SNP has a point on “the Vow”

Westminster SNP Leader Angus Robertson has accused the UK Government of “losing control” of “The Vow” (the offer of greatly enhanced powers to the Scottish Parliament made by previous Prime Minister Gordon Brown ahead of last year’s referendum).

He is wrong. The UK Government has not lost control of “The Vow”, because it never had control of it in the first place. By this time last year Gordon Brown was a largely absentee back bench Opposition MP who had no right to make such a vow in the first place, and no means of subsequent delivery.

Nevertheless, the Conservatives should now get on with implementation of the Smith Commission recommendations, for three prime reasons.

Firstly, though I think its effect on the referendum outcome is vastly overstated, there is an understandable perception in Scotland that “The Vow” constituted a binding offer from the three Unionist parties. It should be carried through in good faith.

Secondly, it is in the Union’s interests that the Scottish Parliament have greater welfare and budgetary powers. As frequently noted on this blog, devolution has favoured the financial left because it gets to spend but it is for the UK Government to tax; in fact, finance should generally be raised in a democracy at the level it is spent to give the voters a clear choice and enable Executives and Legislatures at various levels to be held to account.

Thirdly, it is in the Conservatives’ interests to be seen as the drivers of constitutional change for Scotland within in the Union. Their trials in Scotland dated back to many things, but primarily to their failure to grasp the Zeitgeist in Scotland at the time of the devolution referendums in the late ’90s. A Conservative revival in Scotland depends on their ability to be seen as a distinctly Scottish party – something their current leadership has carried out with distinction and which would be further enhanced by the delivery of further powers over Scottish issues into Scottish hands.

Add this in to the practicalities of the roll-out of welfare reforms and tax changes, and it is important that the Scotland Bill has priority to enable practical use of the new powers immediately after the next Scottish Parliamentary Election.

It is time the Conservatives made their Vow to Scotland.

No party has any right to make talks dependent on a road

Sinn Fein indicated last week that it would not support a Programme for Government after the Assembly Election unless it included prioritisation (essentially, immediate construction) of the A5 expressway in 2016.

This just shows, unfortunately, just how far divorced Sinn Fein is from the requirements of democracy and good government.

(The A5 is the road from Derry via Strabane and Omagh to the border near Aughnacloy, in south Tyrone; it joins the N2 which heads on via Monaghan to Dublin. Given its link to Donegal, the Irish Government offered half of the then £850m funding to upgrade the road to expressway standard – dual carriageway with no right turns – in 2007 but withdrew the offer in 2011. It is now suggesting it may be willing to contribute again, although the cost has now increased realistically to above £1 billion).

Firstly, it is simply ludicrous to make the stability of this part of Ireland dependent upon a particular road project. People in the other part of Ireland may like to think about that.

Secondly, the route of the A5 expressway upgrade has not yet been subject to public inquiry. Understandably, any major infrastructure project of that sort has a particular set of consultation requirements including, in the case of something like this, an inquiry at which the public (notably those who would be negatively affected, for example through losing property or bypassing businesses) have a say. This is a basic right, and it requires there to be at least the potential that the route will be disallowed by the Inspector – meaning that it would be back to the drawing board, with no realistic chance of construction this decade. (There are other projects which have passed the Inquiry, notably the A6 upgrade from the M22 to Castledawson, which would be every bit as useful to people in the North West as well as in Mid Ulster.)

Thirdly, in any sensible democracy, a party which did not accept the Programme for Government would simply go into opposition. Such daft demands only emphasise why it is important we reform our democratic structures to deliver such an outcome!

This is all to leave aside the financial nonsense of spending £1 billion on a road which is not objectively a priority and cannot administratively proceed as fast as other projects, when both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland are still scrambling towards economic safety.

For all that, we may find it gets prioritised to give Sinn Fein a “win” it can claim, in order to nudge us towards our next breakdown in a year or two.

The whole thing is exactly why we need more than a sticking plaster this time. It is also why people need to stop voting for communal parties interested only in carve-up rather than sound evidence-based policies and efficient financial management for everyone in Northern Ireland. I cannot say I am particularly hopeful.

Sinn Féin must be allowed room to manoeuvre on welfare

I saw some utterly ludicrous parallels being made between Greek politics and various other places in recent days, but the one lesson is that a Leader who does the right thing in practice, even if at odds with what he pledged in theory, will be rewarded by the electorate.

Sinn Féin knows it is not in its interests to be seen as a party of inherent instability, and it has enough intelligent people in its ranks to know a deal must be done on welfare. That is, after all, why it did one last December.

What really caused the problem was the SDLP’s ludicrous u-turn for purely party political gain. Having once, as a responsible party of government and holder of the relevant ministry, accepted there were “2.6 billion reasons for maintaining parity” (a direct quote from a current SDLP MLA in support of a current SDLP MP), it then thought it would try to make electorate life tricky for its main rival by resorting to outright populism. This, of course, did not work as Sinn Féin simply carried out the same u-turn, aware there couldn’t be electoral consequences because its main rival (in Northern Ireland) had done the precise same thing.

As there are now 3.1 billion reasons for maintaining parity, it is time for the SDLP (and actually also the voluntary sector) to wise up. The current welfare system does not work; the new system can be Northern Ireland-ised up to a point; and there is no more money and time to waste.

This is a negotiation, not a debate. In a negotiation, we all need room for manoeuvre. If Sinn Féin has the courage to do the right thing, it should be backed.

Rugby should adopt Tennis’ replay system

Rugby Union is not my sport, but as a fan of team sports this particular Rugby World Cup is going very well – with epic encounters, high-quality action, and several shocks. In particular, the improvement of the “Tier 2” teams is a good sign for the global game.

However, I have found my enjoyment somewhat spoiled by the constant referring of decisions to the “TMO” (the “fourth referee” based in the stands with a TV screen). The problem is not that we do not want to see the correct decisions; it is, of course, perfectly apt to use technology to ensure the correct calls are made. The problem is that the excitement of a thrilling try is sharply reduced by a seemingly interminable wait for the decision from “upstairs”. As a result, some games are exceeding 100 minutes in on-field playing time.

It seems to me that there is a fairly obvious solution, which could be borrowed more or less from American Football or even Lawn Tennis. Instead of the referee “passing the decision upstairs”, each team could have a certain number of “challenges” (say, three each half). If the captain of the defending side felt there was any question of a foot in touch or a forward pass (or whatever), he could challenge the ruling and have it referred to the “TMO”; likewise the attacking side, in some instances, could appeal the disallowing of a try or even make a case for a penalty or penalty try in certain instances.

This would have the advantage of ensuring the correct decision was made when it really counts; but it would also avoid the game being slowed down so much. Furthermore, celebrating the epic moments – such as Wales’ equalising try nine days ago – would not be delayed by the agonising wait for the man upstairs!

The origin of the term “try”

The Rugby World Cup continues to draw in the crowds, with the “bonus point” system adding to the interest because it becomes potentially important to score four “tries”.

So why is it called a “try”?

Essentially the original game of “football”, once it moved from entire towns on to a field, consisted most often (though it varied from town to town and school to school) of two posts placed at either end. The aim was simply to manoeuvre the ball through the posts, initially by almost literally any means, to score a “goal”.

This was, evidently, madness – one French diplomat said that if “football” was the English at play, he would not like to see them at war!

Thus, various clubs and schools came to adopt different restrictions about how the ball may be moved. Eventually, by the mid-Victorian era, many had come to follow the rules adopted by Rugby School said to have originated in 1823, which had various moves outlawed but allowed handling by all players; others followed the rules of an association of schools adopted in London in 1863, which came to allow handling only by one player in his own half. Hence were born Rugby Football (colloquially “rugger”), and Association Football (colloquially “soccer”).

Both codes and all major successor forms of “football” except Aussie Rules eventually adopted a crossbar (which was initially, in fact, merely a piece of tape but later came to be a horizontal pole similar to the vertical ones forming the posts), with a “goal” in Rugby Football and its successor Gridiron codes scored above the bar, and in Association Football below. (Gaelic Football, of course, cunningly allowed both – the scoring value for below the bar settled on three times the value of over the bar just over a century ago, having initially been higher.)

The Rugby code came to have four distinct ways of kicking a “goal”. One was a penalty kick, awarded as a sanction for foul play, which was (and is) a free placekick; a second was (and is) a dropped kick, taken from free play; a third was a kick from a mark, a dropped kick taken after a fair catch (fair catches can now only be called inside a team’s own 22, and this method of scoring was formally abolished in any case forty years ago); and a fourth was a placekick taken after touching the ball down (officially “grounding the ball”) in the opposing team’s in-goal area (in line with the touchdown location). Thus, when a team touched the ball down on or over the opponents’ goal line, they were said to have a “try” at goal – noting that initially the goal was only scored if the kick was successful, and the touchdown itself had no scoring value.

Different schools and clubs moved at slightly different speeds in practice, but within decades the unfairness of the worthless “try” became apparent. Thus, a “goal” of any sort became worth five points, but a “try” even without a successful kick was awarded two points (thus, effectively, towards the end of the 19th century a “try” was two points and a “conversion” three, with any other goal worth five).

Ever since, of course, the “try” has increasingly been seen as the most exciting method of scoring, and has thus increased in value to become the main means of adding points (as well as a prominent tiebreaker between teams on equal points in league rankings), as other kicked goals have consequently been reduced in value. This has happened, albeit to varying degrees, in all successor codes – Gridiron and Rugby League as well as Rugby Union. Nevertheless, in the Rugby codes, the name “try” remains, a vestige of when it was in itself worthless!

That is why a “try” is called a “try”.

Why is a “touchdown” in Gridiron called a “touchdown” when you don’t have to touch the ball down? No idea – I’ll leave that to the readership…!

Government interventions fuel wrong decisions

The problem with government intervention is it can be horribly wrong. Governments are, frankly, no more likely than anyone else to pick out sensible evidence over dud nonsense.

That, at least, is one obvious conclusion from the Volkswagen diesel scandal – even leaving aside the fact that Volkswagen itself is partly owned by a State Government (that of Lower Saxony).

A side issue in the scandal, but a serious issue generally, is that the whole reason Volkswagen cheated was that it was trying to rush “clean diesel” to market, when no such thing (yet) exists. This is, in the immediacy, a disaster for Volkswagen. But it is also a black eye for governments across Europe.

Because it turns out diesel is no cleaner than petrol anyway. Governments across Europe, particularly on the Continent, had taxed diesel fuel at lower rates and in at least two cases (Belgium and Spain) actually applied a lower tax on the purchase of diesel cars all in the belief that they were cleaner and healthier. They’re not. They got it completely wrong.

Europe will now pay the price. The really clean technology comes in the form of full electric or hybrid cars (which generally use petrol, but much less of it), in which US and Japanese manufacturers invested heavily while the Europeans were messing about with filthy diesel because their governments thought it was a good  idea. This means that Europeans have caused environmental damage while their manufacturers have been left behind – to the extent they have been forced to cheat blatantly to try to keep up with the “clean” image customers rightly demand.

This was, fundamentally, a disastrous case of government intervention gone wrong. Meanwhile, the rest of the world forged ahead. The free market isn’t always right – but it is sometimes…

Sinn Féin confirms support for partition

Perhaps the biggest recent election in Europe was not in Greece, but in Catalonia.

Support is rising in Catalonia for partition. Not only should Spain be partitioned as the more businesslike and culturally distinct northeastern Catalonia Region seeks independence, but even the Catalan Lands themselves should be split, with Valencia and the Balearics left joined with Spain.

One cannot help but draw parallels 100 years on almost exactly from a similar partition not just of Ireland but of the province of Ulster, with Monaghan and Donegal (and Cavan as of 1613) separated from the rest of Ulster to remain joined to the Irish Free State.

So the Catalan case is strikingly similar to the specifically Ulster Unionist case 100 years ago, right down to accepting a split in the Catalan Lands if it comes to it. (I have some sympathy myself, though I must say my instinctive preference would be to try a properly federal Spain first, just as it is for a properly federal UK.)

Which does make one wonder, just a little, why that Catalan case is so strongly backed by Sinn Féin. Turns out partition of a longstanding single state and obvious geographical unit is right after all?

After Mars water, is there life elsewhere in the galaxy?

NASA’s announcement that there is currently water on the surface of Mars is potentially the greatest discovery in the history of humankind. On Earth, where there is water, there is life. The ultimate question for humankind is whether we are alone, or whether there is life elsewhere.

The deposits, most markedly in fact those slightly to the left on these photographs, are (in the opinion of NASA) conclusive proof of current, running water on Mars.

The deposits, most markedly in fact those slightly to the left on these photographs, are (in the opinion of NASA) almost conclusive proof of current, running water on Mars.

Of course, the really ultimate question is whether there is complex, intelligent, communicating life elsewhere. That is certainly not currently the case on Mars. Yet, unbeknownst to many, we have closed in remarkably quickly in the last two decades on finding it (or, at least, correctly assessing the odds of it). For what it is worth, I remain doubtful that we will find any (at least, any relevant to us) but, given the scale of the question, it is worth assessing what is happening and what our chances may be!


Mars is not particularly relevant to the quest for complex, intelligent life, but the discovery of any form of life would give us a significant clue as to the likelihood of finding that complex, intelligent life elsewhere.

The big question wpuld then be whether life on Mars exhibits the same DNA as life on Earth. If it does, then either all life in the Universe has the same basis, or life on both Mars and Earth originated from the same place. If it does not, life may develop in radically different ways in different parts even of the same stellar neighbourhood.

We should note, of course, that water does not necessarily equal life on Mars, just because it does on Earth.

Drake Equation

The best known conversation starter to determine the likelihood of current, complex, intelligent, communicated life elsewhere in our galaxy is known as the “Drake Equation” (after American Dr Frank Drake).

There is no need to complicate the matter with the full mathematics here (not least because I am no mathematician), but essentially this sets out to calculate the number of stars created in our galaxy, and then determine which proportion of those have planets (or moons) capable of harbouring life, then those which actually do harbour life, then those on which that life has become complex or intelligent, and then those on which that intelligent life has chosen to communicate its existence into space – then putting all that into an equation alongside the probability of that communicating life actually coinciding with us in time.

We can begin, better than Drake himself could when he set out the equation in the early 1960s, to answer some of these:

  • there may be as many as 250 billion star systems in our galaxy (perhaps 400 billion stars – but around half of stars are part of multi-star systems, a point to which we shall return), with seven stars created annually on average;
  • it is now reasonably inferred that very few star systems do not have planets (and moons);
  • it is now reasonably inferred that a significant proportion, perhaps over a quarter, of star systems have a planet in what is known as the “Habitable Zone” (sometimes also known as the “Goldilocks Zone” – not too hot, not too cold, just right for life);
  • it is now reasonably inferred on the basis of the discovery of nearly 2000 confirmed planets in the last two decades and nearly 5000 candidate planets (most of which, historically, have subsequently been confirmed) that somewhere between a fifth and a half of all sun-like stars have at least one planet of around Earth’s size in the “Habitable Zone”.

The Mars findings are notable because, on Earth, where there is water there is life; therefore we may reasonably now increase the proportion of potentially habitable planets which actually are inhabited by living organisms (albeit not intelligent or even complex ones).

Put those numbers into the equation and most experts had already come up with a number in the thousands – i.e. that there must be thousands of civilisations (complex, intelligent life forms) in our own galaxy alone.

Fermi Paradox

This leads inevitably to the “Fermi Paradox” (after Italian Dr Enrico Fermi), which in fact just pre-dates the “Drake Equation” but runs neatly from it. This infers that there should be thousands of civilisations in our own galaxy alone, but then asks the simple question: “Where is everybody?

The relatively simple argument is this: humankind has advanced as far as spaceflight in just 12,000 years from the end of the last glaciation (“Ice Age”) and subsequent beginnings of irrigation; or even “just” 2.8 million years from the first bipedal hominid (recently discovered in Gauteng). This is the blink of an eye in cosmic terms – the Universe is 13.8 billion years old; the solar system 4.6 billion; life on Earth 3.8 billion; and it is even 33 million years since the most recent “extinction event” (and even that was comparatively minor). Given those time scales, and what we have recently accomplished technologically, surely we will accomplish inter-stellar travel within the next 12,000 years (or even 2.8 million)? So, then, why has nobody else?

There are a number of answers to this, of course. Firstly, perhaps they have, and we have not yet noticed. Secondly, perhaps they reached a stage of development where they realised it was best to keep themselves to themselves (after all, coming into contact with Europeans did not do slightly less advanced American Indians much good). Thirdly, perhaps there is a certain level of technological advancement beyond which it is impossible to go (simply because it becomes practically impossible, or because any civilisation attempting it destroys itself in so doing – this is often known as the “filter theory”).

Fourthly, though, it is just possible that the development of complex, intelligent, space-age life on Earth is just an absolute fluke – this is normally known as the “Rare Earth Hypothesis“.

(I personally counter the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” on admittedly more philosophical grounds: what is the point in all these spectacular supernovae, nebulae, galaxy mergers, pulsars, dust clouds, rogue planets and all the rest of it, if there are no sentient beings around to experience them? Call it the “Parsley Paradox” – sounds pretty good!)

Cosmic Scales

It is worth, firstly, assessing the cosmic scales of such things. This is usually done by measuring space and time based on the speed of light – around 300,000km per second.

On this scale, the moon is just over one second away (the exact distance varies slightly as the moon’s orbit is not precisely circular – it is at its closest right now, hence the “Red Moon” event last weekend) – meaning we see the moon as it was just over a second ago.

The sun is just over eight minutes away.

The brightest planet in our night sky and nearest neighbour apart from the moon, Venus, can be as close as around two and a half minutes, although it can drift to over ten minutes if it is at the opposite side of the sun during its orbit – Venus is, for reference, almost exactly the same size as Earth. Mars, topically, can come as close as just over four minutes and go as far as over twelve. The furthest easily visible planet, Saturn, is over an hour; the New Horizons space probe has made it out to Pluto at around four hours. At least one comet orbits the sun from over a light year away, and there are probably many more – but they are of course only visible from Earth (or any inner planet) when much closer (within a few minutes of light travel) on their occasional approaches.

The very nearest star system – actually a three-star system with two stars similar in size to the sun and one much smaller – is four years away on the same basis. To compute that back to Earth, if each of the main two stars were the size of a grain of sand, the sun would also be the size of a grain of sand nearly seven kilometres (four miles) away!

Often quoted as being of most immediate interest is the area within around 80 light years – that is the area from which the sun itself would be visible with the naked eye from a planet orbiting another star. In that area alone, current detections indicate there are on average two or three Earth-like planets in the Habitable Zone of Sun-like stars (including one candidate “just” 12 light years away).

Our galaxy is over 100,000 light years across, and four light years is a fairly typical inter-stellar distance. There are also some small satellite galaxies a few tens of thousands of light years further out. Not all of this is visible – about a sixth is hidden behind the busy Galactic Centre.

The nearest major galaxy, as noted above, does not appear in the current equations but, for the record, is over 2.5 million light years away. (The distance to the end of the Observable Universe is over 45 billion light years, but that’s just incomprehensible so let us not go there!)

Time Scales

However, in addition to scales in space, we also have to consider scales in time. If a very advanced civilisation existed in our galaxy five billion years ago; or exists in our galaxy five billion years from now; there is every chance we will know nothing about it.

The age of the Universe is current projected to be 13.8 billion years, give or take a few hundred thousand. As noted above, the solar system is around 4.6 billion years old, so has existed for around a third of that time. However, humankind’s presence would only have been easily detectable in space from 1895, and possibly not definitively until 1937. This is a tiny period, obviously.

Obviously different planets can have come into existence at any time in the past 13 billion years or so. Therefore, even assuming (and it is a big assumption) that other civilisations develop at a similar rate from formation of the planet and the beginnings of basic life (i.e. over billions of years), the chances of finding a civilisation at almost exactly our stage of development (i.e. which is obviously detectable but not significantly advanced) are millions to one – even assuming one can exist elsewhere at all. Realistically, this leaves two options: that we detect life by detecting biology in the atmosphere of other planets (or stars); or we will find a civilisation vastly more advanced than we are. The latter is less likely, particularly anywhere “nearby”, because it would surely already have found us…


It is worth noting that around 85% of stars in our galaxy are red (or orange) dwarfs, invisible to the naked eye (particularly in urban areas) here on Earth. These are not a focus for seeking life because they are much older and cooler, meaning the “Habitable Zone” is much closer to the star than it is in the Solar System – so close, in fact, that any potentially life-harbouring planet would be “tidally locked”, showing one face to the star all the time (as the Moon does to Earth) and thus not experiencing day and night (assumed by many to be necessary for complex life, notably through photosynthesis, to develop). This accounts therefore for maybe 340 million or so of the 400 million in our galaxy (and then even a sixth of the remainder are practically invisible to us as noted above). Although the contention that planets or moons could not possibly develop complex life is contested, they are not seen as prime candidates – after all, if the only planet known to have complex life is Earth, it makes sense to look for star systems and planets like Earth.

Of the remaining 15%, it is currently estimated that around half are multi-star systems (although there is a fair measure of doubt about this, as multi-star systems tend to be easier to detect but there may be some dispute about whether the stars really are part of the same system). As noted above, the closest to us is a three-star system. Again, these are not seen as prime candidates – it is unclear whether complex life could develop with the complexities of two or more stars. For the record, there are some planets which orbit the entirety of such a system (one even orbits four stars at once); there are others which orbit only one of the multiple stars in the system. The latter would probably be more stable and may be candidates for complex life, but they are currently not generally prioritised.

Of the remaining 7-8% or so, some (albeit a minority) are far too big realistically to support life within their system. These may be hundreds or even thousands of light years away, and tend to be short-life stars anyway, around which complex life may simply not have had time to develop (their lives can be a short as tens of millions of years, whereas life has existed on Earth for several billions). They would also be extraordinarily hot, forcing their “Habitable Zone” well out, potentially into areas vulnerable to objects such as comets.

That leaves around 5% – although a third of those easily visible with the naked eye – which are sole stars (or at least wide orbiting binary stars) of average age like our Sun. These are themselves split into three categories – “generally Solar-type” stars, of which there are a few dozen within 20 light years, are roughly the same age but may have little else in common; “Solar Analogs”, three of which are sole star systems 10-20 light years away, are quite similar in many ways but may have a significant discrepancy in heat or make-up; and “Solar Twins”, the nearest of which is just under 50 light years away, are very similar indeed in all regards (age, heat, size, metallicity etc), and thus have a very similar “Habitable Zone” to the Solar System’s. The focus of our search understandably focuses on these, as they provide conditions nearest to those which we already know support intelligent life.

The first planets found outside the Solar System (known as “exoplanets”) were confirmed in 1992, but these were around a pulsar, not a star. They began being found around stars from 1995, with particular advances being made by the Hubble Space Telescope (a wide detail telescope placed in orbit around the Earth, although its focus was more on the origin of the universe rather than the search for life) and the Kepler Mission (which chose a particular area of sky in our neighbourhood in the galactic “suburbs” known to host a high proportion of Sun-like stars to look for exoplanets, with a particular aim of establishing roughly how common they are).

(The Solar System is in the galactic “suburbs” about two thirds of the way from the centre to the edge, excluding the much less populated outer “halo”. It is therefore well away from the more populated and potentially more dangerous centre, and even from other denser “arms” of stars coming out from that centre. Many astronomers argue such a galactic location is essential for life to develop over the long term to the levels of complexity and intelligence now found on Earth.)


As the only complex life we know exists on a planet, those seeking life outside our solar system focus on planets (and occasionally their moons).

Despite vast advances, it is too early to be definitive about all of the trends we are finding, but we can say some things:

  • very few stars have no planetary system at all;
  • so-called “Hot Jupiters”, large gas giants orbiting closer to their star than the inner Solar System planet Mercury does to the Sun and thought to inhibit the development of complex life, are not as common as first thought (they were found in great numbers early on because they are the easiest planets to detect) – probably fewer than 3% of Sun-like stars possess one;
  • the most common size of planet may in fact be one which does not exist at all in the Solar System, between the size of Earth (the largest inner planet) and Uranus (the smallest gas giant); and
  • nevertheless, small (potentially Earth-like rocky) planets may be very common, existing in the “Habitable Zone” of perhaps over  30% of stars.

For those seeking life, the balance of these outcomes is surely positive. Furthermore, we have found confirmed planets over 20,000 light years away (and we even have candidates in other galaxies).

One notable negative is that early indications are that the eccentricity of the orbit of planets is much higher than the Solar System average. Earth’s, itself below the Solar System average, ranges from almost zero to nearly 0.06, averaging just under 0.02 (it is currently slightly below this, and decreasing for the next ten millennia). However, the average for exoplanets appears to be 0.25 – much higher even than Mercury, by far the most eccentric planet in the Solar System. This is a problem because it would create significant seasonal discrepancy between hemispheres, among other things. However, this figure will likely decrease as more exoplanets are found, not least because it may become apparent that some orbits put down as belonging to the same planet in fact belong to two different, albeit nearby, bodies.


One obvious question in all of this is an incredibly simple one: what is life? As a hopeless biologist, I am in no place to answer this directly!

One thing which is apparent is that we make an assumption that Earth is ideal for the development of complex, intelligent life (certainly exponents of the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” base their whole argument on this). I would instinctively dispute this. It strikes me that Earth is hit by asteroids (like the one which destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago) rather more often than the “ideal”; Earth’s eccentricity is fairly low but still not zero; and the variations between glacial and non-glacial periods over hundreds of thousands of years may be relatively extreme. Earth is also, arguably, a little on the small side for supporting intelligent, energy-sapping life.

On the other hand, it is clear that some freak occurrences have enabled intelligent life to develop, some of which may yet prove to be unique. Life itself appears only to have developed once on Earth, as has intelligent life capable of making itself known to outer space. One of the main drivers of our advances has been industrialisation, itself dependent on some remarkable and potentially freak advances right back to someone having the foresight to rub two stones together fearlessly. Another main driver, of particular interest to me, was the development of complex language which seems unmatched elsewhere in the animal world (tied seemingly to humankind’s unique voice boxes, although the fundamental origin of language remains poorly understood), and which may be essential to reach our level of technology. There is also a real question over whether nature in fact rewards intelligence at all, given the length of time dinosaurs dominated the land and sharks have dominated the seas – could the coming to prominence of intelligent homo sapiens be nothing more than a complete fluke? Contrary to these, it does appear that complex organisms have developed on over 40 separate occasions on Earth; and it does appear that some other mammals at least share our broad sense of wonder about the world and even universe around us, hinting that the fundamental pre-requisite to great understanding (and philosophical and industrial advances) may not be unique.

Basic disputes even remain over whether “life” need necessarily be “biochemical”. These are well beyond the scope of my own knowledge and comprehension!


The presence of water on Mars indicates the possible, perhaps even probable, presence of life on Mars – possibly even currently living organisms of some sort. This coincides with the discovery of vast numbers of planets orbiting other stars, many of which are in the “Habitable Zone” also capable of developing water and very possibly therefore also basic life of some sort.

That we are in all probability not the only place where life has developed leads to perhaps the most fundamental question of all: are we alone in this galaxy as complex, intelligent life forms capable of indicating our presence into outer space? In this piece, I have tried to establish some of the parameters of how we may seek to answer that question based on current, rapidly expanding human knowledge.

The parameters are that life needs certain conditions to begin and then thrive, and that these conditions are almost certainly met on planets (and even moons) orbiting other stars, particularly stars like our own Sun in single-star systems like our Solar System. However, this life may develop a long way or even a long time away from where we are.

However, that is no guarantee that the conditions to develop complex, intelligent life to our level of philosophical and technological advancement exist anywhere. Evidence from the history of Earth is patchy, and evidence from elsewhere in the galaxy (not least the apparent absence of any advanced civilisation) suggest it is in practice odds very much against in any given system, even where theoretically ideal conditions exist.

What we do know is that we are in a position to focus in the right areas in the search for life elsewhere, with a real chance of making exciting discoveries very soon.

As a final note, the sum of human knowledge expands twenty-fold every twenty years. So, what we can say for certain is that twenty years from now our understanding of our own planet, of our own Solar System and of our own galaxy will have expanded beyond anything that is even currently imaginable, just as has happened since the first confirmed discovery of a planet around another star in 1995. We may very well know by 2035 how common life is elsewhere in the galaxy – and even specifically where it exists.

It is a most remarkable human endeavour, and we are privileged to be living in such an age of discovery.

History of Rugby World Cup: 2011

To conclude this series just as the current edition gets going…

2011 was the year of redemption for the All Blacks, at home in New Zealand – but it was close!

The tournament really got going in the quarter finals, each of which was keenly contested aside from New Zealand’s easy win. Two big Northern Hemisphere clashes went the way of France (by totally outplaying a poor England) and Wales (by beating Ireland in every area of the field in the second half to win 22-10). The most bizarre game was the Tri-Nations clash between Australia and South Africa – the Wallabies literally only made it into the South African 22 once in the entire match, but scored a try when they got there and then clung on, with the addition of a dodgy penalty on their only visit to the Springboks’ half in the final quarter, to nick an 11-9 win despite being utterly outplayed.

In the semi, New Zealand unsurprisingly reversed previous defeats to its trans-Tasman rivals with an easy win. The story came in the other match, where Wales, reduced early to 14 men after captain Sam Warburton was red-carded, put in a monumental effort and even mustered the game’s only try, but narrowly missed three kicks in the last half hour to miss out agonisingly 9-8.

The final was similarly low scoring, almost like games of yesteryear, as the occasion got to the hosts. Having comprehensively beaten France in the group, New Zealand staggered through the repeat of the first ever final, and the final whistle on a torturous 8-7 win against a traditional bogey team was greeted with relief as much as jubilation.

Big Bang Theory needs a literal rethink

I wrote this piece 20 months ago and, unlike most things here, it has stood the test of time – its subject, the Big Bang Theory, which looks increasingly dubious.

Welsh astronomer Isaac Roberts took this picture of the 2.5m light-year distant Andromeda Galaxy in 1899 - a generation before it was realised that there even were galaxies other than our own Milky Way

Welsh astronomer Isaac Roberts took this picture of the 2.5m light-year distant Andromeda Galaxy in 1899 – a generation before it was realised that there even were galaxies other than our own Milky Way

Firstly, there has been a slight but detectable turnaround in the scientific community towards disputing it and, specifically, disputing the idea that everything (including space and time itself) began in a single infinitely dense location 13.8 billion years ago. After all, the notion of the “singularity” requires the laws of physics to be broken (something no one disputes), so it is somewhat mysterious that we cling so heavily to it.

Secondly, we have now not only found structures that are simply too big to exist within the Universe’s time frame, but we are increasingly finding stars whose average estimable age is in fact above 13.8 billion years. In each of the latter cases, there is a lower end of the estimate which falls below 13.8 billion years, but it is becoming increasingly unbelievable that all stars with an estimated age of, say, over 14 billion years are actually aged below 13.8 billion. The likeliest solution to this, by the way, is not that the age of the Universe is wrong but that the age of the stars are, but that has vast implications for everything we are measuring much beyond our own supercluster. We have already been surprised by the dimness of far-away supernovas, indicating the Universe may be expanding faster than our current model.

Thirdly, no one dares challenge the notion of “dark energy” and “dark matter” which, we are told, make up 96% of the Universe. This really isn’t good enough. We actually have no direct evidence that either exists, merely that mathematical models based on the Big Bang (and a concept which is known to exist, “gravitational leasing”) seem to require them.

For what it’s worth, I am increasingly leaning towards the view that there has been more than one creation event (i.e. more than one Great Inflation as per the Big Bang Theory). It is quite possible that we are in a galaxy all of which (or the vast majority of which) began 13.8 billion years ago, but we need to investigate possibilities that this is overlaid on something which already existed; or that we are now seeing things in other galaxies (or, more to the point, filaments) which originated from different creation events (or which belong, fundamentally, to different “universes”).

We have, after all, been fooled throughout human history into thinking we are the centre of everything (it remains a fact of human nature that we all believe ourselves more important to events than we actually are). We believed that our planet was everything; then we believed that everything roasted around our planet; then we believed that our galaxy was everything; now we speak of an “observable universe” placing us by definition at the centre. This notion that we are the only thing, or the centre of everything, has never served us well in the last. So why believe we are at the centre of the accessible universe or even in only universe now? Why must everything around us share the same common origin?

This is a hugely exciting time for astronomy. Vast improvements in telescopes and innovations in space proves have brought us knowledge about the universe I never imagined possible even in science fiction even 20 years ago. But it often takes us a long time to comprehend what we see because of the limitations we have imposed upon ourselves in current thinking – hence we were able to photograph clearly other galaxies in the 19th century, but we did not recognise their existence until the 1920s (passing them off completely erroneously as star clusters within our own galaxy in the meantime)! In the same way, what we are seeing now is quite different from what we expected to see, and it will be decades before we truly adapt to it by moving beyond current thinking.

So it seems to me we need to prepare to think in a way quite different from how we expected to think…


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