Taxi from Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers about Life in the Universe
Another cab driver, and it’s more questions about civil society on Mars, if there’s life on other planets (never mind the microbes), should we worry about an alien invasion, and why are we here on Earth, anyway?
Clearly, British author and astrobiologist Charles Cockell gets the best rides to scientific conferences, research sites, and the occasional reception at 10 Downing Street. The result is Taxi from Another Planet, sparked by a cabbie asking: “Are there alien taxi drivers?”
Even so seemingly simple a question opens so many paradoxes and conundrums it makes one worry for the future of science education should Uber and other ride-sharing services put taxi drivers out of business. Until then, Cockell guides his driver and the reader through the many questions lurking behind a coherent answer, such as: How (and why) did the universe form? How did life occur, at least here if not elsewhere? What kinds of creatures need to evolve and create what kind of a civilization that could lead to alien taxi drivers? And the question behind all others: Are we alone in this enormous universe?
Asking this question is far more than a matter of physics. “Being alone is a deeply human experience,” Cockell writes. “It’s only natural that we wonder as a species whether we are alone in a cold, vast, endless universe.”
And who better suited to pierce that loneliness than cabbies “linked into the collective mind of our civilization in a way that very few of us are. They feel the pulse of human thought. Not many other people boast continuous, day-to-day exposure to such a wealth of human experience and outlook.”
While Cockell gives an insider, science-based understanding of space and its exploration, he’s not shy in offering his opinions, such as there being no Planet B to flee to after we finish wreaking havoc on this one. Far from being at odds, he persuasively argues, environmentalism at home and exploration in space are natural allies working to understand and protect biological life.
Cockell wisely avoids discussing universes where the laws of physics may be different and the “fundamental constraints” of our universe no longer apply. This universe of ours is large enough for an infinitude of questions.
And in this universe it’s best to take nothing for granted, not cells, photosynthesis, wheels, space stations, or taxi drivers. Life isn’t just fragile, it’s highly contingent on so many factors that it’s just as possible that it needn’t have happened on this planet and might never happen on that other planet.
Yet if our loneliness is inevitable and long-standing, so is the curiosity it breeds. Cockell dates some of the earliest speculations about the existence of other planets to the fourth century BCE, and quotes the eloquent monk and mathematician Gordano Bruno, who in 1584 published On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, which offered what would turn out to be highly accurate speculation on exoplanets and the difficulties of finding them. And thanks to the invention of the telescope, from the late 17th century onward leading astronomers such as Christiaan Huygens and William Herschel, not to mention popular authors and other well-versed persons, speculated about the astronomers of Venus, the Lunarians of the Moon, and of course, Mars’ once extensive civilizations.
The mid-20th century’s space race and America’s hard-earned successes in space exploration ended those romantic notions as images emerged of the Moon and Mars’ harsh and empty landscapes. Are we then doomed to the boredom of searching out new microbes on otherwise barren exoplanets? Is there any glory left in exploration? Is it all just chance that we are so fortunate to exist at all, and on this lovely planet? And what, if anything, makes us special after all?
Perhaps, like Cockell, will we find solace in realizing that “the quest to understand life in the universe is itself the purpose. From that purpose will emerge previously unimaginable discoveries that will color and enrich our self-awareness and perception, perhaps altering what life means to us as individuals and changing the trajectory of our civilization in ways we cannot foresee.”
Hail a cab or stay at home and read this book.