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From E.T. to the Big Bang

A Conversation With Physics' Laycock

Silas Laycock

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Silas Laycock has used some of the largest telescopes around the world, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, to study black holes, neutron stars, white dwarfs and galactic cannibalism.

Laycock, who recently joined UMass Lowell’s Physics Department faculty, has worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and the Gemini Observatory on Hawaii’s Big Island. We spent an afternoon asking him about everything from life in the universe to interstellar travel.

According to the Drake Equation, there could be up to thousands or even millions of Earth-like planets with intelligent civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy. What do you think?

It’s almost inconceivable to me that we are alone in the universe. I absolutely feel there are advanced civilizations out there, though it’s extremely hard to come up with an exact number.

What are the chances of us making contact with intelligent beings within our lifetime?

It’s just a matter of time before we can make contact, but the chances of it happening within our lifetime are quite slim.

As an astrophysicist, what can you say about SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence?

It’s a great project. Although the probability of SETI being successful is infinitesimally small, it’s not non-existent. Our current instruments might not be sensitive enough to pick up transmissions from other advanced civilizations, but maybe within 10 years they will be, and the only way to achieve that would be to design and build better equipment and keep on looking.

Do you think human interstellar travel can become a reality? Or will it remain in the realm of science fiction?

Unless we can find a way to break the laws of physics, I think human travel to the stars is going to remain, unfortunately, in the realm of science fiction.

How do you think the universe will end?

As I understand it, there is nowhere near enough mass in the universe for gravity to halt the outward expansion of the universe and cause the universe to eventually collapse back on itself, creating the Big Crunch. But even if there were enough mass, the law of entropy argues against it being possible. Also, we have dark energy that is accelerating the rate of expansion of the universe. Nobody really knows for sure how it will all end.

Do you find any conflict between science and religion?

Personally, I don’t. The people who find conflict between science and religion are those who like things to be certain or absolute. The universe isn’t that way. The Catholic Church has, in fact, been one of the greatest forces in the promotion of science and the preservation of knowledge throughout history, and yet most of what the people know about it is the Galileo trial and the notion that the Church is anti-science. Few are aware that the Church operates the Vatican Observatory in Italy and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in Arizona. Some of the greatest minds in science were Jesuits. Even the scientist who proposed the Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaûtre, was a Catholic priest!

Laycock in front of the 8-meter Gemini North telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.