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10 January 2023 - 10 January 2023

3:45PM - 5:15PM

PO005, Department of Philosophy

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The second series of Philosophical Issues in Astrobiology and Space Science.

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Photo of space

The fields of space science and astrobiology provide a scientific framework for understanding some of the ‘big questions’. These fields are complex and interdisciplinary and some of the questions that arise within them have obvious philosophical dimensions; they invite a philosophy of space science. In this short seminar series we bring together some of the foremost figures in this exciting field to present, discuss and reflect on these emerging and important questions and issues. These include questions about scientific methodology and evidence, the nature of life and of our search for it, and how we should interact with it if – and when - we find it.

Speaker Date Venue Title Abstract

Beatriz Villarroel 

Stockholm University 


10th January 2023 (3:45pm GMT)

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PO004, Department of Philosophy, 48/49 Old Elvet

Searching for technosignatures with the VASCO project

The Vanishing & Appearing sources during a Century of Observations (VASCO) project searches for rare astrophysical transients and in particular vanishing stars, both to uncover interesting astrophysical phenomena as well as potential technosignatures. The project compares images of the sky from the 1950s as well as images of the sky as it looks today. So far, the project has produced lists of transients as well as identified a set of anomalies we refer to as “simultaneous transients” (or “multiple transients”). In this talk, I will present the recent activities and results of the project, together with our most recent searches for probes from extraterrestrial civilisations in the Earth’s vicinity.

Lucas J. Mix

Harvard University


24th January 2023 (4:00pm GMT)


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PO005, Department of Philosophy, 48/49 Old Elvet

How is Heaven Related to Space? Physical and Spiritual Ascent Narratives

Galileo famously quipped “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven – not how heaven goes.” Jesus Ascension was not the same as the ascent of a rocket. But what is the relationship between life in heaven and life in outer space? Lucas Mix will talk about the history of ascent narratives, tales of journeying into the heavens, both scientific and spiritual – from Plato to Carl Sagan and The Expanse.

For centuries, physical and spiritual “up” were aligned in the popular imagination. Traditional ascent narratives described a journey in spiritual space as well as physical space. Ancient and Medieval thinkers imagined a spherical cosmos in which distance from earth and from the center was directly correlated with goodness, and elevation had moral value. The Copernican Revolution did not decentre humanity physically, as humans were not physically central in prior cosmologies. It did, however, disorient humanity, relativizing concepts of up and down.

Parallel ascents, through progressive evolution, were popular in Early Modern Biology but definitively rejected in the early twentieth century. Despite this, astronomers and astrobiologists continued to promote ascent narratives labelled as “evolution” and linked them to a developmental story: spaceflight as human adolescence. This picture, when presented as biological science, is susceptible to moral abuse through the comparison of “higher” and “lower” expressions of life – as activities, individuals, or societies. One-dimensional models of the cosmos should be replaced by radial narratives of expansion in multiple dimensions. To complete the Copernican Revolution, we must eject the language of development, progress, and salvation, and speak of spaceflight as a journey outward into the unknown.

Carlos Mariscal

University of Nevada, Reno

7th February 2023 (4:00pm GMT)


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PO005, Department of Philosophy, 48/49 Old Elvet

Philosophical Issues at the Ends of Life

The Fermi Paradox is the apparent inconsistency between the time frame for exploring space and the suspected ease for civilizations to colonize the galaxy over that time. Among the popular approaches to solving the problem include they are not interested and they cannot. Advocates of the paradox insist that these are not adequate solutions, as they merely make space exploration improbable, whereas in the long sweep of the Universe, even wildly improbable events occur. Without an explanation for why space colonization is truly impossible, they say, the paradox remains unsolved. In this talk, I consider these objections and give new grounds for rejecting them. Both biological processes (evolution by natural selection) and cultural projects (sending objects to space) work in time scales that undermine the basis for space colonization as currently understood. Furthermore, resources central to long-distance space travel, such as boron, are likely to be less common than hoped. Given these constraints and pressures, and the absence of a force counteracting them, the default expectation should be that the Great Silence is not a mystery at all.

Paul Rimmer

University of Cambridge


7th March 2023 (4:00pm GMT)


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PO005, Department of Philosophy, 48/49 Old Elvet Do-Nothing Prebiotic Chemistry

Origins of life is a chemistry problem at its core, and life could not have arisen from nonlife with a single chemical reaction, but rather with a sequence of many reactions. One of the great challenges facing any origins of life scenario is how the chemistry could have taken place without a chemist to set up, initiate and then clean up these reactions. I will talk about how to translate what takes place in the lab to planetary environments, and how the restrictions and complications of these environments can help guide the discovery of future chemical pathways. I will conclude my presentation with a brief discussion about philosophical implications of guided vs. unguided chemistry.

Istvan Praet

Durham University


14th March 2023 (4:00pm GMT)


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PO005, Department of Philosophy, 48/49 Old Elvet Styles of Contemporary Space Exploration. Columbian and Vespuccian Modes of Researching Alien Worlds

The exploration of outer space is typically understood as a feat of rocket engineering rather than as an enterprise of conceptual creativity. It is associated with the cumulative advance of objective knowledge about the cosmos; unlike medieval astrology or indigenous interpretations of the heavens, it is — allegedly — certified metaphysics-free. What matters in modern space exploration is physics, not metaphysics. This paper goes against that classic narrative. Zooming in on the field of research known as astrobiology, it develops the argument that metaphysical style is actually at the heart of contemporary space exploration. The paper highlights two distinctive styles, termed ‘Columbian’ and ‘Vespuccian’.

All welcome – please contact to register attendance 


Meeting ID: 940 6702 7268

Passcode: 416504

Previous speakers: Sean McMahon, Jim Schwartz, Peter Vickers, Kelly C. Smith, Carol Cleland, Eleanor Armstrong, Martin Ward, Philipp Spillmann, Franklin Jacoby, Manasvi Lingam