It’s now awfully fashionable to compile lists of things to see or do before you die. These lists are called Bucket Lists, presumably for the colloquialism in which ‘kicking the bucket’ means ‘die’ (qv. ‘bought the farm’, ‘flensed the ferret’, ‘spoke to God on the Great White Telephone’, etc.)
My own Bucket List is quite short, and consists of scientific discoveries I’d like to see in my lifetime, and which (hopefully) might cross my desk at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Etcetera.
I’m in the fortunate position of having had quite a few remarkable discoveries impinge on my peepers in such a fashion over the years. Perhaps the most remarkable paper I’ve had the privilege of handling in almost 26 years as an editor was this one, almost ten years ago. This was the completely unanticipated discovery of a species of non-human hominin that lived until almost historical times. Most papers usually fade into the dense undergrowth of the scientific literature within a week or two of publication. But the repercussions of that paper are still being felt – it had a profound effect on our understanding of human evolution, as I discuss at some length in my Shameless Plug.
Even amid the fantastic flock of feathered dinosaurs whose first descriptions came to my desk, Homo floresiensis was hard to beat. So what could top it? What’s on my academic bucket list?
Here’s my top three.
Straight in an Number 3 would be discovery of extraterrestrial life. Actually, I don’t think this is need be too far off. Astronomers are now able, just about, to get a fix on the composition of the atmospheres of some extrasolar planets, and I think it’s a fair bet that sometime soon someone will report an atmosphere of an extrasolar planet in the habitable zone round its primary whose atmospheric composition is out of equilibrium. This is probably the closest one will be able to get to extraterrestrial life without on-site confirmation. Of course, life might be found in the Solar System before then, perhaps in the subsurface ocean of Europa, one of the Moons of Jupiter.
At number 2 is confirmed existence of non-human hominins on Earth either now, or in the relatively recent past (within the past 5,000 years or so, that is, the period of recorded history.) Given that Homo floresiensis existed well into the Late Pleistocene, I don’t think that there is anything outrageous about this. After all, animals keep turning up, even now – not just tiny microbes or insects, but creatures such as the saola, big enough to do you damage if it stepped on your toes.
I should say that I give absolutely no credence to any reports, either current or in the past, of Bigfoot, the Yeti and so on, the existence of all of which is questionable, circumstantial and subject to considerable self-delusion or outright fraud. Footprints, hazy videos, isolated hairs, feces and so on are not enough. One would need bones, skins, teeth – the kinds of things the description of the saola was based on, or indeed any animal, for the purpose of scientific publication. Most of all, unknown animals have a habit of turning up quite unexpectedly. One should remember Gee’s Law of Cryptozoology – the existence of a cryptid is inversely proportional to the effort expended in trying to find it. Note – I am not saying Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Anthropophagi. This is emphatically not a licence to any Joe Schmo with a gun to go out and shoot one.
At number one is the dicovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. I think that the discovery of E. T. would represent the biggest step-change in the human condition since the invention of agriculture. The effect this might have on our perception of ourselves and our place in the Universe would be incalculable. How would that discovery be made? What form might it take? One means would be the reception of radio signals of regular and obviously artificial nature, such as a list or prime numbers, or a broadcast of the alien equivalent of I Love Lucy. Highly advanced E. T. could be revealed by its works. Black monoliths on the Moon. Large stars radiating solely in the infra-red, betraying the existence of Dyson spheres. Chains of galaxies millions of light years long arranged into smiley faces. That kind of thing. It could be that extraterrestrial intelligence is here, living among us. I think I have ruled out Dr R. P. G. of Rotherhithe, but I have my suspicions about Professor Trellis of North Wales.
All of which would be subject to peer review. Naturellement. And please, please, please read the submission guidelines first.