INTERVIEW BY JOHN WISNIEWSKI
Where do you think we are heading as a planet, or as people on this planet? Is there the danger of a new ice age in the future, or of a huge distant star, heading towards earth?
Depends on the timescale. In the long run the sun becomes a red giant and the earth becimes a cinder. In the short term I think Jim Lovelock’s suggestion of a population collapse and city-based civilization is plausible.
If it were not for human activities, the present interglacial would end in about a thousand years, restoring full ice age conditions. But given our impact, it is likely that a tipping point will be reached within a hundred years, switching the planet into a hotter stable state.
A close encounter with another star is unlikely, but impacts from rocky or icy objects like the one that finished off the dinosaurs are inevitable. The only question is when. An equally grave risk is a massive volcanic eruption, perhaps at Yellowstone. These are among the reasons, spelled out in my book “The Reason Why,” that I think civilizations like ours are rare.
John, are we alone in our universe, or there other possible worlds out there?
For reasons detailed in my book “The Reason Why” aka “Alone In The Universe,” I think that life is common in the universe but our kind of intelligent technological civilization is so rare that there is unlikely to be another in our galaxy.
It chose me. I always wanted to know how the world works, and physics is the most fundamental science. Everything else, as Rutherford said, is merely stamp collecting.
For an introduction to your work, which of your books would be best to start with?
The book most people know is In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat.
Are you interested in cosmology?
I wanted to be a cosmologist but got side tracked into stellar astrophysics. Many of my books deal with cosmology, including my latest, “13.8,” to be published by Icon in October. It also deals with stellar astrophysics! Out in October this year, 13.8 deals with the quest to discover the ages of stars and the Universe.
John, why do we study the life and work of Schrodinger and Einstein, and yourself, of course? What are we searching for?
Nobody studies my work! I am essentially a reporter. On the other questions, I think it is human nature to try to understand how the Universe works, whether by religion, philosophy or science. So those of us who are not clever enough to contribute to the search for meaning are naturally interested in the work (and lives) of those who are.
Any favorite science fiction authors?
I was brought up on Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and in that tradition love David Brin and Larry Niven. Among current writers, Robert Sawyer. And Terry Pratchett, of course, who wrote true science function, not fantasy, because his plots followed a clear logic of cause and effect.
Do you foresee any new discoveries in the world of physics coming?
I don’t know if it counts as a “discovery” but a true quantum computer. Related to this, a quantum internet based on entangled photons.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing A History of Science in 100 Experiments, which does what it says on the tin!