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BBC Audio: Dyson and Clarke


Will life spread out from Earth to flourish in the cosmos? Freeman Dyson has always supported the idea, and with great persuasiveness. BBC Four has created an archive of interviews on its Web site, among which is a clip of Dyson discussing life’s variety and the imperative of broadening its range. The theoretical physicist, who played an important role in the development of the ‘atomic spaceship’ concept called Project Orion, doesn’t believe man’s role is simply to send the occasional astronaut out in what he calls ‘a metal can’ to look out a window.

Image: Physicist Freeman Dyson, whose thoughts on life’s spread into the cosmos can be found in the BBC archives. Credit: Dartmouth College.

On the contrary, says Dyson in his interview, humans may have a shepherding role in building a permanent presence in space. Instead of ships full of scientists or colony vessels establishing a new human foothold, Dyson would argue that we humans are representative of a far larger pattern, the spread of living things in all their variety. Our major role is to assist. We’re talking here about migrating whole ecologies, but not as forced transplants on other worlds so much as adaptations that, over the eons, will assume their own unique identities:

If you look at the natural world, you see that everywhere life has gone, it brings tremendous variety. The natural world is beautiful just because there is such a tremendous variety of living creatures — trees, plants, butterflies, birds. And I think the same thing will happen in the universe at large. The universe will just be a far more beautiful and interesting place when life has taken it over.

Note the implication that life has not yet taken the universe over, perhaps a comment on the likelihood of success for our SETI efforts, if not an answer to the Fermi question. Dyson goes on:

Life will spread and diversify everywhere the same way it has on Earth. Life just has this ability to adapt itself to all sorts of different environments, and I don’t think it will stop at one planet, when you see the whole universe waiting there. That’s the reason I believe we shall go out there and take our plants and animals with us.

It’s a bold view and not one that fits readily within the constraints of governmental space programs. But where does it start? Although space settlements near Earth might seem to be the answer, Dyson told his BBC Four interviewer that he had no use for the kind of habitats envisioned by Gerard O’Neill, finding them far too bureaucratic. Instead, he opts for ‘little bands of adventurers’ going out, working at their own risk and with agendas set by themselves. The Mayflower’s voyage across the Atlantic is an analog to what he sees happening in space:

There’s a tremendous amount of stuff already floating around in orbit just waiting to be salvaged by anyone who’s brave enough to go and do it. There’s a lot of stuff on the Moon which is lying there. That’s the way the Mayflower people worked. They didn’t build the Mayflower; they rented it. I imagine we’ll do the same thing. We will certainly make us of whatever the government provides, and that kind of stuff can usually be had very cheap.


As always, Dyson is energizing, and you’ll want to check the BBC Four archive to hear these bits (thanks to Teleread for the tip on this), at the same time wondering, as I do, why interviews like these aren’t offered in their entirety there. But do poke around. Arthur C. Clarke also has some audio clips, including his recollections of Stanley Kubrick’s first contacts with him re 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke says he received a letter from Kubrick ‘out of the blue,’ saying he wanted to do the ‘proverbial good science fiction movie, and did I have any ideas.’ At the time, interestingly enough, Clarke not only didn’t know Kubrick, but had never heard of him.

Image: Arthur C. Clarke at work. Credit: Billye Cutchen.

We brainstormed, developing all sorts of ideas, and when we had a fairly clear concept of what we wanted to do, Stanley said ‘write the novel and I’ll derive the screenplay from it.’…There was feedback in both directions, because I would write part of the novel and he would write the screenplay, and I would read the screenplay and feed it back into the novel. Later on, when he was actually filming, I was still feeding things from the film back into the novel. Because the novel didn’t come out until well after the film.

The later novel 2010: Odyssey Two would be developed through an entirely different method. Clarke acknowledges that he had to write 2001: A Space Odyssey with film in mind, creating scenes that he could visualize on screen, but 2010 was written as simply the best novel he could create, and ‘if anyone wants to film it, good luck to them.’ I loved both films, but in many ways still find 2010 the more interesting, a view few of my friends share. In any case, give Clarke a listen, and be aware that in this BBC interview archive, you’ll also find Werner Heisenberg, not to mention literary figures of distinction from Graham Greene to Iris Murdoch, and a host of actors, musicians and philosophers.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Paul Titze December 27, 2008, 5:11

    What Dyson was talking about sounds a bit like the Wild Wild West, individuals going out there pursuing their fortunes and dreams… I suspect the same thing would happen with space colonization if space hardware becomes more affordable and the breakthrough propulsion physics yields an engine that eventually is cheap and easy to build… deja vu?

    Cheers, Paul.

  • James M. Essig December 27, 2008, 13:17

    Hi Folks;

    If it is our destiny to colonize our universe, could we be in a unique position to spread humanoid DNA based life throughout the cosmos? Might there exist ETI lifeforms that would welcome our comingling with their civilizations on their planets? Might any ETI lifeforms take the form of shadow matter or weakly interacting cold dark matter such that humanity’s occupying nearly every terrestrial like planet in the observable universe would in now way be disagreeable to the ETI? Perhaps the ETI would be powerless to stop human colonization while in no way being negatively impacted by human colonization.

    With permission granted by NASA for the Ad Astra Rocket Company’s upcomming test of the Plasma rocket, developed by Ad Astra, on the ISS in 2009, we may achieve a whole mode of manned space travel that will enable us to do manned expeditions to the Kuiper Belt and the inner Oort Cloud in 6 months of transit time. Ad Astra says its rocket could permit humans to travel to Mars in 39 days. Store a lot of reaction mass aboard the Oort Cloud bound manned space craft and a nuclear reactor to produce the electrical energy required for producing plasma, and perhaps we could be Oort Cloud bound by 2027, and then its onward from there with ever improved rocket technology and hopefully at some point warp drive, wormhole travel etc.



  • Ronald January 1, 2009, 18:16

    I just love Dyson’s ‘humankind’s role in the cosmos’ vision and fully endorse it. As I argued before, I believe that, either we will find life in the Milky Way, or we’ll bring it. In the former case we must approach it with the utmost care and respect. In the latter case, it means that we will terraform planets and seed them with adapted or adaptable lifeforms.

  • ljk January 2, 2009, 1:00

    Paul, while I can understand your position on 2010 over 2001 in
    one sense – the so-called sequel was more personable and
    generally accessible, as well as being better than many SF films
    overall – 2010 and indeed no other SF film has matched 2001
    for all its depth, nuances, and messages even 40 years after
    its release to the world.

    The very things that make 2001 seem cold and impersonable,
    such as the seemingly bland human crewmembers of the USS
    Discovery 1 especially compared to HAL 9000, were done on
    purpose to make a major point. How many mainstream SF films
    have been as deep or gone to such places and levels as 2001,
    and that includes 2010.

  • ljk February 23, 2009, 14:15

    2009 plus one

    The movie “2010” never had the cultural impact that “2001” had. As the year 2010 approaches, Dwayne Day looks at both films and why “2010” fell short of its predecessor.


  • ljk March 26, 2009, 13:16

    The Civil Heretic

    New York Times Mar. 25, 2009


    Physicist Freeman Dyson dismisses the threat of global warming — an ultimately benign occurrence in what Dyson says is still “a relatively cool period in the earth’s history.

    “Rising carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere are a sign that “the climate is actually improving rather than getting worse,” because carbon acts as an ideal fertilizer…


  • ljk December 6, 2011, 10:12

    The perils of spaceflight prediction

    by Jeff Foust for The Space Review

    Monday, December 5, 2011

    “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future,” goes a famous saying attributed, curiously, in roughly equal measure to Nobel laureate physicist Neils Bohr and baseball Hall of Fame player and manager Yogi Berra.

    Regardless of the source, its message about the difficulty of prediction is clear, which means that when someone makes a prediction that is far from obvious to the broader community, yet does come true, that person is heralded as a seer and is sought out for other predictions.

    “I think that in a few generations, all serious astronomy will be conducted either on the Moon or in space,” Clarke predicted.

    A case in point in the space field is the late Arthur C. Clarke. In the mid-1940s he not only predicted the development, but also invented the concept, of geosynchronous communications satellites. Within two decades such satellites had become reality; today they’re an essential part of global communications and the most lucrative element of the overall commercial space industry.

    It’s little surprise this concept was the centerpiece of an episode of the Science Channel’s “Prophets of Science Fiction” show about him last week, even if some of the other concepts from his works featured in the show, like the space elevator from The Fountains of Paradise, have yet to become reality.

    Full article and video here:


  • ljk January 1, 2012, 22:27

    Visionary – the Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke

    By Andrew Vaudin

    December 31, 2011

    Posted in: Odyssey

    Visionary – the Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke

    by Neil McAleer, (first printing of the collector’s edition)

    At last! Neil McAleer’s long anticipated revised, updated and extended biography of Arthur Clarke has arrived. Was it worth the wait? The answer is an emphatic Yes!

    Neil McAleer with Arthur Clarke. Photo by Karl H. Anders.

    In fact so much work has gone into this book that it is in effect a completely new edition. As Neil points out in the opening to his book, Arthur’s life lasted longer than it takes Halley’s Comet to orbit the Sun. That life encompassed some of the most memorable events of the twentieth century. It was an existence which touched, and continues to touch, so many others.

    It is impossible to tell Arthur’s story without telling the history of both spaceflight and science fiction; the two are closely interwoven and McAleer does an excellent job in demonstrating how Arthur’s ideas led the way in both fields. To read about Arthur Clarke is to read about the Apollo Moon landings (Arthur was part of the famous anchor team that covered the landings in the States and which included his great friends Walter Cronkite and Robert Heinlein – in fact some Americans mistook Clarke’s West Country burr for an American accent when he appeared in these now famous transmissions); SETI; the development and impact of the communications satellite; the triumphs of fellow science fiction legends such as Gene Roddenberry and Isaac Asimov; that famous collaboration – concerning a certain mysterious sentinel – with Stanley Kubrick, who is as sadly and profoundly missed as Clarke himself; and, of course, the early history of the BIS itself.

    Full article here:


  • ljk October 16, 2012, 9:48

    Review: Visionary

    Sir Arthur C. Clarke was one of the great science fiction authors of the 20th century who also served as a guide to the emerging Space Age, but whose personal side was less well known. Jeff Foust reviews a book that provides a comprehensive look at Clarke’s life.

    Monday, October 15, 2012