Interview: Professor Mark Brake
How It Works: To kick off, please tell us a little about your background.
Mark Brake: For about a decade I was professor of science communication at the University of Glamorgan, Wales, where I created the world’s first degree in science and science fiction, as well as the first degree in astrobiology. For the last three or four years, I have gone freelance, mostly concentrating on writing, but I am also undertaking a number of scientific roadshows and consulting on the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff.
HIW: Could you summarise what your latest book Alien Life Imagined is about?
MB: In a nutshell it’s a history of earthly ideas of how aliens might look and behave. What it does is explore the evolution of those ideas, behind the science and the culture. So what stories were written in the past, why they were written and in what context. I think the main surprise the book delivers is that the notion of alien life is not a 20th-century one – in fact, the idea of aliens is ancient. The concept of life beyond Earth goes back at least to the Ancient Greek Atomists, with people like Epicurus.
Some are rather pure and honest examinations of what life off Earth might be like, while others are for more satirical purposes. For example, in the English language, the first alien contact story was written by the Bishop of Cardiff, Francis Godwin, in 1638, titled The Man In The Moone. In the book a man journeys to the Moon by the rather unusual propulsion method of geese. He has harnessed 40 of the birds to fly to the Moon, where he finds a rather sophisticated civilisation. This civilisation is equipped with devices akin to mobile phones and lives in a [utopian] society.
HIW: Do you think sci-fi stories influence the direction of real-world science?
MB: The influence has been so great that billions of pounds have been spent looking for ET. All the influential scientists have been massive sci-fi fans and they’ve bought into it hook, line and sinker. The mission statement for our current view of the universe is that there should be life elsewhere. I mean, as of August this year  we have discovered 770 exoplanets and NASA believes there are approximately 2 billion Earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone.
I think sci-fi stories are often used to bridge the gap between what we currently know and what is coming within our horizons – it’s a way of overcoming the shock of the new. I mean, look at how HG Wells’ and Jules Verne’s science fiction helped introduce and develop the idea of rocket technology – all the rocket pioneers such as Robert Goddard were huge fans of those authors. There’s even a letter in which Robert Goddard writes to HG Wells to thank the author for making him what he became.
HIW: Do you feel shows like Doctor Who help to excite young people about science?
MB: I think there is a romance associated with exploration of the unknown. For example, in the Science And Fiction Of Doctor Who roadshow the worst thing I could do would be to point out how everything in the TV show is inaccurate. In Doctor Who there are four main themes: space, time, machine and monster – which are arguably the major themes in any science fiction. So, for instance, in the space theme, we explore how Doctor Who deals with the topic – analysing the ideas of evolving space and landscapes plus exoplanet existence, and the fact that the show has been talking about these things for 50 years, despite real-world science only discovering them much later.
HIW: Lastly, are there any recent projects you would like to tell our readers about?
MB: As well as Alien Life Imagined, I also have a kids’ book out – The Alien Hunter’s Handbook. I’m currently working on its follow-up – The Time Traveller’s Handbook.
Mark’s latest book, Alien Life Imagined, is out now. For more info, visit www.markbrake.com.