In the Spotlight: Richard Wilman

Richard Wilman is Associate Professor (Education) in the Department of Physics at Durham University, UK. He is interested in the apocalyptic threat posed by rare but devastating cosmic hazards, and the long-term (post-apocalyptic) future of life in space.

What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?

It’s now almost 2 years on from when I saw the call, so my recollections are getting a bit hazy, but I do remember being instantly struck by how good a fit it seemed to be with my interests in world-ending cosmic catastrophes. I’d had connections a few years earlier with university institutes of hazard and risk, but my astronomical focus, and thinking about events millions of years in the future or elsewhere in the Universe, was a bit too exotic for their liking and too far-removed from their more everyday concerns with geographical or public health matters. So I decided to apply pretty much there and then, as I was also keen for a change of environment following the Covid chaos of the previous 18 months. I took a day of holiday just before the call deadline, shut myself away for a few hours and wrote the entire application in a single sitting. I was naturally delighted to receive the fellowship offer a few weeks later.

Richard Wilman

What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?

From the perspective of my project, an apocalypse is an existential cosmic event that brings an end to our current human civilization and sterilises most life on Earth. This could, for example, be the result of a large asteroid strike (akin to the one which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago), a solar super-flare, a nearby supernova or gamma-ray burst, or a disturbance of the solar system by a passing star or dust cloud — the list is long, and it would be arrogant to think that we know all the ways in which it could happen. Whilst events of this magnitude are expected to hit Earth on timescales of millions or billions of years, the likely existence of billions of habitable planets in our own galaxy alone means that such apocalypses are happening literally all the time in these far away places, which is fascinating to contemplate. In fact, the incidence of such hazards could well be a decisive factor in shaping when and where life elsewhere in the Universe, for which the starting ingredients may be common, could evolve from simple biology and develop to become advanced intelligent life.

The question of life elsewhere in the Universe brings us to another meaning of the apocalypse, harking back to the Greek roots of the word as being ‘the revelation of that which is hidden’. The latter is a very apt description of the current state of our search for life beyond Earth: within the next decade or so, we will start to establish, with astronomical observations, the extent to which potentially habitable planets are in fact inhabited. Given the potential for an imminent, revolutionary change in our worldview, this feels like a very apocalyptic time for the subject.

What is your fellowship trying to achieve?

In the first part of my project, I am looking at what I call ‘moderate’ cosmic hazards, such as asteroid impacts with the potential to destroy a large metropolitan area (akin to the 1908 Tunguska airblast), or a solar storm comparable to the 1859 Carrington Event which could paralyse much of our modern communications and electrical infrastructure. Such events both have estimated recurrence frequencies of order of centuries, so they are sufficiently frequent and destructive to be of societal concern, but their rarity in comparison with more familiar emergencies such as Earthquakes or floods means that they lie beyond our contemporary personal and collective experience. I am investigating the frequencies of these events, their societal consequences and mitigation measures. There are parallels with the Covid pandemic and lessons to be learned in how individual countries and the international community respond, translate evolving scientific understanding into effective policy, and communicate it to the public.

From there, I turn to the much rarer and truly apocalyptic, or ‘existential’, cosmic hazards, and their implications for life on Earth and elsewhere in the Universe. The ‘post-apocalyptic’ side of my project concerns the question of whether and how, in the face of such threats, we should seek to expand the domain of human life beyond the Earth, to elsewhere in the Solar System and ultimately beyond. And how in turn does this hinge on whether we are alone in the Universe, or whether life is abundant? This has led me to consider the quest for life beyond Earth, which is at a very apocalyptic juncture, and to think about life from a cosmic perspective, and where it fits philosophically and sociologically within the field of astronomy.

In terms of methods, I am drawing on my background as a research astrophysicist to digest and synthesise technical literature, but also venturing into risk management and policy, science fiction, and the humanities more generally.

How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?

I began my research career as an extragalactic astrophysicist studying some of the faintest and oldest light in the Universe from distant galaxies and black holes. But about a decade ago, coinciding with my switch to an education-focussed role, I decided that I wanted to work on aspects of astronomy with more immediate relevance to our life on Earth in the here and now, with ‘cosmic impact’ as I like to call it, but I will leave it to the reader to judge whether I have been successful in this quest!

I supervise around 5 Physics master’s students per year, several on projects related to the theme of my fellowship. Topics in cosmic hazards and the spread of life through the Universe have proved very popular with our students.

What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?

I hope it will prove a springboard for further ventures in these areas, including some books and articles, and the establishment of a new research centre on interdisciplinary and societal aspects of space and astronomy, which myself and colleagues have been considering for some time. After a decade in a teaching-focussed role, the latter part of which was extremely intense as we adapted teaching to Covid restrictions, I am looking forward to a change of perspective and a time to recharge intellectually.

What are the aspects of CAPAS that have been particularly valuable to you?

Having spent essentially my entire academic career in physics and astronomy institutes and university departments, it has been by turns both enlightening and perplexing, but ultimately highly rewarding, to step over to the ‘other side’ of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures, immersing myself in a humanities-focussed environment and considering the apocalypse from some very different vantage points, be they literary, geographical, or artistic, to name a few. As scientists, we think of ourselves as technically-minded problem solvers working on an objective reality, but being here at CAPAS shows me how the historical, philosophical and sociological are inextricably intertwined with the science, not just in terms of its past development, but also in how they shape our current worldview and practice. It's been valuable to consider the meaning, purpose and value of what we do, the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’, the ‘should we’ and not just the ‘could we’.

To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?

A new planet, the technology to get there and set up home, and above all, a purpose for doing so.

What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse — whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?

I have been re-reading some of the science fiction works by the British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001). Hoyle was a giant of 20th century astrophysics who did ground-breaking work on the origin of the elements and developed a rival to Big Bang cosmology (he actually coined the term ‘Big Bang’ as a term of derision). He was also maverick, anti-establishment figure who reached the top of British science. After resigning his Cambridge chair, he worked on the origin and spread of life from an astronomical perspective, championing the controversial theory of panspermia. Much of his science fiction deals with apocalyptic cosmic catastrophes, and served as a vehicle for his views on the origin of life, and the relationship between scientists and government. The Black Cloud, The Inferno and Fifth Planet are three of his works I would recommend.

When thinking about our future in space, I grew up in the shadows of the Apollo missions to the Moon, at a time when human spaceflight seemed to be stagnating in low-Earth orbit. I found great inspiration in reading about the Apollo era and in watching whatever film footage of it I could find pre-internet. I recall the 1989 documentary film ‘For All Mankind’ directed by Al Reinert as a particular favourite. Brian Eno’s haunting soundtrack for the film, released as Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, vividly evokes the mixed emotions of awe and terror on exploring a new world for the first time.