It is not often that you get to meet a man in whose honour an asteroid (6870 Pauldavies) has been named. So it was with a sense of both awe and respect, not to mention trepidation, that I set off to meet Paul Davies, professor of physics at the Arizona State University (ASU) and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at the Arizona State University (ASU).
Davies was in the UAE as a plenary conference speaker at the Middle East's first ‘Belief in Dialogue' conference, held at the American University of Sharjah (AUS). Being a graduate in humanities, the prospect of interviewing this theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and successful author, was an opportunity not to be missed. Brimming with preconceptions of how a senior scientist would look - serious, sombre, old-fashioned - I was disarmed by what I encountered. Davies is sprightly, charming and full of life, as far away from the stereotype of a scientist as he could be - and rightly so, given that science is essentially a dynamic subject.
"Science leads us not only to discover new things but also to understand the world in completely new ways," he says, as if reading my mind. "If you compare today's science stories with those from 200 years ago, you will find that science marches ahead while news on society, economics and politics remains, by and large, the same. Science tells us things that we never knew before; and would never learn by another means."
A scientist who is "completely open-minded," about whether extraterrestrial life exists, he explores the subject in detail in his most recent book The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe? "Even before my teens, I was fascinated by the concept of extraterrestrial life," he says. "Are there aliens out there? Are we alone in the universe?"
Davies, who obtained a doctorate from University College London in 1970, held academic appointments at the Universities of Cambridge, London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK, before moving to Australia in 1990 as professor of mathematical physics at the University of Adelaide. Later he helped found the Australian Centre for Astrobiology in Sydney.
In September 2006, he moved to ASU to establish Beyond, an organisation that is "devoted to confronting the really big questions of science and philosophy." In 2008, he became co-director of the ASU Cosmology Initiative.
Davies is also chairman of the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Post-Detection Science and Technology Taskgroup. "This is a volunteer committee whose mission is to prepare, manage, advise and consult in preparation for the discovery of a putative signal of extraterrestrial intelligent origin.
"We don't know if there is any life beyond earth - even bacteria. It is possible that we are alone in the universe. When I was a student, this was the prevailing view, but today, scientists believe the universe is teeming with life - we are yet to discover it but many scientists believe it is out there," he says.
A well-known broadcaster and public lecturer, Davies has also written more than 100 scientific papers and 30 books. He is a winner of many awards - the coveted Templeton Prize in 1995, the 2001 Kelvin Medal from the UK Institute of Physics, and the 2002 Michael Faraday Prize from the Royal Society for promoting science to the public. He became a theoretical physicist, he says, "to grapple with the fundamental questions about human existence: why do I exist? Why am I me? All these things bothered me. They still do."
I was born in 1946 in post-war London, at a time when most people were very poor, food was rationed and there was no entertainment or TV. As early as the age of six, I realised that just by looking up at the sky I could enter a wonderland - science then became escapism for me. At seven I was reading about electricity and atoms and by 12 I had developed my own camera and, two years later, created a telescope.
The definitive moment when I decided to become an astrophysicist was in 1962, when I was presented a copy of Norton's Star Atlas by Margaret Thatcher, who was then Member of Parliament for Finchley, where I studied. The occasion was Speech Day and I was being awarded for an outstanding performance in O-level examinations. From the outset, I've dwelt on the deep questions of existence. As a child I remember being deeply troubled by the concept of free will and thinking to myself that if my brain is made up of atoms which naturally obey the laws of physics, how can I be really free? I remember taking this conundrum to the curate at the local church, but was unable to get a convincing answer from him. My family too thought I was a bit weird and I had to turn to science for answers.
A major influence in my early years was Fred Hoyle, a renowned cosmologist and science-fiction writer. He had popularised astronomy through his simple but entertaining style of writing. However, every British theoretical physicist will look upon Nobel Prize-winning Paul Dirac as a great role model. He was the quintessential theoretical physicist with a style of work that was very inspirational. He was one of the founders of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics.
During my teenage years I was into science-fiction as well. What is time? Is it possible to travel in time? And for my PhD, I worked on a paper on cosmology and the arrow of time.
Now, what is a theoretical physicist? We know that the world isn't arbitrary or absurd; it is ordered. Nature has a mathematical order - not easily visible in daily life - but careful investigation reveals that there are mathematical laws that underlie everything. The job of a theoretical physicist is to write down the equations for these mathematical laws and then explore in a mathematical representation of the world what the consequences of those equations are.
For example, Einstein gave his mathematical formulation of gravitation, which predicts, among many things, that when two stars go around each other their motion will create gravitational waves. Nobody has as yet detected them but we believe they are there. So the job of a theoretical physicist is to not only describe the world that we see but to predict the existence of new phenomena: new particles, new waves, new objects and new processes.
Often people confuse astronomy with cosmology. While astronomy is the study of particular objects like a star or a galaxy, cosmology is the study of the totality of the universe: how the universe began; its evolution over the past 13.7 billion years; how it will end, and so on. It looks at the bigger picture.
Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe. It delves into how life on Earth began and what was its astronomical context. For instance, did life begin on Earth or did it come from elsewhere? The search for ‘extrasolar' planets, planets outside the solar system, is a big part of astrobiology.
Beyond, of which I am director, is a small pioneering centre with a big agenda, devoted to confronting the big scientific and philosophical questions. We tackle subjects as diverse as time travel, the colonisation of Mars, multiple universes and the relationship between mathematics and nature.
In addition to my ongoing research in the field of quantum physics and projects with NASA, the study of cancer has become another of my main research interests. I believe this is one area where thinking like a physicist might make a big difference. Former US President, Richard Nixon, declared war on cancer 40 years ago. In the intervening years, billions of dollars have been spent on cancer research, but mortality rates have remained almost unchanged. To give a chilling statistic: the total increase in average life expectancy from all of the cancer drugs developed in the past 40 years, according to a leading oncologist in the US, is just 4.1 weeks.
The Center for Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology at ASU is one of 12 similar centres across the US that is taking a non-traditional approach to cancer research with the goal of developing new methods for arresting tumour growth and stopping the spread of cancer in the body. As principal investigator of the centre, my team and I view cancer cells as physical objects. We study them the way physicists study all material entities. We are not seeking a "cure" for cancer but are looking at how best it can be managed, finding ways of preventing it from taking over and destroying the host's body. However, I must add that the biggest impact on cancer statistics will occur if people stop smoking.
I have always been an ideas person; I never go near labs. For me, the fascinating part of my job is connecting the dots, finding the links between astrobiology, cosmology, fundamental physics and cancer research.
As a child, I had a great interest in history and geography, and was fascinated by different cultures and countries. I revelled in geographical trivia and concocting imaginary countries. I loved maps, studied them in meticulous detail. During the Cold War, I remember seeing how the eastern European countries seemed almost obliterated on the map; they just looked like parts of a vast amorphous Soviet empire.
This is my first visit to the UAE and while I was on the aeroplane - studying maps again - I worked out that this is the 74th country that I have visited.
At school I blundered through cricket, limped through soccer and sneaked the odd game of tennis. When I lived in sport-obsessed Australia this dismal record was a blot on my reputation so, to make up for lost time, I took up running. This is not really an interest; it is something I feel I need to do.
Although I do enjoy cultural pursuits such as the theatre, the opera and concerts, I tend to miss out on these because I am constantly travelling for work.
Both my wife and I work long hours. She was previously employed by the BBC but now she works at ASU in Human Communication. We collaborate together at the university; in her role she deals with the outreach part of the cancer research programme.
I dream and hope that one day we will achieve political stability. Actually I believe that the world is getting better generally. Yes, the population is booming, but the truth is that the proportion of people now living in poverty or starvation is far less than it used to be. Science offers enormous scope for solving the world's problems by trying to find a path to growth in developing countries without warming the planet too much.
I am an optimist. I believe that we often tend to gloss over the good news and focus on the wars, ethnic strife and famines. One outstanding achievement, politically, is the formation of the European Union. Despite concerns over currencies and eurozones, what is commendable is that these countries and communities that are complex in terms of their differences in cultures and historical traditions have voluntarily come together to form a quasi-political union after centuries of warfare and animosity. This is indeed a fantastic achievement, which is why I dream and hope that other regions in the world will do something similar. I know it sounds crazy but I often wonder about India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka coming together to form something like the EU.
In terms of cancer research, we need to get people away from thinking that cancer is a disease to be cured; it is a condition to be managed. The dream of finding a curative pill for cancer is totally misleading.
Tumours can usually be dealt with. The real trouble comes when the cancer spreads and returns. Even if we don't understand what is happening with these cells precisely, we have to find a way of stopping or slowing down the spread of cancer. That would be good enough, and I think that there is a good chance that we can do that.
When I was young, my mother often said to me: ‘If you have to become a scientist, make sure you do two things - firstly, invent a machine to reduce housework and secondly, find a cure for cancer'. She died ten years ago but she would be delighted to know that I am finally doing something useful.
Once described by the Washington Times as "the best science writer on either side of the Atlantic", Davies is credited with popularising topics including time-travel, black holes, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Paul Davies' monograph Quantum Fields in Curved Space, co-authored with former student Nicholas Birrell, remains a seminal text in the field of quantum gravity.