The 2,185th Meeting of the Society

January 7, 2005 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Retiring President's Lecture

Cosmic Evolution

Three Views of the Universe

Steven J. Dick

NASA Chief Historian

About the Lecture

Cosmic evolution is now the widely accepted guiding principle of astronomy. In The Biological Universe (Cambridge University Press, 1996) I argued that cosmic evolution may lead to two very different worldviews: one that commonly ends in planets, stars and galaxies (the physical universe), or one that usually ends in life, mind and intelligence (the biological universe). These two worldviews now hang in the balance, in the same way that the heliocentric and geocentric worldviews were in the balance 400 years ago when Galileo wrote his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632). Astrobiology is the science that will decide which of the two modern astronomical worldviews is true. However, a third world view, rarely broached, is possible. If one takes into account cultural evolution as part of cosmic evolution and the Drake Equation, and considering the likely age of extraterrestrial civilizations, it is possible that we live in a postbiological universe, in which biologicals have been replaced in most cases by artificial intelligence, with possible implications for SETI. Cultural evolution on Earth now completely dominates biological evolution, and would also dominate extraterrestrial civilizations. Although many directions are possible in cultural evolution, the improvement of intelligence is its central driving force. The confirmation of one of these worldviews will have profound implications for human destiny.

About the Speaker

STEVEN J. DICK is the Chief Historian for NASA. He worked as an astronomer and historian of science at the U. S. Naval Observatory for 24 years before coming to NASA in 2003. He obtained his B.S. in astrophysics (1971), and MA and PhD (1977) in history and philosophy of science from Indiana University. Among his books are Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (1982), The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and Life on Other Worlds (1998), the latter translated into four languages. His most recent books are The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology (Rutgers U. Press, 2004), and a comprehensive history of the U. S. Naval Observatory, Sky and Ocean Joined: The U. S. Naval Observatory, 1830-2000. He was also editor of Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications (2000). He is the recipient of the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Medal, and the NASA Group Achievement Award for his role in initiating NASA’s multidisciplinary program in astrobiology. He has served as Chairman of the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society, as President of the History of Astronomy Commission of the International Astronomical Union, and is currently President of the Philosophical Society of Washington.