No Planet B can 'ever' be made as comfortable as Earth, says British astronomer Martin Rees

The end of the world is the main focus of his new book.

  • Everybody from Elon Musk to Stephen Hawking has said we should colonize a 'Planet B' due to the threat to our existence. Martin Brees, the UK's Astronomer Royal, has another perspective on it.
  • "I think we have to accept that there's no planet B, which can ever be made as comfortable as the Earth," he recently told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.
  • In a time of ever-worsening climate change that threatens the very existence of human beings, his focus is on maintaining and fixing the planet we now live on, but still with an eye toward the stars.

Nuclear annihilation. Global climate catastrophe. A rogue asteroid causing mass extinction not seen since the dinosaurs. World War III with nuclear weapons.These are all possible ways that planet Earth could see an end of humans and likely most other species, and they're something that Britain's Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has given a lot of thought to.

As a matter of fact, it's the main focus of his new book, On the Future: Prospects for Humanity.


Martin Rees, On The Future: Prospects For Humanity New book from Martin Rees


A Mars Colony?

Mars Rover Curiosity, Mount Sharp

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images

Diverse Terrain Types on Mount Sharp, Mars

When you consider that well-known people, such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, have talked about the need to begin a colony on Mars because there's a chance Earth won't make it — or at least humans won't — and we'd need a place to start over, it's an interesting prospect.

When asked by CBC interviewer Anna Maria Tremonit whether they're wrong about that idea, he responded thusly

"They're only half wrong. I mean I agree with that in the long run, there will be a small community living on Mars and I think they will be important for the future of intelligence. But what I don't agree with is something, which I think both Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking believe, which was there'd be mass emigration. I think we have to accept that there's no Planet B which can ever be made as comfortable as the Earth. We've got to accept that dealing with climate change, though hard, is a doddle compared to terraforming Mars and it's a dangerous delusion I think to believe that there can be mass emigration, a million people or so going to Mars."

According to Rees, the goal should instead be,

To make the Earth habitable not just now, but for future centuries, that's the top priority.

Can we survive sustainably?

North Korea nuclear ambitions

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Empty seats are seen prior to the start of an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council concerning North Korea's nuclear ambitions

How do we ensure Earth's habitability?

In an earlier PBS interview, he talked with Christiane Amanpour about that:

"The Earth's been around for 45 million centuries, but this is the first when one species, namely the human species, has the future of the planet in his hands because what we do in this century will determine whether we leave a depleted planet for future generations or whether we can survive sustainably."

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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