Max Planck Institute Director & Hubble Telescope Director Sits Down With Rebellion Research

Max Planck Institute Director & Hubble Telescope Director Sits Down With Rebellion Research

Education / Science

RR: Today, we have an amazing guest with us – one of the foremost global experts on the beginning of the world. The head of the Space Science Institute at Berkeley, the former head of the institute that manages the Hubble Telescope. He is one of the greatest brains that we could possibly access in the world of space. We feel so lucky and honored to have Professor Beckwith with us today. Thank you so much, sir!

Dr. Beckwith: It is a pleasure to be here. What can I do for you? 

RR: My first question is about the recent news that’s coming about that there might be an alternative theory to how the universe was formed. Most people know about the Lambda cold fusion — 97% of the world’s dark matter — which you are one of the foremost experts on. Now, it’s an alternative theory. Do you have an opinion on that, or do you think that’s absolute hogwash?

Dr. Beckwith: Could you say what this alternative theory is?

RR: Yeah. The alternative theory holds that instead of dark matter, it’s made-up of gravitational forces. 

Dr. Beckwith: Oh yeah, that’s 40 milligrams. I think that dark matter and dark energy are sufficiently mysterious that we need to remain open-minded about other explanations. Let me just say that I think that in investigations as to whether or not there’s a problem with gravity as opposed to there being actual substances or substances that we don’t understand, we have to see that as a legitimate means of scientific inquiry. Having said that,   many of these tests are very sensitive to looking for the effects of a different kind of gravity, and have actually shown that Einstein’s general relativity theory of general relativity is very accurate and robust. And so, I would say that the vast majority, if not almost all, of the scientific researchers who look at this subject, I believe there is a dark matter and dark energy, and it’s not the result of a gravity difference in gravity.

RR: One of the things that have made you so famous, Professor Beckwith, is your mapping of the ancient cosmos, and such a thing would not have been able to accomplish without the funding for Hubble Telescope. Where do you see the funding for scientific research in the future? Is this going to be government, private, Elon Musk? I’d love your thoughts on that.

Dr. Beckwith: Well, first of all, the private funding for scientific research has been a tremendous boon to science, without question. Starting with Andrew Carnegie, for example, but currently, there are many benefactors who give money to science, especially in Health Sciences. Nevertheless, it is a pretty small portion of the funding that is provided by the federal government. The federal government, in the end, is much bigger than any of these private funders. And so, I think without federal funding, scientific research would be just a kind of a shadow of what it is right now. I’m optimistic about continued federal funding, especially across the world. I used to live in Europe for seven years. I think the Europeans have a long tradition of belief in research and science, but also here in the United States, regardless of which party is in power, I think that we will maintain very strong support for scientific research and basic scientific research.

RR: Yes, hopefully, the scientific research doesn’t come from the need for war. You know, my great uncle, Emile Boutmy, took part in the Manhattan Project, and such great innovation took place for such a terribly deadly purpose. Europe doesn’t spend on their military. If you’re in the past to spend on their military in the future, I worry that they’re going to sadly withdraw so much of the great funding that’s provided for the things that concern many other constitutions available to do.

Dr. Beckwith: That’s an interesting worry. I don’t think that’ll happen. I’m not a great supporter of war. I think this is kind of a tragedy of the human condition. Of course, let’s say that an enormous amount of scientific advance has come from funding for or research into ways of improving war fighting, and this dates back a long way. You know, I think it’s not commonly known, but when Galileo first crafted his first telescope, which completely changed revolutionized the science of astronomy, in fact, it made it a science, what he did to secure further funding was he offered his telescopes to the Medici in Florence as a means of sighting enemy ships when they were still on the horizon and allowed them to earlier prepare for war. And I think this also goes back to the Greeks. It was fairly common for scholars when they made discoveries to immediately look at their defense applications.

RR: That was a very tough time to be doing science. I can’t remember if it was Galileo, Copernicus, or Bruno  who ended up committing suicide in the end. 

Dr. Beckwith: Galileo was sort of banned. He was put down by the church. He was held under house arrest for most of his life. Bruno was burned at the stake for his beliefs, which were of course correct beliefs based on modern science.

RR: Is this part of the end, so he didn’t get burned at the stake? Did he represent at the last minute?

Dr. Beckwith: I think he did. I think Galileo actually recanted. He was forced to recant his views publicly although privately he still wrote about them to his daughter. 

RR: Mining on the moon. Is that a realistic issue? Is that silly? Do you have any opinion on that?

Dr. Beckwith: Look, I don’t know enough about the exact composition to know if there are things we’re going to get out of the moon that we can’t get out of the earth. It will be incredibly expensive to mine on the moon, there’s no doubt about that. There are some things that you will want to get at the moon or mine on the moon in order to go to further space. So, for example, one of the ideas of going to Mars is to first go to the moon and then use the water on the moon to create the fuel so that you can get to Mars. Because of course, once you’re on the moon, the gravity is much lower, the demands on your spacecraft are much lighter, it’s very much easier. 

There are a lot of ideas like that bandied about. Same is true of actually making things find the moon or at distant planets from the materials you find there, rather than trying to carry them all into space. I think the idea of mining things on the moon to use them in situ is a good one. The idea that we’re going to go up there and mine, I don’t know, gold and bring it back to earth, I can’t believe there’s a value proposition.

RR: I see your point. Speaking of mining, let’s talk about mining The Big Bang for data about today. You’re someone who’s written extensively about what we can learn regarding our makeup today from what happened during The Big Bang. How much of the actual human being comes from The Big Bang?

Dr. Beckwith: By mass, very little. Everything right after The Big Bang, which was created in the early universe without stars, was basically  hydrogen and helium. Now, if you look at your body, you know we’re organic creatures. Organic creatures are made-up primarily of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, but all of those have hydrogens tied to them. So, we have a lot of water in our body, we have a lot of hydrogen atoms in our body. But the vast majority of the weight is made-up by atoms like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and heavier elements, and all of those were manufactured in stars.

RR: They’re just saying we’re just an organic derivative of the planet earth. Is that your point? 

Dr. Beckwith: Pretty much, yes. 

RR: That’s very cool. I really enjoyed watching two of your lectures before or talks today. You’ve got an incredible way of making very deep ideas simple to understand. Now, on that same trajectory, did you see the movie Ad Astra?

Dr. Beckwith: No, I didn’t.

RR: It’s a very interesting movie, and its point is that we will use the moon to get to Mars. And that by taking off from the dark side of the moon, we will have a much easier time accessing Mars. Is that realistic? Does that go along with what you’re talking about in terms of.

Dr. Beckwith: It’s realistic. It is realistic because the energy requirements to get off the moon are much less than the energy requirements to get off the earth or even out of low earth orbit. So, I do think that it’s a good strategy. Now, having said that, I believe that SpaceX, under Elon Musk, has created a very large rocket, and their purpose is to go to Mars directly and bypass the moon. And so, it’s a bit more of a brute force approach, but it probably–my guess is that we’ll get to Mars first with those big rockets in terms of manned missions or human missions. Then we will go to the moon. But I think NASA is talking about a moon base, which could then be used as a further staging point for exploration of Mars and other parts of the solar system.

RR: If Elon offered you a free take to go to Mars due to your academic background, but of course you would have to stay there forever, would you accept it?

Dr. Beckwith: I wouldn’t if I had to stay there forever. 

RR: As long as you had a roundtrip ticket you would come back. 

Dr. Beckwith: I would consider a round trip ticket. I will tell you this, I think that space travel is very neat. I’d love to go up in space to the space station, and come back. I think once you get out to Mars and further, what we can do with autonomous robots and distant probes is so remarkable. I want to see a little bit more research being done there before we actually just spend the money to put people and bring them back. Now, you could put people and not bring them back, that would be a lot cheaper. That is not in my life plan. I enjoy the earth, and I enjoy thinking about science, and I think it would be great if someone else wants to do that.

RR: You have no moral issue though, with someone willing to spend their life on Mars. 

Dr. Beckwith: Not at all.

RR: Do you think we’ll learn much from Mars? What is the point of going to Mars? Is that similar to, you know, Columbus in 1492 saying, “Let’s explore,” or do you feel it’s maybe more of a vague proposition?

RR: I think the exploration of Mars is a great thing. Now, is it quite the equivalent of a Columbus? I don’t think so. Even if I put myself back in that era, I don’t think it’s quite the same. We already know a tremendous amount about Mars just from our Rovers and our other autonomous robots and vehicles, so we wouldn’t go there without having a pretty good idea of what we’re getting into. Now, Mars had an early history which could have been much more like the Earth. A lot of people think that it had an early atmosphere, and it might have been wet. We do see water there, but it loses it over time because it’s a very low mass object. It would be fascinating to be able to mine on Mars and take a look at core samples and see if we can understand the history, which is very much like the Earth. We don’t know. So, I think those are fascinating things to research. At the same time, we have a pretty good idea of what Mars is like right now, whereas Columbus really didn’t have any idea what he was going to land on…

RR: Really great point, actually. Thank you, professor. Speaking of Mars or Martians, there has obviously been some press about aliens recently. Do you expect that they do exist, and do you think we’ll ever come across them in our lifetime, or do you have no opinion on that?

Dr. Beckwith: I don’t think aliens are visiting here. I don’t think that the evidence people have for aliens is credit. Now, do aliens exist? That is, do other life forms, maybe like us or sentient beings like us, exist in other places in the Galaxy? Well, they might. There are a lot of stars and a lot of planets. We know that more or less every star has a planetary system around it. A lot of these planetary systems have planets pretty much like the Earth, as far as we can tell. And so, there are a lot of ways that nature could have experimented in the jump from chemistry to biology and created biology on other planets. Now, the jump to biology happened relatively quickly. As soon as life could have existed, it was kind of really quick to make cells that did things. But the evolution from cells to us, to sentient beings, took about 4 billion years, a larger fraction of the age of the universe. So, I don’t know if that’s common. 

RR: So, stepping back, and just looking at this from a really puerile point of view, if there are so many planetary systems and galaxies, and it’s life, it’s binary, you either have life or death, the odds of life being on another planetary system almost seem impossible to not be true when you consider that there are just so many endless possibilities for either life or death.

Dr. Beckwith: What you’re doing is you’re multiplying a very large number by a very small number. The large number is the number of planets in the galaxy, and the small number is the probability that life exists. So, it’s an open question. Now, I think we might be able to answer the question of what the probability is with laboratory research. I think that the tools of modern microbiology and chemistry are getting so good that I think within maybe my lifetime, we’re going to see research which will reveal the likelihood that if you have a pool of stuff, it will create life. And once we have that number, then we can do exactly what you suggest. We can multiply the large number by the small number, assuming it’s small, and we can see if we think there’s a lot of life out there. I think until that, the only other hope would be that we could detect it directly. But that’s a very tough thing to do because even around the nearest stars, those planets are so faint and so difficult to discern that it’s not clear we’ll be able to create the tools, the telescopes, that will allow us to really see if there’s life there.

RR: How old were you when you got your first Meade telescope?

Dr. Beckwith: Oh well, it wasn’t a Meade.

Dr. Beckwith: But you gotta remember that: when I got my first telescope, it was probably 1963 or 64, I don’t know if Meade was in business, then. I used to go out. We had that above our garage. We had a little kind of a porch, and I used to go where I grew up. I grew up in Milwaukee. On the porch, I had a little camera, then I made a fitting so I could take pictures through the telescope. And I took pictures of the moon, and I took pictures of Venus, and some of the art shots of Saturn, and I did that. I suppose I was in middle school when I started. 

RR: I love Wisconsin. My sister-in-law is from Door County. 

Dr. Beckwith: Door County is so beautiful.

RR: One of my favorites. Door County and Maine are probably my two favorite parts of the United States.

Dr. Beckwith: It’s a beautiful state. I’d like to go back to Wisconsin every year if I can to go fishing with an old high school friend. We went up to the North Country and spent a few days fishing. It’s a great time, but I’ve lived all over the world. Well I’ve lived in many different places and… 

RR: Max von Planck, wow what an organization.You have been everywhere!

Dr. Beckwith: And Heidelberg and Baltimore. And frankly I’ve loved every place I live, because from every place I’ve lived, I’ve found great things. I love Baltimore, I love Heidelberg, and I love San Francisco. It’s a great place to live, plus I like going back to Wisconsin, too.

RR: Professor, you’ve been a fantastic guest. I couldn’t be more thankful for your time. 

Dr. Beckwith: You are welcome. Good luck.

Edited by Avhan Misra

Max Planck Institute Director & Hubble Telescope Director Sits Down With Rebellion Research

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