Peter Ward has been active in Paleontology, Biology, and more recently, Astrobiology for more than 40 years. Since his Ph.D. in 1976, Ward has published more than 140 scientific papers dealing with paleontological, zoological, and astronomical topics.
He is an acknowledged world expert on mass extinctions and the role of extraterrestrial impacts on Earth. Ward was the Principal Investigator of the University of Washington node of the NASA Astrobiology Institute from 2001-2006, and in that capacity led a team of over 40 scientists and students. His career was profiled by the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter William Dietrich in The Seattle Times article "Prophet, Populist, Poet of Science."
Peter has written a memoir of his research on the Nautilus for Nautilus magazine's "Ingenious" feature entitled "Nautilus and me. My wonderful, dangerous life with the amazing Nautilus."
His books include the best-selling "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe" (co-author Donald Brownlee, 2000), "Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future" (2007), and "The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?" (2009).
Question: What’s a dangerous scientific misconception that even informed lay people hold?
Peter Ward: Well, there’s a lot of misconceptions out there. Dangerous misconceptions, the one I’m closest to is this Gaia Hypothesis; the misconception is, if we can only go back to nature somehow there is the sense that if we can get rid of all the civilized trappings that the world will heal itself. I think everybody has the sense that we have dented the world; we have certainly put our footprint upon it. It may not be in the best particular way, but on the other hand, do you want to see the child misery, the childhood diseases? Do you want to see one out of every two babies die of early childhood death, and that’s the way it used to be before we began the technology, the technology in medicine and the technology in transportation and the whole thing. Do we want to go back to that? I personally don’t. And if we don’t want to go back to that, then we’re going to have to recognize that we’re going to have a heavy footprint on this planet.
The reality of this situation is that the world and everybody in the world wants to raise their standard of living. That in Africa, where I spend a great deal of time and Asia, there is this longing. There are cell phones everywhere not. You cannot the spread of the understanding of what other cultures have. Everybody wants it. And with this universal communication ability, you may have a cell phone, but you don’t have a car. Well, you’ll want that car. You can see the ads. You’ve got it all. You’ll want that stuff. We’re going to have to figure out how to raise standard of living in a gentle energy fashion, or as gently as we can in terms of what’s going to happen to the atmosphere. And this is where I personally think there’s no stopping the rise in sea level, that it’s going to happen, that we’re going to have to deal with it, we’re going to be moving cities, and that the next two to three thousand years of human civilization shall be the movement of humans to higher ground. That will be the major motive. We’re not going to conquer the solar system. We’re not going to have the resources to do it. We’re going to be way too preoccupied with changing the positions of our cities.
Recorded on January 11, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen