Odyssey Micro-Interview: Martin Griffiths

Martin GriffithsThe link between speculative fiction and science fact defines what Odyssey is all about. So we were delighted when Martin Griffiths (senior lecturer in Astronomy at the University of Glamorgan) accepted our invitation to give a talk at the BIS on this very theme: Visions of the Future: Science Fiction, Spaceflight and the BIS.

Martin’s science credentials are impeccable; he is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society; a member of the British Astronomical Association; the Webb Deep-Sky Society; the Society for Popular Astronomy; The Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Astronomical League. He is also a local representative for the BAA Campaign for Dark Skies and is a member of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, dedicated to the literature, science and arts of Wales. As a prelude to his presentation, Martin talks to Odyssey in the third in our series of mini-interviews. Please join us on the 23rd May to meet Martin in person and to take part in what will surely be a fascinating evening.

Interview by Mark Stewart FBIS

Why is the relationship between speculative fiction and science fact so important?

As Einstein once said “imagination is more important than knowledge.”As typified by spaceflight and the development of rocketry throughout the 20th century, it was imagination that led the way and SF was the bedrock of that imagination. The conquest of the Moon and the flights of probes to the planets come as a result of the work of technological dreamers who turned works of imagination into reality. It does not matter which field of science one chooses, there is always a fictional exploration somewhere behind it that causes the scientific investigator to ponder the question “what if?” And then set out to do it.

Did science fiction inspire you to take up a career in science?

Yes, in many respects it did. I was influenced by science fiction from an early age and, of course, by the images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the Moon in 1969. The works of space artists such as Chesley Bonestell and Kelly Freas were a big push toward trying to visualize what the world of the future would be like.

Frank Herbert - DuneWho are your favourite SF authors and why?

A difficult one! Arthur C. Clarke has always been a favourite as his SF has a great realism. Probably my favourite SF book is Dune by Frank Herbert, as its vision of a galactic empire is a wonderfully constructed interplay of politics, religion and humanity in a setting that exemplifies space travel. Robert Silverberg and Ray Bradbury are also wonderful. I prefer SF of the so called “golden age” when man’s technological advancement was usually tied in some way to the exploration of new worlds in space.

Are we, as some commentators have suggested, living in a sci-fi age?

Yes, without a doubt. Science and technology are the tools that have constructed the world we live in and the amazing gadgets we all use. SF may have foreseen in a broad sense some of these tools but SF is a literature of change be it technological or social. As Asimov once put it: “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be”

We are very lucky to have Sir Patrick Moore as a member of the BIS. Did The Sky at Night encourage you to become interested in astronomy?

Absolutely! I also still have my copy of Patrick Moore’s 1970 book of astronomy, (published by Sidgwick and Jackson) which he kindly signed for me (I was eight at the time!) Although I don’t get to watch the programme as often nowadays, it is still as fresh today as the programmes I remember in my youth.

What are some of the big stories in astronomy right now?

Goodness! That question covers so much! I teach Astrobiology, Cosmology and observational Astronomy at the University of Glamorgan, so anything to do with the potential for life elsewhere always grabs my attention. The results from the Planck satellite, which studied the Cosmic Microwave Background, are very important as we home in on a deeper understanding of the production of our universe – and any hint at the possibility of other universes always intrigues me.

Is this discovery of extra-terrestrial life inevitable given the large number of exo-planets that are now being discovered?

I would say that this discovery is an inevitability – the question is what sort of life we are talking about, and what timescale we require to find it. I think that intelligent life is pretty rare, but single celled microorganisms may be abundant in the cosmos. However, it’s not easy to talk to an amoeba! Our current searches via SETI are looking for intelligent life with a technological capability similar to ours, which is going to restrict the search to a very narrow field, but then what can we expect? The more exo-planets found the likelier the discovery of some form of life out in the cosmos, but of course it may take generations before we could confirm such life, unless microorganisms are alive and well in the sub-soil of Mars…

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Chocolate!

Thank you, Martin Griffiths

For more on Martin see: http://staff.glam.ac.uk/users/191

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