The Limits and Possibilities of the Scientific Imagination
I can't wait to get this book. I'm married to the kind of guy who would leave love entirely out of a sci-fi book, and I love to say shit like, "why should all life be carbon-based?" to rile him up.
Thank you for this epic interview! Especially chewing on this:
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.
Wow this is jumping to the top of my to-read list! I love the shoutout to Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow was a really formative novel for me in scifi, and it’s a book I think about often.
i was literally thinking thoughts around the limits of human imagination and what lies beyond it yesterday. i will definitely check out this book!
I think aliens may arrive and simply declare us to be ‘cute’ and leave...no one takes this scenario seriously...
Johanna! Greetings from Old City and thank you!! 💓
Oooh, adding this book to my “to read” list right now!! (I also recently read Ed Yong’s “An Immense World”, and am currently reading James Bridle’s “Ways of Being”, so this book seems right up my alley!)
Good interview; good questions. Thank you. My imagination feels limit-ED at the moment so I feel like it was good to be reminded that there are still things to think about and consider.
I also like that the author is excited about “outer space” even though he actually isn’t sure it’s too likely there are other beings like ourselves.
We use aliens in science fiction as lenses to view ourselves and our society. If we are going to learn anything from them and they are going to be part of a story, they have to be similar enough to ourselves to fit our narratives. There's a reason we humans get along so well with dogs and enjoy stories with dogs rather than nematodes. Before Kepler, who wrote what might be the first modern science fiction story, we had stories about gods who were aliens in their own right. Madelline MIller made good use of this in Circe and Song of Achilles. Since I'm fascinated by lenses, The Possibility of Life sounds right up my alley, and my birthday is coming up soon.
The idea of alien life collects light from many directions. I recently read a book with a more science-oriented approach, as limited by familiar chemistry. It reveals life that is about the assembly and break down of carbon molecules using energy extracted using metal catalysts and membranes to juggle electrons. There is so much less energy and freedom of configuration further down the periodic table that it is hard to imagine aliens hiding there.
It was Margaret Dayhoff who opened the field when working for NASA with Carl Sagan back in the 1960s. They wanted to find out if there was life on Mars. Working with punch cards, she invented bioinformatics and the familiar letter codes for amino acids. Sagan, whatever one thinks of his pronunciation of "billions", was muse to Dayhoff and to Lynn Margulies, who is a bit of a crank nowadays, but did important work on symbiosis and ecological equilibrium. She recognized the importance of love or at least friendship.
I can't recommend the book I read here on Culture Study. Nick Lane's Transformer takes too alien an approach. It's a completely wrong lens for culture study, and it's a rough read as a book, too many ideas and too few diagrams. If you ever dream in Krebs cycles, however, consider that those wheels started turning billions of years ago when the world was young and not as it is now, and that those same cycles are running today, wheels ever turning, in every living thing.
There was discussion of life elsewhere before Kepler and Copernicus. The Bishop of Paris had to warn the folks at the Sorbonne back in the 13th century that arguing that God could only create one universe was a form of blasphemy. I'm not sure of his take on whether God could have had more than one begotten son if there were more worlds where souls needed saving. Needless to say, there were different concerns regarding life back then.