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How Do We Think Beyond Our Own Existence?
The Limits and Possibilities of the Scientific Imagination
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AHP NOTE: When I first heard about Jaime Green’s new book, The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos, I knew I wanted to feature it on Culture Study. But I also knew that I wanted someone with a whole lot more subject area knowledge — someone who really, really loved space, like had a bonkers passion for it — to do the interview. That person was Culture Study reader Johanna Humphrey, and it was such a joy to work with her (and compensate her, of course) to put this interview together.
And now, here’s Joanna’s intro — and her interview with Jaime Green.
I remember the first time I saw Saturn through a telescope at my college observatory more than twenty years ago. I had firmly committed to a degree in sports management, but then Saturn suddenly came into view. Of course we’ve all seen photos of Saturn in books and online, but here I was, looking at it IN REAL LIFE.
It was like an actual celebrity sighting. “Ah fuck,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got it all wrong.”
As someone who was always “good” at writing and language arts and “middling to bad” at science and math, I had convinced myself that I should pursue what I was good at and not what made me happy. I never changed my major. But my heart has been in the stars ever since seeing Saturn’s rings and moons that night.
When people ask me what kind of books I like to read, I always respond with the same answer: “nerdy ones.” I’ve immersed myself in (some VERY dense) books about the cosmos, about the big bang, about string theory, about the history of calculus. My friends recommend fiction books to me, but (to paraphrase a line from Sideways), there’s so much to know about this world, so I’ll always choose non-fiction over a story someone invented. Occasionally, I’ll struggle to get through these books, but they scratch that itch to know more about something I never formally studied.
When I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Jaime Green’s The Possibility of Life and interview her about the book, I jumped at the chance. As the title suggestions, it’s an exploration of what life might look like beyond Earth, but I was unprepared for how deeply it would cause me to think about the nature of imagination, the limitations of our own abilities to conceptualize that which we cannot see, and what it means to truly exist. It’s a fascinating look at alien life, but maybe more importantly, it’s an exploration of how we conceive of something that is, by most accounts, inconceivable.
You don’t have to like nerdy books or have regrets about your choice of major in college to love this book — you just need a willingness to expand your imagination’s horizons in ways you never have before.
JH: The Possibility of Life begins with an intriguing premise. You argue that while plenty of scientists are trying to ask “whether or not” there is life outside of earth, we should also focus on “what if.” Can you talk more about this framing, and the general attempt to succinctly communicate the realm of possibilities to your readers?
JG: In a way, I came to this premise selfishly: I really wanted to write a book about the scientific search for life beyond Earth, but a lot of versions of that book had already been written. And they were all written by astronomers, by researchers, while here I was with an MFA in creative nonfiction and one undergrad astronomy class under my belt. So for a long time I tucked that book idea away, since there didn’t seem to be space for it on the shelf at the bookstore.
But then I got the chance to write an essay series about aliens through a cultural lens (because a friend asked if I had ideas for an essay series on culture, and I said “...what about aliens???”) and I discovered that when I put sci-fi and science in conversation, I had a lot to say. That’s when I realized that there was a whole nother way of looking at this question, not in terms of trying to narrow down possibilities to an answer, but to expand and explore the possibilities, the imaginings, and ask what they mean.
As for succinctness… I had to settle for incompleteness. There’s no way for a single book, or even the entirety of all literature, to encompass all the possibilities of life. I gave myself boundaries with the book’s structure—each chapter covers a topic that’s important to our understanding, like planets (places for life to be) or people (intelligence and what makes a creature a “person”)—but within that, I mostly followed my own curiosity. There’s so much I could cover, there was never a chance of completeness, just one version of the picture guided by one writer’s curiosity. Which I suppose is one of the things that makes it, for a science book, pretty personal.
JH: As I read your book, I kept thinking: "Man, human imagination is a real doozy!" I read Ed Yong’s An Immense World right before starting your book, so it was interesting to go from one book that uses science to stretch the limits of the human imagination as it relates to how animals perceive the world….to another that stretches the limits of the human imagination as it relates to interstellar life. And then I realized that another author I enjoy, Phil Plait, is releasing a book this month called Under Alien Skies, where he’s attempting to articulate what it would look like on the edge of a black hole, trying to make these things that a human will never experience into something real.
And I wonder: am I just discovering these books now? Or is there something about our current reality where there’s more interest in trying to expand human imagination beyond what’s on our screens and in our immediate spheres?
JG: I can’t speak to whether this is a boom moment or not, but I think imagination has a powerful connection to empathy and the capacity for change, both of which are crucial in this moment. Especially in Ed’s book, too, it’s also a vessel of humility: in realizing that other animals have senses, and thus experiences of the world, that we can’t even imagine, we get a sense of our smallness, our lack of specialness, and the vast diversity of life. It’s actually a lot like what’s going on under the surface of my book, regardless of whether we’re realizing we’re not special on Earth or among the cosmos.
Imagination is powerful, but it’s also limited. One of the fascinating ideas I encountered in my research was that before the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo (which revealed, respectively, that the Earth is not the center of the solar system and that the other planets we could see as specks in the sky were actually spherical worlds), people (we’ll limit it to the West, since that’s the culture and historical moment this comment related to) could not imagine life on other planets. Because it was just entirely beyond the limits of their worldview. But after Copernicus and Galileo, they imagined all sorts of wild and wonderful things. Imagination pushes the limits of what we can conceive of, but it reveals those limits, too.
JH: You reference the work of a bunch of sci-fi writers in the book — but I noticed a real attention to the work of sci-fi writers who are women, including N.K. Jemisin, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Sue Burke. What do you notice about the way that these women imagined extraterrestrial life differently than their male counterparts?
JG: Gotta add Mary Doria Russell to that list, too — The Sparrow was a formative sci-fi read for me, and was so rewarding to write about. But I’ll pause and say that I’m not a scholar of sci-fi, and I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of the genre. The books I write about are books that I love — either books I read long ago and was excited to be able to write about (which includes all the authors you listed, and Russell), or books I encountered in my research, like Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, or Tade Thompson’s Rosewater). So any book I write about is a book I really connected with, because of its story, characters, or visions of alien life. (Like, Solaris’s human story is kind of annoyingly chauvinist and mid-century, but its alien is amazing.)
So while I could say that these female writers all write with deep sensitivity to relationships and feelings, and all have a somewhat anthropological bent —driven by understanding and imagining different kinds of people (human or alien) and their cultures — that’s present in some of the male writers I loved writing about, like Thompson, or James L. Cambias, who wrote a fantastic novel called A Darkling Sea that has a really vividly imagined underwater civilization.
Of this very unscientific survey, maybe the one consistent difference is the treatment of love. In Rosewater and Solaris, love is used for manipulation (by the alien power). But in Jemisin, Le Guin, and Russell, love is a powerful, almost pure force. It triumphs, and it saves its troubled characters. But then, I just remembered Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (which, perhaps meaningfully, was co-written with his wife, Ann Druyan). Love is central to Sagan’s work. So in the end, there are variations but no hard lines. And I was glad to be able to write about the work of so many women in what’s unfortunately often thought of as a male genre.
JH: I have an 8-year-old who I think still feels a sense of curiosity and wonder about the things he doesn't know about. How can we, as adults, re-cultivate the ability to think beyond the confines of our own existence?
JG: Part of it is definitely practice. I was a theatre major in undergrad, and one acting exercise I vividly remember was when we were asked to find an object in the room — it was a messy theatre studio, I ended up with a big theatre light — and interact with it as if we were little kids. I think I was 18, which seems so young to me now, but I had to embody the curiosity and wonder of a preschooler. And I think I remember it vividly because, with nothing else to do but observe with wonder, I was able to do that so deeply, to notice the shape and texture and weirdness of this fresnel or whatever it was.
But a rusty theatre light isn’t probably what you’re hoping to reconnect with curiosity about. Maybe it’s nature, maybe it’s other people. I find, predictably, a lot of that connection in books. This past year I took a teaching job with a one-hour commute, and I’ve gotten really into audiobooks, especially natural history. Learning about the aspects of the world that aren’t obvious to us: plate tectonics, or fungi. Memoir is also powerful in that way, for learning about other people’s lives. Both mycorrhizal networks and other people’s interiorities are challenging to conceptualize.
I like audiobooks for that, honestly, because they’re low-effort. As long as the book is good and the narrator is good and you’re not terribly distracted, you can just soak it in. And that becomes a low-effort practice for a mindset that seeps into the rest of your life, noticing, appreciating, and wondering about what else there is.
JH: Ever since I saw Contact in theaters, there’s a quote from Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) that’s stuck with me: "The universe is a pretty big place,” she says. “It's bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it's just us... seems like an awful waste of space." So just for funsies — what do *you* think (or hope!) alien life looks like?
JG: I unfortunately think most alien life doesn’t look like much of anything at all—it’s probably single-celled stuff like bacteria, too small to even see. The transition from bacteria (and archaea—prokaryotes, for anyone who remembers high school bio) to complex cells and multicellular life (eukaryotes) seems like it relied on a single instance of one single-celled organism gobbling up another. But not for food — the gobbled came to live inside the gobbler, in a very intimate symbiosis, and eventually gave rise to mitochondria, yes, the powerhouse of the cell, and that energy powered the emergence of all the complexity we have on Earth. (Bacteria do a lot of chemically complex things, but in four billion years they’ve never made real structural innovations.)
So! That’s kind of pessimistic. It seems so unlikely, and it took two billion years after the emergence of life to take that next step. But also, the universe is huge, so who knows! This is where I take the humility track, and say I can’t imagine what might be out there. But I hope that, if we ever encounter them, we’re able to ask questions. I’d be so fascinated to learn about an alien’s physiology, the other ways nature has solved the problems of evolution. And I would love to be able to know anything about alien languages. Are they like human languages, just different? Something we could learn like we learn Spanish or Chinese? Or are they completely alien, incomprehensible—or alien but comprehensible nonetheless!
I guess it’s not surprising that, as the person who wrote this book, I have questions instead of predictions. I don’t expect to ever get answers but it would be amazing if I did.
About the Interviewer: Johanna Humphrey is a digital communications director in Philadelphia. Her passions include Philadelphia itself (she’ll drop a jawn reference on you anytime), curling (the sport), the Union (both the soccer team and the labor variety), and of course astronomy and nerdy books. She loves to travel with her husband and 8-year-old son, chasing eclipses (April 8, 2024 will be the next one in the U.S.), national parks, and cities with great public transit.
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