Life As We Know It

From an address to the Royal Academy of Sciences by Stephen Hawking, distinguished Theoretical Physicist and Cosmologist, Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and a Fellow Waiting to Cross the Road.

Yes, yes… thank you, thank you very much. It is an honor to be here addressing you on a topic that has perplexed scientists and ethical humanitarians for hundreds hundreds and hundreds of years. This includes my barber, who just the other day asked me, “Doctor Hawking, do you think that there is life on other planets… I mean Doctor, life as we know it?”  To which I replied, “don’t take too much off the sides.”  But, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Royal Academy, Felix… that is the name of my barber, I believe his Father was a barber before him, as well… raises a point of key subtlety… not just is there life, which we might take to mean a rock-like looking object that could inexplicably jiggle like bowl of cherry jell-o… cherry being my favorite flavour; but rather, is there life as we know it, which we might take to mean is there something on Neptune, as an example, that could put on spikes and play goalie for Manchester United.  Now granted, this may at first glance sound far fetched, although I put to you that it is more probable that a life form looking like Admiral Ackbar is far better equipped to play for Manchester United, rather than some variation of a slime mold.  Now I do not mean to suggest to this distinguished audience, that we should completely discount the possibility that a mold possessing considerable gifts could and would indeed be a welcome addition to Manchester United, or to Arsenal, for that matter.   But I digress. The point is we should be on guard about assuming too much of what we think is the norm for life as we know it.  First, who is the “we”?  I mean, was Felix including me in the we… or maybe he was including just his family and other barbers, to include his Father.  Truly, what can their assumption of life be?  Maybe it’s just primates, or other mammals… and perhaps some broad leaf ferns. Or maybe it’s just barbers, beauticians and sales clerks.  Do you understand my point? And what did Felix mean by “know”? Is it possible that his frame of reference was the Bible.  And we all know what “know” means in the Bible. *ahem* I hope I haven’t offended anyone.  But there are “racey” parts in the Good Book.  So there you are… even the very question “is there life as we know it?”, creates questions. Rather, we should be open, not to the possibility; but to the likelihood that life does exist on other planets… probably all the planets!  Consider Neptune with an atmosphere of 80% Hydrogen and 19% Helium with trace amounts of methane. So?  Just because it’s not particularly good for human habitation, does that exclude the possibility that there is life that might prefer that atmosphere “recipe”… that it would be the “perfect cup of tea” for them.  And the air temperature of -218 c., which we would find exceedingly cold, although we wouldn’t have to worry about food spoiling, or using sun screen; but the inhabitants there would be perfectly equipped and adapted to that environment.  If we could develop velcro and the three-way light bulb here, what is to preclude the inhabitants on Neptune from manufacturing layers of protection to withstand the frigid temperatures?  And not the bulky and silly looking space suits that we have developed; but a micro layer that fits like a pair of pantyhose.  And the inhabitants could move about Neptune as freely as we take a stroll in Kensington Gardens, only without the swans and warning signs to stay off the grass. The inhabitants would be perfectly tuned into their life, absorbing “healthy” methane into their systems, processing it without difficulty and converting it into a fuel appropriate for launching vehicles into space… just like we do.  Although the gas that we create on a personal level can have a foul smell, it isn’t really strong enough to launch craft into space, at least in most cases. Remember, there are always exceptions… and this reminds me of an amusing joke that Carl Sagan told me, he had read it in the National Lampoon… Question: What is the difference between a Martian fart and a sandstorm? Answer: A sandstorm doesn’t glow in the dark! Hah, hah, hah. I love that joke! Ah, Carl… qui ferunt sed nung ad astra! But let us return to Neptune.  We will not only learn that there is life as we know it; but we will find that we have more in common with those life forms, than that which differentiates us.  In fact we may have more in common with inhabitants of Neptune than we do with Americans… hah, hah, hah. Just kidding. Which brings me back to an earlier point… the reason why I love cherry jell-o so much is because when you squish it thru your teeth and then smile it makes you look real scary and like maybe you come from Neptune, although I really come from Oxford.  In conclusion, Ladies and Gentlemen, when you step outside and cast your eyes to the heavens you may ask “is there life there as we know it?” at the same time across a gazillion miles of space there is a Neptunian looking at the same heavens and asking, “si herte elfi herte sa ew wonk ti?”  Thank you, thank you very much.

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