Q: Did you grow up with religion?
Ans: I was born in Mexico, which is 100 per cent Catholic, where the Church has extreme power over everybody. Mine was not a churchgoing family, my mother was a believer but she was not very religious. My father was an atheist, both were refugees from the Spanish Civil War. I did believe when I was young. You are bombarded with all these things about sin, about going to heel, all these bad things that are going to happen to you if you don’t believe.
But when I started developing and looking at the universe and the way things are as far as we can tell by rational observation, what I saw conflicted with the Bible. It becomes less and less clear how a supernatural entity could have produced the universe, or people, or animals. There is a severe conflict there. So now, I don’t have any religion.
Q: Can you be religious and an astronomer?
Ans: In my view there is no possibility of any agreement; they come from different directions and different perspectives. Some people claim that they can still believe in a God or Gods and have a rational view of the universe, still be a scientist. I don’t think so.
Q: But science can’t explain everything, can it?
Ans: We cannot explain a lot of things about the universe yet. But the fact we still don’t have an explanation for some things doesn’t mean that we have to involve what Stephen J Gould called the god of the gaps. It’s true we cannot explain the origin of the universe, or the 96 percent of the universe which is transparent. I don’t know if we will ever fill those gaps. I saw Stephen Hawking talk at the Royal Albert Hall and at the end someone asked, “Do you think that we will ever know everything about the universe?” He replied, “I hope not”. This not knowing is what keeps the human mind exercising and evolving and developing ideas, it challenges us. If we knew everything about everything life would be very boring.
Q: Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?
Ans: Yes, I think there is primitive life in many places in the universe, probably billions and billions of places. By primitive life I mean something of the level of primitive beacteria. Bacteria can thrive in very extreme conditions and we have examples of that in many places on Earth. So, there may be bacteria on the Moon, on many of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, certainly on Mars. Now we have evidence of billions of planets in our Milky Way galaxy, some of these will have conditions which will allow life to appear at the level of bacteria.
But, when we talk about more developed forms of life, things that can be seen without a microscope, macrostructures with eukaryotic cells, that kind of cell is extremely difficult to produce. It took thousands of millions of years on Earth for that life to appear.
The history of life on Earth is fascinating, because it is a combination of chemical and biological processes that follows more or less the regular laws of physics- bringing atoms together in molecules and then developing more and more complexity – but also, it has been effected by cataclysmic events, planetary collisions, super massive volcanic eruptions, global change of weather in a very short period of time, massive extinctions – that have nothing to do with biology of chemistry. These things happened by chance.
These chance events combined with biological evolution to create our tree of life, that has been pruned several times, almost to the root level, and it grows again, in a new way. We – all life on Earth- live on one of those branches that is there just by chance. Other planets may have trees of life, but those trees of life are going to be very different.
Q: You go into schools to teach children about the universe. Is that hard?
Ans: Yes, it is very difficult to grasp properly because our minds are very Newtonian, into straight lines, three dimensions, into short periods of time and space. We can only think a few hundred years in the future or the past. But once we start thinking about thousands of millions of years we lose our sense of scale.
The best way I have found to explain these things is a linear timescale: I have a rope which us about 14 meters long: a timeline of the universe, on the right we have today, and those 14 meters represent 14 thousand million years, on a scale of one millimeter per million years, the entire history of the universe.
I ask the children to imagine that a millimeter along that rope is a million years. I start hanging milestones from the Big Bang to the formation of stars, to the solar system, to the emergence of life on Earth, to the emergence of eukaryotic cells, to the emergence of dinosaurs.
And at that scale humankind comes along 0.2 millimeters from the end – all of human history is contained in the thickness of a piece of paper. That is way of visualizing our presence in the universe that children can grasp. It is very humbling, for some may be depressing, learned so much about the universe, learned so much about ourselves, we haven’t destroyed ourselves yet. And I tell them that I hope we can survive for the next thickness of the piece of paper and find out even more about the universe.
Interview Conducted by : Jose Gonsalves for
‘New Humanist’ May – June 2013