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Meet Edinburgh’s alien-hunting professor

He’s a serious scientist: a professor, who give lectures dressed as an alien. He’s lived in the most extreme places on earth, the driest and the coldest, to study how life might flourish on other planets. Lately he’s pitched into the debate on claims that the discovery of phosphine gas in Venus’ scorching, acid atmosphere proves there’s life there. The University of Edinburgh’s Professor of Astrobiology, Charles Cockell, is a man who likes to live and think far outside the sphere of our normality, as befits his job.  

Having led a team who designed a Mars station, Project Boreas, for use on the planet’s icy north pole, he’s already thinking about the political philosophy humans will need to settle new worlds to avoid space dictatorships. It’s important, he told me in a Zoom interview, because any environment, like a Mars base, where vital things like air supply could be controlled by someone “on a second to second time-scale…offers the possibility of an extreme form of tyranny that we have never really seen on the Earth.” Politics and science came together in 1992 when he stood in the general election for his Forward to Mars Party against then Prime Minister, John Major, in his Huntingdon seat. He got 91 votes.

Professor Cockell believes the quest for living worlds has value in indulging human curiosity, but could also help to save Earth. There is a tension, he says, between some environmentalists “who think that space exploration is a waste of money when we should be solving problems here on Earth”, and some proponents of space exploration “who think environmentalism is too inward looking”.

He contends “we should stop separating environmentalism and space exploration” so that together these groups could “become part of a broad strategy for building a space faring civilisation where the Earth is an oasis … Many of the things we monitor on Earth- the height of the oceans or preventing deforestation- are done by satellites. Many environments on earth can help us explore space: looking at extreme environments like deserts to understand Mars.” 

He sees inextricable links between space and earth environments. “The Earth is just a giant spaceship. The biosphere is just a giant life-support system. So environmentalists are basically space-craft engineers trying to keep a giant space-craft alive, it’s just that the life support system they look after, the bio-sphere, has three and a half billion years of mysteries in it and it’s a lot more complicated than the life-support system on the international space station but environmentalist and space-explorers are trying to do the same thing- to create sustainable human communities in the cosmos whether on Earth, the Moon or Mars.”

Does his biological research in Chile’s dry Atacama Desert, or the Antarctic, lead him to believe astronauts might one day find aliens?  “You’re guess is as good as mine” he says, but finding no life could be equally exciting, because, “it might tell us the origin of life is unusual, that we are extremely rare in the universe, and that would be a biological insight in itself.”

He does not let hope lead to over-rapid conclusions and is one of many sceptics about claims that the recent discovery of phosphine gas on Venus can only be explained by the presence of life. “It’s much more likely that it’s being produced, if it is there at all, by a chemical process we don’t yet understand,” he says. “The biological explanation is the explanation of last resort.”

This love of life, space and extreme environments has long been combined in his scientific work. As a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Cockel studied the effect of ultra violet light on microbes in Antarctica for three month stints. “It’s a very alien landscape” he says. “The lack of trees means it’s very difficult to get a sense of depth, and, because the atmosphere is very clean, you can be looking at a mountain hundreds of kilometres away that could be a tiny little mound right in front of you.”

Antarctica was among many expeditions worldwide in the name of scientific truth, but perhaps the boldest was in Sumatra. It was a personal project that came from a lifelong interest in moths. “Moths are very sensitive to changes in their environment so you can use them as indicators of changes in conditions” he tells me. “But often they just sit there at the top of the tree and don’t come down so I thought wouldn’t it be great if you could build a moth catching aircraft?” 

So, he bought a microlight aeroplane after raising money from supporters like the actor Susannah York, botanist David Bellamy and, surprisingly, 617 Squadron RAF, universally known as the Dam Busters, because he used converging spotlights like the World War Two bombers to check his height above the forest canopy. He named it the Barnes Wallis Moth Machine after the Dam Busters’ scientist. “I put some ultraviolet lights on the front to attract moths. I had a butterfly net in a cone underneath and two million candle power lights pointing down so you could see where you were going. I shipped this out to Sumatra with three colleagues … and I flew over the rainforests to catch moths.”

It was a great success until one day, during a landing, he clipped a tree and crashed. The plane was lost. Luckily, he was uninjured.

Professor Cockell’s lively and scientific career began with his first degree in biochemistry and molecular biology at Bristol in 1989. He did his D.Phil. in molecular biophysics at Oxford in 1994. He was a National Academy of Sciences Associate at the NASA Ames Research Center from 1995 to 1998, and then a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

Academic honours have followed from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the British Interplanetary Society. But perhaps most striking is the Explorers Club of New York, whose members have included Thor Heyerdahl, Jane Goodall, and Neil Armstrong.

Image: Pablo Carlos Budassi via Wikimedia Commons