The Ultimate Mystery: Angelo Vermeulen on Why Humans Need to Explore Space
On 25 August 2021, the Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) Museum of Anatomy hosted Anatomy & Beyond, a symposium on the interaction between medicine and art. At the symposium, artists, scientists and medical professionals discussed how art and anatomy intersect, and what each of these fields imagines the future of humanity on earth and beyond to be like.
Angelo Vermeulen is a space systems researcher, biologist and artist from Belgium. He gave a talk on 25 August on "Regenerative synthetic ecosystems and evolving asteroid starships: a cybernetic reframing of the politics, poetics and ethics of space colonization". This was his first visit to Riga, and we managed to catch him after his talk to ask him to comment on space tourism, his views on the necessity of his field, and the RSU Anatomy Museum.
I feel that anything to do with space is covered in a negative light by the media at the moment. Do you agree?
With everything that is happening on our planet right now, especially considering climate change, which has become very, very present in many people's lives, space exploration has gotten a bit of a negative reputation, especially considering the space tourism activities that we've witnessed over the past few months.
People look at space exploration as some sort of unnecessary luxury.
The thing is that those adventures in space that people like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are doing, that's just a fraction of what space exploration is about.
What is your field, exactly?
My main interest is bio-inspired engineering. Bio-inspired engineering is looking at what we can learn from nature that we can then apply to engineering and space. For example, we're designing spaceships right now that can grow and evolve over time based on the way that termites work and build their mounds.
Why do we need to go into space at all?
I have three arguments as to why we need space exploration and why we need to keep investing in it and developing it. The first is that it's quite well known that space exploration brings all kinds of technologies back to Earth. There is a range of historical examples: wireless drills, and all kinds of materials that have been invented for space, but have an application on Earth.
Basically, look at it like this,
space is an extreme environment. If we can find solutions in space, we have a lot of solutions for things back here on Earth.
That's the key point. We need space if we want to keep embracing progress and further development.
Another argument, of course, is that we need to spread out beyond Earth, and this is something that has been stated by people like Elon Musk, for example. It's not like we're destroying Earth and then we can leave and find another place to destroy however. No, both can work simultaneously. You can create a strategy where humanity starts to spread out to make sure we survive in the future, because something could go wrong on Earth. The classic example is that a comet or asteroid could crash into Earth and destroy life. There are other, man-made problems, too, but that does not mean that we give up on Earth. That's the narrative you often hear, that we're going into space to secure the survival of humanity because we've given up on Earth. No, of course not. You can take care of Earth, and move outside Earth at the same time.
There is a third argument that I think is actually much more significant, and that is that we need to keep embracing our sense of mystery.
Space is one of the ultimate mysteries in life, and just because there is still strife and problems on Earth we shouldn't put aside embracing mystery and making discoveries until the moment that everything is solved, and only then go back to engaging with the mystery of life.
What do you hope that people take away from your presentation?
In terms of my research, I hope that people take away that if we move into space, which is happening and become a more and more important part of the future of human civilisation, we need to embrace biology as much as all the technology. Our imagination on how humanity will develop in space is often very clinical. If you look at science fiction, there's hardly any biology there. That's something we need to start focusing on more.
What have you gained from your participation at this conference in the RSU Anatomy Museum?
This is my first time in Latvia and I'm definitely going to come back. I'm very intrigued and charmed, and I won't have enough time to explore it now.
I was very fascinated by this museum. It's beautifully done. What I find fascinating about this place is that it's a museum of a museum. It's very meta.
It's not just the collection that you see, but you can also see the infrastructure, the original casing and furniture in which it was originally displayed, being displayed as an object itself, so the museum becomes a museum itself. I found that extra layer very intriguing. The way that the artefacts are displayed is exquisite and the attention to detail is just really incredible. I like the combination of the old objects with new digital technologies. There are beautiful transparent digital overlays over some of the exhibits that explain things in a really aesthetic and beautiful way.