A Physicist’s Perspective

Extra-terrestrial life has taken centre stage in the 21st Century. It has been the subject of scepticism and scrutiny for decades. 

Recently, WNOL posted an article about NASA’s recent groundbreaking discovery of seven new planets, which sparked more questions about the possibility of alien life and habitable planets aside from earth.

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An Intro to the Controversy of Alien Life. Video by: Ainaa Mashrique. All images, music and video clips within this video belong to their respective owners.

To answer some of these mind-boggling questions, WNOL spoke to Dr Simon Foster, a physicist at Imperial College London, who specialises in solar physics and has a PhD from University of Southampton. He was one of the researchers who took part in the BBC’s 30-minute programme “How to Put a Human on Mars”, which discussed the elements of an actual mission to Mars.

Recently, he talked to WNOL about a variety of topics, from extra-terrestrial life and its common misconceptions, to intergalactic travel and sci-fi movies. Read more to satisfy your inner sci-fi geek.

1) How did you first get into physics?

I was always interested in science and space science when I was a child. Weirdly, my science idol is a lady called Helen Sharman, who was the first Briton in space. I was probably five or six when she launched to the space station. I struggled to read, so I liked pictures in astronomy and things like that and coupled with Helen Sharman going into space, that basically made me want to be an astronomer or an astronaut, I’m actually friends with her now, so that’s really bizarre. I ended up studying space science and physics at the university of Southampton and I somehow ended up doing a PhD in solar physics, looking at solar changes and global warming.


Helen Sharman, the first Briton to go to space. Image by: AMSAT-UK.

2) What exactly do you mean by “solar changes in global warming”?

It is how the sun’s energy changes, because if you want to understand global warming, we need to understand all the drivers behind the earth’s climate. We didn’t really know what the sun did; we only launched a satellite to study the sun, I believe in 1978. Before that, we had no real records or no idea what the sun’s energy output is.

3) You did a project called “How to Put a Human on Mars”. What was that like for you?

That was really interesting. They brought a team together: engineers, biologists, space scientists, which I am one of. The idea was, in a very basic way: “How could we get human beings to Mars?” And my area was to look at the problems with radiation in space. There are things called the solar flare, or coronal mass ejections. These happen around sunspots, and they’re huge explosions. They launch masses of radiation out into space. They are lethal to astronauts and one very narrowly missed them. If it had hit the lunar capsule – it was like a ball of radiation, and it was so dangerous- it would’ve killed them instantly and they didn’t know about this. If you’re going to Mars, you don’t have protection from radiation. The really interesting thing was that there was no engineering way of overcoming or protecting astronauts against these coronal mass ejections. That’s the shocking thing, I thought there was some way of doing it but there is none.

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Tim Willcox interviews Dr Simon Foster about the project “How to Put a Human on Mars”. Video by: BBC News Channel.

4) When you said it takes a couple weeks to get to the moon, how long do you think it would take before we could travel to different galaxies?

Wow! It’s going to take human beings about nine months to a year to get to Mars at the moment. That would take several thousand years just to get to our nearest, what we believe could be, habitable planet. We would need to find a way around that. I think freezing human beings would be a way, they’ve actually found a way of defrosting human organs, so I think it could be a situation where we put human beings in suspended animation for thousands of years. The problem is, to get up to the speed of light, you would have to be accelerating at a huge amount. The forces on the body would basically make it impossible. So, I believe that you would send human beings out and never see them again. That would be the way it works.


Hubble Telescope shot of 10000 galaxies. Image by: www.nasa.gov .

5) What are light years?

The light we see from these stars. Suppose there’s a star 70 light years away, that light we’re seeing is 70 years old. We’re looking at planets there, but those planets might not even exist anymore, there might have been some catastrophe. What’s interesting is, those planets are getting information from the earth from 70 years ago, and so if in any case there are civilisations, what they’re seeing about the earth is wars. If you turn the tables, and you were getting signals from an alien civilisation (alien civilisation being us humans), and they were killing each other on an industrial scale happily, would you really want to be in contact with them? We’re sending out human history through space for them to pick up, and we don’t look like a particularly pleasant group of people. It might be very grimly, but there might be aliens, and they would really not want to contact us. They don’t want anything to do with us, it could be.

6) Would you say you believe in aliens then?

I believe that there are microbes. I don’t see that this is in any way controversial, even though we haven’t found it. I don’t think it’s going to be anything like Star Trek, with a race of beings that are five feet tall, two arms, two legs, pointy ears, or funny eyebrows. Maybe you would get a civilisation that would crop up and for two or three thousand years, it would be intelligently active. They would be able to produce radio signals, leave its own planet, and then there would be some catastrophe and it would probably wipe itself out. And what you will see, if you see a screen as a map of the universe, or of the galaxy, you would see civilisations flashing up and disappearing. And the chances of two flashing up at exactly the same time, seeing that the universe is billions of years old, are next to impossible. So maybe, we could in the future travel to our nearest star systems and find ruins. But I definitely do believe in microbial life.

7) Would you say that how media portrays aliens with UFOs and E.T, is that just stereotyping or speculation?

I think it’s a good story. Obviously a boring story about “there may very well be microbial life” doesn’t go down that well compared to if you say “there are aliens”. I personally believe a lot of the time, UFOs are simply government test aircraft and it’s easier to hide them than it is to admit it. In the 80s and 90s a lot of UFOs are triangular shaped. A few years later, the Stealth Bomber and the Stealth Fighter came out. I believe it’s just a good cover-up. Governments don’t want their top secret projects to be discussed or photographed- dismissing them as UFOs. It diverts attention. If we are saying UFOs are aliens, again, the aliens would have to overcome the same issues human beings would have to overcome going to another star system. As far as we are aware, it could take thousands of years.

Images: 1) A Stealth Bomber or Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, 2) A typical UFO craft. Images by: 1) Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III for the United States Airforce via Wikimedia Commons 2)  TheObjectReport.com.

8)  What if aliens had the technology to overcome the distance?

They could, but my view is that if you were coming here wouldn’t you just speak to the people. If you were taking that long to get here, would you just hover around? You would actually get down. If their technology was so great, they have nothing to fear from us. That’s the way I see it.

9) If we do discover microbial life, what then?

This is a really interesting question because about two years ago, I was asked to comment on a story that NASA was putting out and they had discovered or thought they had discovered the signature of microbes on Mars, and they’re called methanogens. These are the same bacteria that live in your stomach and produce methane gas, and they had found methane gas being made on the surface of Mars. They haven’t found bacteria, but they had started to find traces of it. Most would ask, “how does that benefit me?”, and that’s a big thing in science. Does it benefit us? That would be the bigger thing to get across to people, not just that alien life exists but why it is important. I think that when we go to Mars, it’s incredibly important to have biological awareness, so that we don’t contaminate ourselves bringing material back. I think that’s what we really need to know.

10) What would you say to sceptics who don’t believe in any sort of alien life to change their mind?

I believe in evolution, I don’t even call it a theory of evolution, it’s a fact of evolution. I’m religious myself, but I compartmentalise the two things. You can see evolution happening with bacteria, that’s why we have antibiotic-resistant microbes. Say there’s a one in a billion chance for us to discover microbial life, there are billions upon billions of stars in the galaxy. So if you say it’s a one in a billion chance, that’s still quite probable. It’s remarkably easy to believe that there would be microbial life.

11) NASA announced seven new planets recently, what are your thoughts on this?

It’s very interesting. I think what is more interesting is we originally thought there was only one planet that could hold life in the entire universe. Now news of new planets are cropping up with- I wouldn’t say alarming regularity- but it seems that everywhere we look, there is a planet that has the potential to house life, its not that uncommon. It could well be the normality of the galaxy, that there would be planets with water and atmosphere, possibly with a magnetic field. It doesn’t look like it’s that rare.

12) Human beings have a fascination to explore, isn’t this the reason why the idea of going to Mars is appealing?

Now I wouldn’t say we’ve exhausted planet earth in terms of exploration, but it does seem to be that space is the next place to go to. I bet that if you said tomorrow: “We’re launching a mission to this planet, and we’re going to have to freeze you and you’re not going to be there for a thousand years,” you would find enough people to participate in the first hour. To give you an idea about this, when human beings first landed on the moon, the Russian and American space agency both had the same idea. It’s basically nicknamed the “fat slob mission”. The idea is that we can send a human being to Mars but we don’t know how to get them back again and what we’ll do is we land them on Mars and keep sending them food, drink, and books until we work out how to get them back. That mission instantly had more than enough people; astronauts, human beings just came forward. It was nicknamed “the fat slob mission” because that’s what you would be; you’d be sitting in a room and that would be your life. And basically you’d be imprisoned on another planet, but the glory of being the first person to set foot on Mars was enough that it had so many people stepping forward to do it.

13) OK let’s end the interview with a light-hearted question: What’s your favourite sci-fi movie or TV show?

I really like Buck Rogers, the 1980s or 1970s one. It’s terrible, that’s why I like watching it. It has really interesting architecture. I do like Star Trek, of course, but I also really like Buck Rogers, I just like the visuals in it.

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