Why looking for aliens is good for society (even if there aren’t any)

Professor Ian Crawford from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences writes on the significance of astrobiology for the benefit of society. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.

The holy grail of all this activity would be the actual discovery of alien life, and such a discovery would likely have profound scientific and philosophical implications. But extraterrestrial life has not yet been discovered, and for all we know may not even exist. Fortunately, even if alien life is never discovered, all is not lost: simply searching for it will yield valuable benefits for society.

Why is this the case?

First, astrobiology is inherently multidisciplinary. To search for aliens requires a grasp of, at least, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science. Undergraduate courses in astrobiology need to cover elements of all these different disciplines, and postgraduate and postdoctoral astrobiology researchers likewise need to be familiar with most or all of them.

By forcing multiple scientific disciplines to interact, astrobiology is stimulating a partial reunification of the sciences. It is helping to move 21st-century science away from the extreme specialisation of today and back towards the more interdisciplinary outlook that prevailed in earlier times.

Earth rising above the surface of the moon, as seen from Apollo 8 in December 1968.
NASA

By producing broadminded scientists, familiar with multiple aspects of the natural world, the study of astrobiology therefore enriches the whole scientific enterprise. It is from this cross-fertilization of ideas that future discoveries may be expected, and such discoveries will comprise a permanent legacy of astrobiology, even if they do not include the discovery of alien life.

It is also important to recognise that astrobiology is an incredibly open-ended endeavour. Searching for life in the universe takes us from extreme environments on Earth, to the plains and sub-surface of Mars, the icy satellites of the giant planets, and on to the all-but-infinite variety of planets orbiting other stars. And this search will continue regardless of whether life is actually discovered in any of these environments or not. The range of entirely novel environments opened to investigation will be essentially limitless, and so has the potential to be a never-ending source of scientific and intellectual stimulation.

Sand dunes near to Mars’ South Pole.
NASA

The cosmic perspective

Beyond the more narrowly intellectual benefits of astrobiology are a range of wider societal benefits. These arise from the kinds of perspectives – cosmic in scale – that the study of astrobiology naturally promotes.

It is simply not possible to consider searching for life on Mars, or on a planet orbiting a distant star, without moving away from the narrow Earth-centric perspectives that dominate the social and political lives of most people most of the time. Today, the Earth is faced with global challenges that can only be met by increased international cooperation. Yet around the world, nationalistic and religious ideologies are acting to fragment humanity. At such a time, the growth of a unifying cosmic perspective is potentially of enormous importance.

In the early years of the space age, the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, said of the world: “We can never again be a squabbling band of nations before the awful majesty of outer space.” Unfortunately, this perspective is yet to sink deeply into the popular consciousness. On the other hand, the wide public interest in the search for life elsewhere means that astrobiology can act as a powerful educational vehicle for the popularisation of this perspective.

Indeed, it is only by sending spacecraft out to explore the solar system, in large part for astrobiological purposes, that we can obtain images of our own planet that show it in its true cosmic setting.

The Earth photographed from the surface of Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, March 2004.
NASA/JPL/Cornell/Texas A&M

In addition, astrobiology provides an important evolutionary perspective on human affairs. It demands a sense of deep, or big, history. Because of this, many undergraduate astrobiology courses begin with an overview of the history of the universe. This begins with the Big Bang and moves successively through the origin of the chemical elements, the evolution of stars, galaxies, and planetary systems, the origin of life, and evolutionary history from the first cells to complex animals such as ourselves. Deep history like this helps us locate human affairs in the vastness of time, and therefore complements the cosmic perspective provided by space exploration.

Political implications

Alexander von Humboldt, 1843.

There is a well-known aphorism, widely attributed to the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to the effect that “the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world”. Humboldt was presumably thinking about the mind-broadening potential of international travel. But familiarity with the cosmic and evolutionary perspectives provided by astrobiology, powerfully reinforced by actual views of the Earth from space, can surely also act to broaden minds in such a way as to make the world less fragmented and dangerous.

I think there is an important political implication inherent in this perspective: as an intelligent technological species, that now dominates the only known inhabited planet in the universe, humanity has a responsibility to develop international social and political institutions appropriate to managing the situation in which we find ourselves.

The ConversationIn concluding his monumental Outline of History in 1925, HG Wells famously observed: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Such an observation appears especially germane to the geopolitical situation today, where apparently irrational decisions, often made by governments (and indeed by entire populations) seemingly ignorant of broader perspectives, may indeed lead our planet to catastrophe.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Being at Bethlem

Olivia Bladen reports on her internship at the Bethlem Hospital Museum and Archives, offered as part of Birkbeck’s MA in Victorian Studies. During her time there, she looked into ‘over-study’ as a trigger for madness.On my first day at Bethlem Museum of the Mind archivist Colin Gale gives me a tour through the stacks, beginning with an important disclaimer. When I ask about personal ephemera left behind by former patients, such as letters – a common question, I later find out – he explains that this is not the nature of the records kept by the hospital, and that medical case-notes are about as personal as they get. I realise this makes sense: it would be invasive for the hospital systematically to collect personal affects in this way. But Colin understands why I asked. The history of Bethlem psychiatric hospital – or ‘Bedlam’, as it was notoriously known, giving us the colloquialism for ‘chaos’ still in use to this day – is sprawling, and often unsavoury. It brings to mind untold cruelties and tragedies, as we imagine the lost histories of misunderstood and mistreated residents. The desire to hear their stories, from their own points of view, is one most visitors to the museum and archives will feel.

However, as Colin pulls out Victorian admissions registers and case books, I realise that although I will have to do some reading between the lines, this may be a far more rewarding endeavour than I anticipated. Already, I can see stories unfolding in spidery handwriting, emerging through snippets of just a few sentences long. I’m particularly interested in a column in the general admission registers, the first recorded contact a patient would have with Bethlem, citing their ‘supposed cause of insanity’. This was to become the basis of my independent research, after I notice the term ‘over study’ crops up repeatedly. For the next six weeks, I go through every register from 1853 to 1888, noting down the details of each patient recorded with this given ‘cause’, then selecting specific case notes to explore further. I consult the writing of Dr George Savage, chief medical officer at Bethlem within my period, and many other Victorian psychiatrists, to try and understand how the term ‘over study’ was used. I even get to meet a current doctor from the hospital, Deji, who has been researching the same topic in his own time for twelve years. We are in agreement that concept of ‘over study’ was, even in the nineteenth century, not understood as an underlying cause of mental health issues, but as a trigger.  Nevertheless, the abundance of the term in the records speaks of the anxieties that existed in the popular imagination around the time of industrial revolution and education reform.     

In addition to its paper archive, the Bethlem also boasts an impressive material collection in the museum upstairs. I find out that in its current iteration, situated in what was formerly the hospital’s administration building, it is only a few years old. In 1970, ‘Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum’, as it was then known, was housed in a much smaller structure – and, to all intents and purposes, was an archive rather than a museum, since there was so little room for display. But in 2015, it moved to its more spacious home, and in an impressive feat that rewards its ambition, was shortlisted for Museum of the Year Award the very next year.

It doesn’t take long for me to meet the team, which is very small. Colin tells me that unlike larger organisations, here everybody does a bit of everything, and no day is ever the same. Although I can see this is hard, I am drawn to this way of working. I’m fascinated by the questions and problems each and everybody fields each day. The reading room, which also serves as Colin’s office, seems to be a hub of activity.  On Tuesdays, volunteer Charlotte deals with copyright issues, phoning round for permission to show artworks either in displays or on the website. Another volunteer, Barbara, helps Colin respond to archival enquiries by locating obscure references that may or may not exist somewhere within the pages of meeting minutes or case notes. She is trained in reading eighteenth and nineteenth-century handwriting, and often helps me decipher tricky passages that look like little more than inkblots to me.  Other days, I observe Learning Officer Caroline Smith deliver some public programming: a workshop around patient consent given to students on a psychology course; and the museum’s first audio-described tour of the collection for blind and partially-sighted visitors.

I’m keen to get more involved. I’ve arrived at the end of one exhibition and in time for the installation of Scaling the Citadel: The Art of Stanley Lench, which showcases his psychedelic, stained-glass influenced images that speak of beauty and celebrity. As part of the programming around the exhibition, Bethlem are running what they call ‘Fame and Misfortune’ tours, in which volunteers will give a five-minute talk about a famous resident or person associated with Bethlem. They’re looking for someone to give a talk on Charlotte Brontë – as a Victorian scholar, I feel I ought to step in. The talk is on a Saturday, given after a short tour of the museum by Colin. I explain how it’s thought that Brontë visited Bethlem when it was located in Lambeth, on one of her jaunts to London shortly before her death – but we can’t be sure, since she did not sign her name in the visitor book.

My talk leaves me feeling better prepared for the presentation I will give on my research this July, and it also reinforces my reluctance to leave Bethlem, as I’m caught up in the atmosphere of the Saturday opening. I bump into new director Suzie Walker-Millar, who offers me the opportunity to work on a project where I consult with volunteers about frequently-asked visitor questions to help improve training. I’m also looking forward to joining them as a front-of-house volunteer as soon as I can; and developing a learning resource with Caroline. My research project is over, but I’m not ready for my experience at Bethlem to end. I came there looking for its stories – now I hope I can be one of them.

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Making a market for acts of God

How is the damage of major global disasters paid for? And who by? Dr Rebecca Bednarek, Senior Lecturer in Management at Birkbeck, explores this in new book Making a Market for Acts of God, now available from Oxford University Press. 

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Catastrophic events appear to be increasing in both frequency and severity globally. The financial cost of their losses can be sudden and huge – but who pays the insurance bill for such massive events? Who paid for Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11, or the 2011 Tohuku earthquake?

It all comes from the ‘Reinsurance’ industry – a financial market that trades in the risk of major disasters. This means reinsurance is a crucial social and economic safety net that helps to mitigate some of the effects of disasters, both financially and in terms of allowing for a swifter rebuilding of people’s day-to-day lives following destruction or damage. Dr Rebecca Bednarek, Senior Lecturer in Management at Birkbeck uncovers the everyday realities of the reinsurance market in her book, Making a Market for Acts of God, co-authored with Professor Paula Jarzabiwski and Dr Paul Spee. They get to the bottom of how the risk of such disasters can be calculated and traded in a global market.

rebecca-bednarek_photoIn a recent interview for BBC Radio 4’s programme Thinking Allowed, Bednarek explains: ‘In the reinsurance industry, the increase and frequency of weather related events are put in the context of climate change. In addition, what is also happening is increased urbanisation; as cities get bigger, the losses and expenses of these events become more expensive, as more people are insured in localised settings.’ Further, increasingly, a natural disaster in one country could affect significant losses to supply chains in businesses around the world, and it is against this backdrop of increased globalisation that we must attach more significance to understanding the market of reinsurance.

The sheer scale of the claims means risk must be spread further in order to mitigate its effects – the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 insured losses of $35.5 billion, for example, and for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the payout was $46 billion. But as Bednarek says: ‘It’s not just the scale of this loss, it’s the fact that you couldn’t predict them. The reason reinsurers are able to themselves survive and to weather such large claims is because for each individual insurance deal, multiple reinsurers take a small part of this deal. No one reinsurer is exposed themselves to a single risk.’ The book also explains how long-term trust-based relationships between insurers and reinsurers are crucial to enabling and stabilising capital flows before and following these large-scale events. These relationships also enable reinsurers to build up deep contextual knowledge of specific risks; something which remains crucial in informing their judgement about risk even as they also use highly technical vendor models and actuarial techniques.

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Bednarek and her co-authors shadowed underwriters from various different countries for over three years, gathering ethnographic observations from reinsurers in Bermuda, Lloyd’s of London, Continental Europe and South East Asia, studying their trading activities across many disaster situations.

There may be some developments in the reinsurance industry which could cause future problems, however. Bednarek says: ‘What we found was a whole milieu of long-standing social practices that had ensured that this industry had worked’ and provided capital to underpin large scale catastrophes for centuries. However towards the end of their period of engagement, the researchers began to observe ‘a period of rapid change; things like collatorised forms of finance, different kinds of deals that were changing the industry in certain ways. We wonder what these changes might do to some of these long existing practices that we identified as integral to this market and how it works.’

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What’s in a face? Birkbeck researchers delve into what facial expressions reveal

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Birkbeck scientists in residence at the Science Museum have recently run a live experiment with members of the public, to discover how much we understand about people simply by looking at their faces. Two members of the team report on their experiences.  

Ines Mares, postdoctoral research assistant in the Department of Psychological Sciences: As humans, we possess the remarkable ability to extract a wealth of information from even a brief glance at a face: we can identify people, judge the emotion they are feeling, assign character traits (rightly or wrongly), and in doing so, continue to thrive as a social species. Because faces are so interesting and processing them well is so important to us as humans, they made an ideal topic to explore in the context of the Science Museum’s ‘Live Science’ initiative.

In the Science Museum we ran a series of experiments to understand what factors make faces more rewarding or appealing – such as how attractive they were, the emotions they were displaying or how old the faces were. We were especially interested to see how these judgements related to our ability to recognise faces, and to see how our results would change for younger and older participants (our experiments tested children from five years of age to adults of almost 90!).

Dr Ines Mares explains the experiment to a participant.

Dr Ines Mares explains the experiment to a participant. 

“This was a great opportunity for us to engage directly with people and discuss the type of research we do and the questions that motivate us. It is also a unique chance to reach out and test a much more diverse set of people than we are conventionally able to do, with anyone aged from five to 105 invited to take part in our studies.”

Dr Marie Smith, Senior Lecturer, Lead Scientist with Dr Louise Ewing (UEA) and Professor Anne Richards (Birkbeck)

Conducting this type of study, in which we focused so closely on individual differences with such a broad audience was outstanding.  It was a unique opportunity to interact with people from very different backgrounds and ages – something that can be challenging to do in the university labs.

To begin with, we were concerned about people’s willingness to take part in our experiments, but after the first day at the museum we understood that people were interested in being involved and actually wanted to know more about our hypothesis and what motivated us to do this type of work. It was an amazing chance to discuss these topics with members of the public and get feedback on our work directly from them. Initially this idea seemed quite daunting to me, but I ended up loving it, since the majority of people who took part in our experiments (and we had almost 2500 participants) were really motivated and interested to know more – not only about face processing, but also about other aspects of science in general.

Being part of a team running experiments in the Science Museum was an amazing opportunity.  Without a doubt, I would repeat this experience, not only because of the amazing breadth of data we were able to collect, but also because of the opportunity it gave us as researchers to disseminate our work and discuss science in general.

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Professor Anne Richards explains the purpose of our study to an interested volunteer. 

Michael Papasavva, PhD student in the Department of Psychological SciencesEven when working in a hub-science such as psychology, lab life can become monotonous. Surrounded by friends and colleagues who share similar views and challenges, it’s very easy to lose yourself in the bubble of academia.

Michael Papasavva signs up another keen volunteer!

Michael Papasavva signs up another keen volunteer! 

I was thrilled when presented with the opportunity to get out of the lab and be a scientist in residence at the London Science Museum. This prospect invoked childhood memories of navigating this huge and stimulating environment on school trips and family days out; I knew that the experience was going to be awesome (in the nerdiest way possible).

Working as part of a team of 12 researchers, we ran experiments in the ‘Who Am I? Gallery.’ This is perhaps one of the more interesting areas of the museum; the space houses visiting scientists from various disciplines and facilitates their research. Members of the public are free to wander over and volunteer to participate in experiments (or query the location of the toilets or dinosaurs). Our team conducted a range of different face processing experiments that examined the role of development and individual difference on face memory and emotion processing. By the end of the residency, almost 2500 people had participated (832 children, 1487 adults), creating masses of data for us to explore once we were back in the lab.

In addition to generating novel information, it’s the responsibility of a scientist to disseminate that knowledge to the wider public. Our residency provided us with an opportunity to engage with a very wide demographic. I must admit, it was heart-warming to see our younger participants having so much fun with the masks and games we had set up to help draw in the crowds and that so many of our  older participants chose to stay back to discuss our project with us. People genuinely enjoyed giving back to science.

I would strongly recommend the Live Science project.

Photo credits: Science Museum Group Collection

The full science museum team: Dr Marie Smith (Senior Lecturer, Birkbeck), Professor Anne Richards (Birkbeck), Dr Louise Ewing (Lecturer, University of East Anglia), Dr Ines Mares (Post-doc, Birkbeck), Michael Papasavva (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Alex Hartigan (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Gurmukh Panesar (PhD Student, Birkbeck), Laura Lennuyeux-Comnene (RA, Birkbeck), Michaela Rae (RA, Goldsmiths College), Kathryn Bates (MSc student, Birkbeck), Susan Scrimgeour (MSc student, Birkbeck), Jay White (Intern, UCL Institute of Education).

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