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  • How will we be remembered in 200 years?

  • I happen to live in a little town, Princeton, in New Jersey,

  • which every year celebrates the great event in Princeton history:

  • the Battle of Princeton, which was, in fact, a very important battle.

  • It was the first battle that George Washington won, in fact,

  • and was pretty much of a turning point in the war of independence.

  • It happened 225 years ago.

  • It was actually a terrible disaster for Princeton.

  • The town was burned down; it was in the middle of winter,

  • and it was a very, very severe winter.

  • And about a quarter of all the people in Princeton died that winter

  • from hunger and cold, but nobody remembers that.

  • What they remember is, of course, the great triumph,

  • that the Brits were beaten, and we won, and that the country was born.

  • And so I agree very emphatically that the pain of childbirth is not remembered.

  • It's the child that's remembered.

  • And that's what we're going through at this time.

  • I wanted to just talk for one minute about the future of biotechnology,

  • because I think I know very little about that -- I'm not a biologist --

  • so everything I know about it can be said in one minute.

  • (Laughter)

  • What I'm saying is that we should follow the model

  • that has been so successful with the electronic industry,

  • that what really turned computers into a great success, in the world

  • as a whole, is toys. As soon as computers became toys,

  • when kids could come home and play with them,

  • then the industry really took off. And that has to happen with biotech.

  • There's a huge --

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • -- there's a huge community of people in the world

  • who are practical biologists, who are dog breeders,

  • pigeon breeders, orchid breeders, rose breeders,

  • people who handle biology with their hands,

  • and who are dedicated to producing beautiful things, beautiful creatures,

  • plants, animals, pets. These people will be empowered with biotech,

  • and that will be an enormous positive step

  • to acceptance of biotechnology.

  • That will blow away a lot of the opposition.

  • When people have this technology in their hands,

  • you have a do-it-yourself biotech kit, grow your own --

  • grow your dog, grow your own cat.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • Just buy the software, you design it. I won't say anymore,

  • you can take it on from there. It's going to happen, and

  • I think it has to happen before the technology becomes natural,

  • becomes part of the human condition,

  • something that everybody's familiar with and everybody accepts.

  • So, let's leave that aside.

  • I want to talk about something quite different,

  • which is what I know about, and that is astronomy.

  • And I'm interested in searching for life in the universe.

  • And it's open to us to introduce a new way of doing that,

  • and that's what I'll talk about for 10 minutes,

  • or whatever the time remains.

  • The important fact is, that most of the real estate

  • that's accessible to us -- I'm not talking about the stars,

  • I'm talking about the solar system, the stuff that's within reach

  • for spacecraft and within reach of our earthbound telescopes --

  • most of the real estate is very cold and very far from the Sun.

  • If you look at the solar system, as we know it today,

  • it has a few planets close to the Sun. That's where we live.

  • It has a fairly substantial number of asteroids between

  • the orbit of the Earth out through -- to the orbit of Jupiter.

  • The asteroids are a substantial amount of real estate,

  • but not very large. And it's not very promising for life,

  • since most of it consists of rock and metal, mostly rock.

  • It's not only cold, but very dry.

  • So the asteroids we don't have much hope for.

  • There stand some interesting places a little further out:

  • the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

  • Particularly, there's a place called Europa, which is --

  • Europa is one of the moons of Jupiter,

  • where we see a very level ice surface,

  • which looks as if it's floating on top of an ocean.

  • So, we believe that on Europa there is, in fact, a deep ocean.

  • And that makes it extraordinarily interesting as a place to explore.

  • Ocean -- probably the most likely place for life to originate,

  • just as it originated on the Earth. So we would love to explore Europa,

  • to go down through the ice,

  • find out who is swimming around in the ocean,

  • whether there are fish or seaweed or sea monsters --

  • whatever there may be that's exciting --- or cephalopods.

  • But that's hard to do. Unfortunately, the ice is thick.

  • We don't know just how thick it is, probably miles thick,

  • so it's very expensive and very difficult to go down there --

  • send down your submarine or whatever it is -- and explore.

  • That's something we don't yet know how to do.

  • There are plans to do it, but it's hard.

  • Go out a bit further, you'll find that beyond the orbit of Neptune,

  • way out, far from the Sun, that's where the real estate really begins.

  • You'll find millions or trillions or billions of objects which,

  • in what we call the Kuiper Belt or the Oort Cloud --

  • these are clouds of small objects which appear as comets

  • when they fall close to the Sun. Mostly, they just live out there

  • in the cold of the outer solar system,

  • but they are biologically very interesting indeed,

  • because they consist primarily of ice with other minerals,

  • which are just the right ones for developing life.

  • So if life could be established out there,

  • it would have all the essentials -- chemistry and sunlight --

  • everything that's needed.

  • So, what I'm proposing

  • is that there is where we should be looking for life, rather than on Mars,

  • although Mars is, of course, also a very promising and interesting place.

  • But we can look outside, very cheaply and in a simple fashion.

  • And that's what I'm going to talk about.

  • There is a -- imagine that life originated on Europa,

  • and it was sitting in the ocean for billions of years.

  • It's quite likely that it would move out of the ocean onto the surface,

  • just as it did on the Earth.

  • Staying in the ocean and evolving in the ocean for 2 billion years,

  • finally came out onto the land. And then of course it had great --

  • much greater freedom, and a much greater variety of creatures

  • developed on the land than had ever been possible in the ocean.

  • And the step from the ocean to the land was not easy, but it happened.

  • Now, if life had originated on Europa in the ocean,

  • it could also have moved out onto the surface.

  • There wouldn't have been any air there -- it's a vacuum.

  • It is out in the cold, but it still could have come.

  • You can imagine that the plants growing up like kelp

  • through cracks in the ice, growing on the surface.

  • What would they need in order to grow on the surface?

  • They'd need, first of all, to have a thick skin to protect themselves

  • from losing water through the skin.

  • So they would have to have something like a reptilian skin.

  • But better -- what is more important

  • is that they would have to concentrate sunlight.

  • The sunlight in Jupiter, on the satellites of Jupiter,

  • is 25 times fainter than it is here,

  • since Jupiter is five times as far from the Sun.

  • So they would have to have -- these creatures, which I call sunflowers,

  • which I imagine living on the surface of Europa, would have to have

  • either lenses or mirrors to concentrate sunlight,

  • so they could keep themselves warm on the surface.

  • Otherwise, they would be at a temperature of minus 150,

  • which is certainly not favorable for developing life,

  • at least of the kind we know.

  • But if they just simply could grow, like leaves,

  • little lenses and mirrors to concentrate sunlight,

  • then they could keep warm on the surface.

  • They could enjoy all the benefits of the sunlight

  • and have roots going down into the ocean;

  • life then could flourish much more.

  • So, why not look? Of course, it's not very likely

  • that there's life on the surface of Europa.

  • None of these things is likely, but my,

  • my philosophy is, look for what's detectable, not for what's probable.

  • There's a long history in astronomy of unlikely things

  • turning out to be there. And I mean,

  • the finest example of that was radio astronomy as a whole.

  • This was -- originally, when radio astronomy began,

  • Mr. Jansky, at the Bell labs, detected radio waves coming from the sky.

  • And the regular astronomers were scornful about this.

  • They said, "It's all right, you can detect radio waves from the Sun,

  • but the Sun is the only object in the universe that's close enough

  • and bright enough actually to be detectable. You can easily calculate

  • that radio waves from the Sun are fairly faint,

  • and everything else in the universe is millions of times further away,

  • so it certainly will not be detectable.

  • So there's no point in looking."

  • And that, of course, that set back the progress of radio astronomy

  • by about 20 years.

  • Since there was nothing there, you might as well not look.

  • Well, of course, as soon as anybody did look,

  • which was after about 20 years,

  • when radio astronomy really took off. Because it turned out

  • the universe is absolutely full of all kinds of wonderful things

  • radiating in the radio spectrum, much brighter than the Sun.

  • So, the same thing could be true for this kind of life,

  • which I'm talking about, on cold objects: that it could in fact

  • be very abundant all over the universe, and it's not been detected

  • just because we haven't taken the trouble to look.

  • So, the last thing I want to talk about is how to detect it.

  • There is something called pit lamping.

  • That's the phrase which I learned from my son George,

  • who is there in the audience.

  • You take -- that's a Canadian expression.

  • If you happen to want to hunt animals at night,

  • you take a miner's lamp, which is a pit lamp.

  • You strap it onto your forehead, so you can see

  • the reflection in the eyes of the animal. So, if you go out at night,

  • you shine a flashlight, the animals are bright.

  • You see the red glow in their eyes,

  • which is the reflection of the flashlight.

  • And then, if you're one of these unsporting characters,

  • you shoot the animals and take them home.

  • And of course, that spoils the game

  • for the other hunters who hunt in the daytime,

  • so in Canada that's illegal. In New Zealand, it's legal,

  • because the New Zealand farmers use this as a way of getting rid of rabbits,

  • because the rabbits compete with the sheep in New Zealand.

  • So, the farmers go out at night

  • with heavily armed jeeps, and shine the headlights,

  • and anything that doesn't look like a sheep, you shoot.

  • (Laughter)

  • So I have proposed to apply the same trick

  • to looking for life in the universe.

  • That if these creatures who are living on cold surfaces --

  • either on Europa, or further out, anywhere where you can live

  • on a cold surface -- those creatures must be provided with reflectors.

  • In order to concentrate sunlight, they have to have lenses and mirrors --

  • in order to keep themselves warm.

  • And then, when you shine sunlight at them,

  • the sunlight will be reflected back,

  • just as it is in the eyes of an animal.

  • So these creatures will be bright against the cold surroundings.

  • And the further out you go in this, away from the Sun,

  • the more powerful this reflection will be. So actually,

  • this method of hunting for life gets stronger and stronger

  • as you go further away,

  • because the optical reflectors have to be more powerful so the reflected light

  • shines out even more in contrast against the dark background.

  • So as you go further away from the Sun,

  • this becomes more and more powerful.

  • So, in fact, you can look for these creatures with telescopes from the Earth.

  • Why aren't we doing it? Simply because nobody thought of it yet.

  • But I hope that we shall look, and with any --

  • we probably won't find anything,

  • none of these speculations may have any basis in fact.

  • But still, it's a good chance. And of course, if it happens,

  • it will transform our view of life altogether.

  • Because it means that -- the way life can live out there,

  • it has enormous advantages as compared with living on a planet.

  • It's extremely hard to move from one planet to another.

  • We're having great difficulties at the moment

  • and any creatures that live on a planet are pretty well stuck.

  • Especially if you breathe air,

  • it's very hard to get from planet A to planet B,

  • because there's no air in between. But if you breathe air --

  • (Laughter)

  • -- you're dead --

  • (Laughter)

  • -- as soon as you're off the planet, unless you have a spaceship.

  • But if you live in a vacuum, if you live on the surface

  • of one of these objects, say, in the Kuiper Belt,

  • this -- an object like Pluto, or one of the

  • smaller objects in the neighborhood of Pluto,

  • and you happened -- if you're living on the surface there,

  • and you get knocked off the surface by a collision,

  • then it doesn't change anything all that much.

  • You still are on a piece of ice, you can still have sunlight

  • and you can still survive while you're traveling from one place to another.

  • And then if you run into another object, you can stay there