Books on space exploration almost always start with a historical overview: Wernher von Braun’s rocket programme, the creation of Nasa, the US-Soviet space race. Chris Impey follows this well-trodden path, but does it in such a way that the subject takes on a new life. Each of this book’s four sections – Prelude, Present, Future, Beyond – begins with a fictional vignette describing the experiences of a “young pioneer about to undertake a journey to the stars”. I have to admit, I read these compelling vignettes one after the other – and came to the conclusion that if the author’s career as an astronomer ever falters, a flourishing career as an excellent writer of science fiction is assured.
Impey’s historical starting point reaches much further back than usual, to the first exploration made by humans (that of the Earth) from our roots in Africa, and the subsequent spread of modern humans across the globe. Mention is made of the 7R variant of the DRD4 gene, which controls dopamine and is associated with behaviour. Carriers of this variant are apparently more likely to be risk-takers, extroverts and explorers, and seem to be more prevalent in the peoples who migrated the furthest. Impey then looks at the development of reasoning and abstract thought, and leaps forward to the early Greek philosopher Anaxagoras and his “endless worlds within worlds”. Finding that the first chapter of a book about space exploration covers genetic diversity, cognitive development and natural philosophy is unexpected – and welcome, indicating that we can expect more than the usual dry recital of who built which rocket first.
Naturally, ensuing chapters do indeed cover the development of rocketry, from Chinese fireworks to intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a focus on 20th-century pioneers such as Robert Goddard in the US, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in the USSR and von Braun in Germany. Refreshingly, von Braun’s work for the Nazis is not airbrushed out, and his contribution to the German war machine is made clear. As Impey details the politics of the race into space, the driving force behind the establishment of Nasa, the Cold War and the significance of the Moon landings and Apollo programme, his references to the personalities involved keep the narrative lively.
Moving towards the present day, Impey acknowledges that Nasa “has been in the doldrums”. The heady days of human exploration of the Moon are over, budgets have been cut, and Nasa is haunted by two space shuttle disasters and dogged by the high cost of the International Space Station. Where do we go from here? Into space – but in a different way. We go private. The rise of the entrepreneur, the possibilities of space tourism and the shift from government- to business-driven space exploration has shaped the landscape, Impey shows, as he highlights a new generation of pioneers, including Burt Rutan, Richard Branson, Peter Diamandis and Elon Musk. Equally significant in shifting the landscape, he argues, has been the rise of the internet and the development of rapid communication.
Particularly pertinent is Impey’s observation that “the government and the military have deep enough pockets to develop technology with no eye on profit or return on investment. Once the field has been prepared and tilled, the private sector can scatter seed and see what grows best.” But in the UK, at least, we are encouraged (harassed? bullied?) into demonstrating the “impact” of our publicly funded research: no longer does the government have no eye on a return on its investment. This is probably fitting – taxpayers have a right to know that their money is being spent wisely – but we must ensure that the push to demonstrate impact does not stifle the creativity that allows pioneers to succeed. At the same time, we must ensure that the private sector does not cream off all the profit and that there is an appropriate return on public funding.
Rant over: return to book review.
Impey’s look at current space exploration concludes with a consideration of the special place of the Earth in the solar system, within the “Goldilocks zone”, in which environmental conditions are just right for human life. Where might these conditions exist beyond the solar system? The search for an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-type star has been one of the fastest growing areas of research in the past few years. More than 1,000 exoplanets have been discovered, but very few are rocky – most are gas giants, like Jupiter, and orbit their stars more closely than Mercury orbits the Sun. They are uninhabitable for humans, but that does not necessarily mean they are devoid of life. As our detection tools become more adapted to looking for Earth-like planets, and as we understand more fully the range of environments in which life may arise and evolve, the number of potentially habitable planets will grow.
Discussion of future space exploration can too readily end up closer to science fiction or fantasy than to science realism. Impey avoids that trap by focusing on developments rooted in new technologies and innovations. Here, the “Stairway to Heaven”, a proposed space elevator leading from the equator upwards to beyond the belt where satellites orbit, gets a fresh look. This innovation – proposed by Tsiolkovsky and developed by Arthur C. Clarke – would offer the means to transfer material into low Earth orbit for onward launch to the Moon and Mars (and beyond) without the need for heavy-lift vehicles and enormous quantities of fuel. With the discovery of graphene and carbyne and the potential for new materials based on their structures, we are getting closer to having the necessary technology. Impey quotes a comment Clarke made when asked when space elevators would become a reality: “Probably about 50 years after everyone stops laughing.” He also refers to a report projecting development of a space elevator by 2035 – so maybe we’re well into Clarke’s half-century already.
Other areas to which Impey turns his attention include the colonisation of Moon and Mars, the “greening” or terraforming of Mars, the increasing sophistication of robots, the human-machine interface and the development of cyborgs, or trans-humans. As each subject unfolds, the current factual basis is used as a projection for future developments. Although this list of innovations-to-come reads rather like a fantastic wish-list, it is striking to read Impey’s account of how far down the line we are towards achieving some of these goals. Sending a 3D printer to the International Space Station to enable astronauts to build equipment is really not that far removed from launching a series of 3D printers to the Moon and getting robots to build a habitation.
The book’s final section is inevitably the most speculative. Even then, however, it maintains a foothold in rationality and scientific respectability. Here is where SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is considered, along with faster-than-light travel and teleportation – both, as Impey can’t help noting, “routine occurrences on Star Trek”. He admits to offering speculation, but his speculation is intelligent and well informed, and he returns again and again to nascent technologies and innovations. Impey concludes on a philosophical and positive note: “We can turn inward or turn outward…Exploration is built into our DNA; we should not resist”.
There are a few disappointments here: the European Space Agency receives only a passing mention and its history of rocketry is ignored; the book’s copious illustrations are in black and white, in a cheaper treatment than the text deserves. These gripes aside, Beyond is an irresistible, highly readable book. I took it on holiday and read it over the course of a day. Sitting in the sun, listening to the different languages spoken by the people around me, thinking about other entities that may or may not be out there. Contemplating our star and its millions of neighbours. Looking beyond the horizon.
Beyond: Our Future in Space
By Chris Impey
W. W. Norton, 320pp, £17.99
Published 12 May 2015
Could one rightly call scientist and author Chris Impey a Scotsman?
“I was born in Edinburgh, spent a few years there, and returned for a PhD, so I was there for only five years in total. I have a cousin who feeds me Scottish music and books to nurture my residual Celtic side. I’d like to think I retain an ancestral echo of the curiosity and self-reliance that I associate with Scotland,” says the university distinguished professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.
He now lives in Tucson, “in the Sonoran Desert, that alien (to a European) landscape of agave and saguaro and ocotillo cacti, set in rugged canyons. My wife Dinah is an artist and we have five adult children between us, scattered in various parts of the US. No pets because we like to travel so much.”
Impey spent much of his childhood in London and New York. He attended ten different schools as a child, he says, which “means I spent a lot of time hitting the ground running and adjusting. Books were always present and essential in our house, and I spent long hours in the distant worlds they conjured up. My best teachers were playful and subversive; they encouraged me to embrace maverick ideas and occasionally swim against the current. Which can let you discover a new shore, but could lead you to get exhausted and drown.”
His first degree, a BSc, was completed at Imperial College London. “Studying physics in London presented a problem: the discipline was difficult but the distractions were many. So I recall never feeling like I’d had enough sleep.
“Imperial College was in the perfect location to mix science with museums and concerts and pubs. I worked in the astronomy group when Brian May was coming in and acting like he’d finish his PhD thesis – but we saw this up and coming band called Queen at the Hammersmith Odeon and figured he had bigger fish to fry. A buddy in optics was the laser guru for Pink Floyd so we scored a lot of tickets for them. To be a physics student was not something to boast about at a party or while trying to get a date, so I tended to keep it under wraps; a secret pleasure.”
Prior to his doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh, he had the opportunity to work at Cern in Geneva.
Impey recalls: “Cern in the mid 1970s was a fascinating, polyglot place. I recall the conversations at lunch and coffee where everyone would speak their own language and be understood by others around the table; monolingual Brits were disadvantaged. The glamour faded when I got my first job as a summer student: leak-testing 3000 photomultiplier tubes on the submarine-size experiment I was assigned to – which took three weeks.
“The power was so flaky that Cern retained a Swiss savant to do mental math in case computers went down. I remember us all crammed into the auditorium as Steven Weinberg talked about the very recent discovery of neutral currents (which would lead to several Nobel prizes). The lights suddenly went out, as they often did, and ever the showman, he said ‘Maybe God thinks we’re getting too close to his secrets.’”
Astronomers typically see a few observatories in the course of their careers. Asked which of those he has visited offered the most breathtaking terrestrial – as opposed to celestial – scenery, Impey plumps for the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the Coquimbo region of Chile.
“Chilean skies are incredible. I remember my first time at our observatory there, looking east to the snow-covered jagged spine of the Andes and north to the crumpled, brown, and seemingly endless expanse of the Atacama Desert. That night I saw the green flash for the first time ever, and an hour later, as I walked to the dome, I paused and looked down to see that the folder I was carrying cast a shadow on the road. No Moon was up; it was a shadow cast by starlight. I looked up and was gobsmacked. Stars were leaping from the sky.”
He has a long association with the California Institute of Technology, beginning with a postdoctoral position from 1983 to 1986. Asked for his views on the institution – which has topped the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the past four years – and the secret of its excellence, Impey says: “Caltech is a singular place. There are more faculty than students, and its intellectual intensity and competitiveness is set among palm trees and olive groves and Mission-style buildings. It feels like a high-octane science country club. Bureaucracy is kept at arm’s length and there are few impediments to deep thought.
“Other universities could learn the way it sets up a near-perfect environment for research. They pamper their superstars. Every Nobel prizewinner has a ‘handler’, someone who can manage their schedule and steer them right when they get lost or distracted. Undergraduates often experience a shock when they arrive. They’ve won prizes and been stars of their high schools, but when they get to Caltech they are just another smart science kid,” he adds.
The University of Arizona has been his home since 1986. It is, he says, “large and upwardly mobile. We have lost $500 million in funding from the state since 2008 but bring in $500 million for research so we are trying to forge a path as a research powerhouse that still cares about its students. We’re very egalitarian and informal, a consequence of not being too burdened by history and tradition. We try to get every one of our astronomy students engaged in research of some kind, so they often get their best experiences outside the classroom. American universities are under stress; many will have to re-invent themselves to survive and prosper.”
Impey recently created a massive open online course on astronomy, offered via Udemy, which has proved to be a great success. “Moocs are in their awkward teenage phase. Completion rates will always be lower than courses where tuition and college credit are at stake, and many people who enroll are window-shopping, so they take a few bites and move on or try another flavour.
“I think Moocs do deliver on the pure vision of putting high quality academic content into remote parts of the world for no cost, giving it to people who have no local educational opportunities. Using more engaged modes of teaching, like citizen science and peer review and group work via wikis, will raise the engagement and so the completion rates. But they will not ever get to standard university levels. More important is for Moocs not just to depend on video lectures, but to utilise the research of how people learn best,” he argues.
The author of a number of acclaimed monographs and popular-science books prior to Beyond, Impey published his first novel, Shadow World, in 2013.
“I had only dabbled in fiction – a few unpublished short stories and a handful of poems - before I took the plunge and wrote a novel,” he confesses. “My agent discouraged me, saying a cobbler should stick to their last, and the colleagues that I told raised their eyebrows. I cleared the decks and became a hermit for six weeks, entering a crazed and dazed state, and emerging blinking into the light with a first draft. It was unnerving and scary to wake up each day with dialogue and scenes almost bursting out of my head onto the page.
“I consider the novel a bold and flawed experiment. Writing it verified for me that the schism between art and science is artificial – creative writing involves an enormous dedication to craft and technique, and scientific research is illuminated by spasms of pure creativity.”
His 2014 book Humble Before the Void details Impey’s time spent teaching science to Buddhist monks. What did the monks teach him?
“They taught me patience, but imperfectly. They taught me lightness, but it’s a lesson I tend to forget. They tried to teach me humility, but I’m still working on that one. And they taught me to look at my subject with fresh eyes. After 30 years of research and teaching astronomy, that was a real gift.”
What gives him hope? “The 18-year-olds I teach every week,” Impey replies. “They are by turns savvy and naive, curious and jaded, foolish and wise, cocky and anxious, bursting with youthful energy. They’re inheriting a chaotic world and a bruised planet, but I think it’s in good hands.”