses well to cover the talking points. astrobiological discussion of the book. Here are a few.

A century ago it was commonly believed that Mars probably had sentient life

It was new to me. But as Cockell notes in a discussion prompted by a taxi driver’s question about the potential for life on Mars, he reminds his readers that at the turn of the 20e century, the Pierre Guzman Prize from the French Academy of Sciences actually offered a category for the first person to communicate with an extraterrestrial civilization.

“Mars was exempted because the award committee thought communicating with Martians would be too easy,” Cockell writes.

That’s because surprisingly, at the turn of the 20th century, Mars was widely thought to be inhabited by intelligent beings. Today we know that Mars is as barren as Death Valley. The Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere early on and although it appears to have had lakes and even an ocean, today all bets are off on whether it ever had microbial life.

At the time, Cockell notes, although many educated people accepted that Mars might have intelligent life, there was no panic in the streets. Life went on; people were paying taxes and other than inciting another round of drinks at society dinners, life was pretty much unchanged.

Is the prospect of extraterrestrial contact potentially dangerous?

Cockell thinks it’s more likely that an alien civilization that can travel across the galaxy to get here isn’t driven by a desire to wipe us out. But it offers an interesting view of the possibility of direct extraterrestrial contact.

“If extraterrestrials arrive in a spacecraft, it is likely that they will have at least an equal understanding of the universe, and potentially they will have a far superior one,” Cockell writes.

Otherwise, he notes, they wouldn’t be able to plan a spacecraft’s trajectory or calculate the effects of gravity in order to land safely here on Earth.

When will space travel really become routine?

“At eight years old, I really thought I was going to travel to Mars in the 1980s,” Cockell writes. “Futurists of the day planned space travel as routine, not just for the lucky few who had the ‘right stuff’ to become astronauts.”

I can understand how Cockell feels. Any space enthusiast who came of age in the 1960s cannot help but be disappointed by our lack of progress in the adventure to and beyond the Moon.

But although he claims that crewed spaceflight programs in the 1960s were intended to show off Soviet and American space exploits for the glory of society, I disagree. In truth, President John F. Kennedy’s call to safely return a man to and from the moon by the end of this decade was a calculated geopolitical gamble to ensure the Soviets could not reign in terror. upon us from above. Even though NASA is a civilian space agency, Congress would never have funded Apollo if it weren’t for US national security.

Fifty years later, we are returning to the Moon largely because China has the potential to push our astronauts back to the lunar surface.

What are we anyway?

One of the last points in the book involves a taxi driver who wonders what the fuss is about; what are we in fact? This prompts Cockell to make some interesting observations about what actually constitutes life versus non-life. This is still a complicated answer.

As Cockell notes, life has a capacity for chaos and immense complexity in the way atoms can be arranged to generate a vast diversity of matter that “can do a multitude of things.”

Cockell himself refuses to be drawn into a clear definition of life as we know it today. Instead, he warns that “we should not assume that nature has made this thing which we call life fundamentally distinct from another thing which we call non-life”.

“If we avoid this mistake, we will find ourselves better equipped to learn from everything we find in the universe…” writes Cockell.

This opens the door to even more questions. Will we ever arrive at a truly satisfying definition of life, and if not, how can we hope to detect it on a strange new exoplanet?

With this timely new book, Cockell makes us envision a range of new possibilities beyond the mind.