Davies in 2016
|Born||Paul Charles William Davies
22 April 1946
|Institutions||Arizona State University
University of Cambridge
University of Adelaide
University of Newcastle
|Alma mater||University College London|
|Thesis||Contributions to theoretical physics: (i) Radiation damping in the optical continuum; (ii) A quantum theory of Wheelerâ€“Feynman electrodynamics (1970)|
|Doctoral advisor||Michael J. Seaton
|Other academic advisors||Fred Hoyle (as a postdoc)|
|Doctoral students||Nicholas Birrell
|Known for||Fullingâ€“Daviesâ€“Unruh effect
Bunchâ€“Davies vacuum state
|Notable awards||Templeton Prize (1995)
Kelvin Medal (2001)
Faraday Prize (2002)
Klumpke-Roberts Award (2011)
For me, science is already fantastical enough. Unlocking the secrets of nature with fundamental physics or cosmology or astrobiology leads you into a wonderland compared with which beliefs in things like alien abductions pale into insignificance.
General relativity is the cornerstone of cosmology and astrophysics. It has also provided the conceptual basis for string theory and other attempts to unify all the forces of nature in terms of geometrical structures.
Perhaps the best motivation for going to Mars is political. It is obvious that no single nation currently has either the will or the resources to do it alone, but a consortium of nations and space agencies could achieve it within 20 years.
When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance.
My feeling is that scientific method has the power to account for and interlink all phenomena in the universe, including its origin, using the laws of nature. But that still leaves the laws unexplained.
Cancer cells come pre-programmed to execute a well-defined cascade of changes, seemingly designed to facilitate both their enhanced survival and their dissemination through the bloodstream. There is even an air of conspiracy in the way that tumours use chemical signals to create cancer-friendly niches in remote organs.
Man-made computers are limited in their performance by finite processing speed and memory. So, too, the cosmic computer is limited in power by its age and the finite speed of light.
No planet is more earth-like than Earth itself, so if life really does pop up readily in earth-like conditions, then surely it should have arisen many times right here on our home planet? And how do we know it didn't? The truth is, nobody has looked.
An argument often given for why Earth couldn't host another form of life is that once the life we know became established, it would have eliminated any competition through natural selection. But if another form of life were confined to its own niche, there would be little direct competition with regular life.
Traditionally, scientists have treated the laws of physics as simply 'given,' elegant mathematical relationships that were somehow imprinted on the universe at its birth, and fixed thereafter. Inquiry into the origin and nature of the laws was not regarded as a proper part of science.
Although the elusive 'cure' may be a distant dream, understanding the true nature of cancer will enable it to be better controlled and less menacing.
It is possible that a scientific discovery will be made that humans will later regret because it has awful consequences. The problem is, we probably would not know in advance and, once the discovery is made, it cannot be undiscovered.
Scientists have no agreed theory of the origin of life – plenty of scenarios, conjectures and just-so stories, but nothing with solid experimental support.
Cosmologists have attempted to account for the day-to-day laws you find in textbooks in terms of fundamental 'superlaws,' but the superlaws themselves must still be accepted as brute facts. So maybe the ultimate laws of nature will always be off-limits to science.
In the frantic search for an elusive 'cure,' few researchers stand back and ask a very basic question: why does cancer exist? What is its place in the grand story of life?
The birth of science as we know it arguably began with Isaac Newton's formulation of the laws of gravitation and motion. It is no exaggeration to say that physics was reborn in the early 20th-century with the twin revolutions of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity.
To expect alien technology to be just a few decades ahead of ours is too incredible to be taken seriously.
Most research into life's murky origin has been carried out by chemists. They've tried a variety of approaches in their attempts to recreate the first steps on the road to life, but little progress has been made. Perhaps that is no surprise, given life's stupendous complexity.
Imagine a civilisation that's way in advance of us wants to communicate with us, and assist us in our development. The information we provide to them must reflect our highest aspirations and ideals, and not just be some crazy person's bizarre politics or religion.
A permanent base on Mars would have a number of advantages beyond being a bonanza for planetary science and geology. If, as some evidence suggests, exotic micro-organisms have arisen independently of terrestrial life, studying them could revolutionise biology, medicine and biotechnology.
Searching for alternative life on Earth might seem misconceived, because there is excellent evidence that every kind of life so far studied evolved from a common ancestor that lived billions of years ago. Yet most of the life that exists on Earth has never been properly classified.
Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth – the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves.
The way life manages information involves a logical structure that differs fundamentally from mere complex chemistry. Therefore chemistry alone will not explain life's origin, any more than a study of silicon, copper and plastic will explain how a computer can execute a program.
Cancer touches every family in one way or another. As other diseases are brought under control, cancer is set to become the number one killer, and is already in epidemic proportions worldwide.
It will be in the convergence of evolutionary biology, developmental biology and cancer biology that the answer to cancer will lie. Nor will this confluence be a one-way street.
If we do discover more than one type of life on Earth, we can be fairly certain that the universe is teeming with it, for it would be inconceivable that life started twice here but never on all the other earth-like planets.
Should we find a second form of life right here on our doorstep, we could be confident that life is a truly cosmic phenomenon. If so, there may well be sentient beings somewhere in the galaxy wondering, as do we, if they are not alone in the universe.
The vast majority of terrestrial species are in fact microbes, and scientists have only begun scratching the surface of the microbial realm. It is entirely possible that examples of life as we don't know it have so far been overlooked.
Is there anything science should not try to explain? Science is knowledge and knowledge is power – power to do good or evil. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
Clearly, some creative thinking is badly needed if humans are to have a future beyond Earth. Returning to the Moon may be worthy and attainable, but it fails to capture the public's imagination. What does get people excited is the prospect of a mission to Mars.
Astronauts have been stuck in low-Earth orbit, boldly going nowhere. American attempts to kick-start a new phase of lunar exploration have stalled amid the realisation that NASA's budget is too small for the job.
Astonishingly, in spite of decades of research, there is no agreed theory of cancer, no explanation for why, inside almost all healthy cells, there lurks a highly efficient cancer subroutine that can be activated by a variety of agents – radiation, chemicals, inflammation and infection.
A universe that came from nothing in the big bang will disappear into nothing at the big crunch. Its glorious few zillion years of existence not even a memory.
Science, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term 'doubting Thomas' well illustrates the difference.
We will never fully explain the world by appealing to something outside it that must simply be accepted on faith, be it an unexplained God or an unexplained set of mathematical laws.
Things changed with the discovery of neutron stars and black holes – objects with gravitational fields so intense that dramatic space and time-warping effects occur.
So how can we test the idea that the transition from nonlife to life is simple enough to happen repeatedly? The most obvious and straightforward way is to search for a second form of life on Earth. No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself, so if the path to life is easy, then life should have started up many times over right here.
The language of chemistry simply does not mesh with that of biology. Chemistry is about substances and how they react, whereas biology appeals to concepts such as information and organisation. Informational narratives permeate biology.
In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.
Cancer is such a ruthless adversary because it behaves as if it has its own fiendishly cunning agenda.