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Ros Childs. This Program is Captioned Live. THEME MUSIC I'm Tony Jones. Hello and welcome to Big Ideas, On today's show - Bill Henson hits back at his critics. controversial photographer and filmmaker Dispatches from an American writer in Afghanistan. embedded with US troops life outside our own planet. Plus - the search for intelligent The Mars rock - ALH8001 - is thought to have had life on it. that Martian life. The jury's still out on that is past life on Mars Now, if it is eventually proven that and it came to Earth was actually seeded from life on Mars then it's possible that life on Earth which got going before us in which case we are the Martians. we're looking for microbes on Mars In astrobiology, but why limit it to that? Why just look for dumb life? to look for intelligent life as well Why not - it's not intelligent not if you have the means to do it. at ABC Cafe Scientific More from our ET-seeking friends a little later in the show.

But first, and perhaps imminent collapse a warning about the inevitable of the American empire. historian Professor Niall Ferguson - The prediction comes from superstar series The Ascent of Money the man behind the TV documentary the global financial crisis. which went some way to explaining that America's debt levels Ferguson makes the case the problem and its unwillingness to address as other great empires has put it in the same category the ages. that have collapsed throughout forget all this decline, Imperial falls -

there's just a fall, there isn't a decline, bang, off a cliff - with fiscal crises, are nearly always associated revenues and expenditures with dramatic imbalances between and above all - here's the key idea - AUDIENCE LAUGHS

Anyone nodding off?

these dramatic falls, Above all, these crises, of servicing a huge public debt. are associated with a mounting cost to illustrate my point. I'm going to give you four examples Let's start with Spain. even earlier, in the 16th - In the 17th Century - actually, already, as early as 1543, of the ordinary revenue nearly two-thirds of the Habsburg monarchy in Spain the juros - was going on interest payments on the Habsburg monarchy used which were the loans that to finance itself. these things By 1559, total interest payments on actually exceeded ordinary revenue. By this stage the Spanish monarchy

extraordinary financial expedience was essentially running on in Spain. and the returns of its silver mines going on interest payments. 1584 - 84% of ordinary revenue 1598 - back to 100%. are going on interest payments When all your ordinary tax revenues game over. it is, ladies and gentlemen, AUDIENCE TITTERS Think of France in the 18th Century - the French Revolution I told you that story about why they called the Estates-General. but what you have to understand is a fiscal crisis. They called it because of Here's the data. Here are the data. words the eve of the revolution - Between 1751 and 1788 - in other debt service - interest amortisation payments - to 62%. rose from a quarter of tax revenue Or take Ottoman Turkey - the early modern period - one of the great empires of here's the story - by the 19th Century, in 1868 debt service rose from 17% of revenue to 32% in 1871, to 50% in 1877, the great Ottoman default which was the time of in Europe, in the Balkans, after which the Ottoman Empire essentially began to fall apart. of post-war Britain. Finally let's revisit the case debt charges, Already, by the mid-1920s interest and amortisation, government expenditure. were absorbing 44% of total

defence expenditure They already exceeded by a considerable margin. It wasn't actually until 1937 spending more on defence that the British government was than on interest payments. on rearmament, A very late stage indeed to embark given the German and Japanese threat. a really important kicker - Note also, really got nasty after 1945 when Britain's problems cut off Lend-Lease when the treacherous Americans and demanded the debts be honoured, Britain's debt a very substantial proportion of was held in foreign hands. at the end of the war, Of the $21 billion of national debt owed rather - 3.4 billion were owned - to foreign creditors. to foreign investors, Britain's GDP in 1945. And that was around one third of in a moment. You'll see the significance of that So, alarm bells, ladies and gentlemen, should be ringing very loudly indeed in Washington DC as the United States contemplates a deficit for 2010 of more than $1.47 trillion - that's around 10% of US GDP and that's the second year running that the deficit has been that big. Since 2001, in the space of less than ten years, the federal debt in public hands - that's excluding those parts of the debt held by federal government agencies in the United States - has doubled as a share of GDP, from 32% to a projected 66% next year. And it just keeps going up. According to the Congressional Budget Office's latest projections and this is using - if you're interested in this kind of thing as I am - their alternative fiscal scenario, which they regard as the more politically likely of the two scenarios they produce, the US federal debt could rise above 90% of GDP by 2020,

it could reach 146% by 2030, 233% by 2040, 344% by 2050. And, ladies and gentlemen, those figures do not include the vast unfunded liabilities of the social security and medicare systems. Now, I rather imagine that to an Australian audience,

in a country where the net debt is minuscule by the standards of the rest of the Anglosphere, these figures sound completely fantastic. But listen to me - there's more. LAUGHTER Even more terrifying is to consider what this ongoing deficit finance could mean for the burden of interest payments as a share of US federal revenues. And this is where it gets really cool. The CBO projects that net interest payments could rise from where they are now, which is 9% of federal revenues, to 20% in 2020, 36% in 2030, 58% of federal revenues by 2040 and 85% of all federal revenues by 2050. My good friend Larry Kotlikoff recently pointed out

in the Financial Times that by any meaningful measure, the fiscal position of the United States today

is in fact worse than that of Greece. But Greece is not a global power, it hasn't been a major empire for a very long time indeed. AUDIENCE CHUCKLES I think the real point and the point of my lecture tonight is that in historical perspective, unless something very drastic is done very soon the US is heading into Habsburg Spain It is heading into Bourbon France

It is heading into Ottoman Turkey It is heading into post-war Britain territory. The fiscal numbers I've given you tonight are bad there's no doubt about it. But in the realm of political entities and power, the role of perception is crucial. It may be more important than the actual numbers. Because in imperial crises, ladies and gentlemen, it's not the material underpinnings of power that really matter, it's expectations of future power. In the eyes of those with the power and even more so in the eyes of their enemies. Right now, I get the impression that the world, at least the Western world, basically expects the United States to muddle through and eventually to confront its problems as Churchill famously said, to do the right thing when all the alternatives have been exhausted. AUDIENCE LAUGHS And right now, with the sovereign debt crisis in Europe dominating the headlines, at least the headlines back home, and growing fears of deflationary double-dip recession, bond yields are at historic lows - below 3% if you look at the ten-year US Treasury. So there's a pretty strong incentive there for Congressmen to do nothing and to put off fiscal reform. To say - thinking of that cyclical theory of history - "This is a problem for the next generation, not for us." You know, recently I was invited to a dinner in Washington to discuss radical fiscal reform for the United States and I was quite excited 'cause I thought it would be like this. I wondered which huge hotel in Washington they'd booked and which ballroom we would be eating in. Three Congressmen turned up. LAUGHTER It's funny, except it's not funny. It's scary. There seems really, in fact, only to be one Congressman who has seriously thought about how we could deal with this problem and it's Paul Ryan

and I commend him to you as one of the few young Republicans who are prepared to talk seriously about stabalising the fiscal position of the United States before it does go critical. The trouble is, for all those complacent Congressmen of both parties who think this isn't an imminent problem there's a zero-sum game at the heart of any budgetary process. Even if I'm wrong and my old rival Paul Krugman is right - and that is possible, AUDIENCE LAUGHS I don't rule that out - even if he is right and interest rates stay low and the bond market is in a coma and the vigilantes go off and take up some other activity, recurrent deficits year after year never much less than 5% of GDP even under the administration's optimistic forecast plus debt accumulation as a result, meaning, inevitably, The process I have described to you is independent of any bond market panic. And as interest payments consume more and more tax revenue with every passing year, guess what gets squeezed? Not social security.

Not Medicare - the unreformable entitlements programs. The thing that gets squeezed is that discretionary item in the federal budget known as defence spending. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pre-programmed reality of US fiscal policy today that the resources available to the Department of Defence will be reduced significantly in the years to come. I'm not talking about the 2050s, I'm talking about the next five years. Indeed, by my reckoning, at some point within the next decade, the US will reach the cross-over point at which it will be spending more on debt service, on interest payments, than it is able to spend on defence. And remember - half the federal debt in public hands is in the hands of foreign creditors. And of that, a fifth, or to be precise, 22%, is in the hands of the monetary authorities of the People's Republic of China. Down, incidentally, from 27% in July last year. Now, I suspect it hasn't escaped your notice that China now has the second largest economy in the world. And, I expect, you've also spotted that it is likely to be America's principal strategic rival in the 21st century, especially in the Asia Pacific region. Quietly, discreetly, you haven't seen it in the headlines, the Chinese are reducing their exposure to US treasuries, I believe, as a result of a conscious policy decision to switch out of dollar-denominated claims on the US Government and into nice, hard commodities and preferably the mines that produce them. Maybe, just maybe, the Chinese have noticed what the rest of the world's investors pretend not to see - that the United States is on a completely unsustainable fiscal course with no apparent political means of self-correcting. Ladies and gentlemen - military retreat from the mountains of the Hindu Kush or on the plains of Mesopotamia has long been a harbinger of imperial fall. It is no coincidence, after all, that the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan

in the annus mirabilis of 1989, which was so closely followed by the complete collapse of the Russian empire in Eastern Europe and in Central Asia.

What happened just 20 years ago, like the events I have described to you tonight of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, is a reminder that empires do not in fact appear, rise, reign, decline, and gently fall according to some recurrent and predictable life cycle. Rather, they behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse. I belive this has profound implications, not only for the US, but also for all countries that have come to rely on it directly and indirectly for their own security.

This country was born, as we've discussed, and grew up under the umbrella of the British Empire. Its post-war foreign policy has been, in essence, to be a committed ally of the US under its imperial umbrella. But, ladies and gentlemen, what if the sudden waning of American power, that I fear, brings to an abrupt end the era of US hegemony in the Asia Pacific region?

Like changes to the climate or the population, we tend to think of such a geopolitical shift as a protracted, gradual phenomenon very far from our quotidian preoccupations. But history suggests it may not be so slow acting. If I may return to the terminology of the artist, Thomas Cole, painter of The Course of Empire, the shift from consummation to destruction and then to desolation is not cyclical. It can be very, very sudden. I wonder, are we ready for such a dramatic change in the global balance of power? Judging by what I have heard since I arrived here last Friday, the answer is no.

(AUSTRALIAN ACCENT) Not bloody likely. LAUGHTER Harvard history professor, Niall Ferguson, with some advice for Australia if the American empire should fall. And look out for more of his captivating talk as part of Big Ideas Extended Mix on ABC1 on Wednesdays and now also on News24. Next up, Bill Henson goes on the offensive over freedom of artistic expression. He's been out of the spotlight for the past two years after he was vilified for his photos of naked child models. But Australia's most famous and controversial photographer has come out from the shadows to take a swipe at his critics. Speaking at the 2010 Melbourne Art Foundation Lecture, Henson argues that good art is meant to push boundaries, and it's the job of Australia's politicians to make it available to the masses. In the first shock of experience, great art strikes us as superhuman and the acknowledgement or rejection of it can make us reach for notions of possession. But we're scarcely the dispossessed in this equation because we partake of the experience. You and I don't know what it was like to be Bernini tracing with infinite delicacy, fingers turning into leaves, nor can we imagine matching late Titian. But we experience them in a way that's intensely intimate and it can only take place within the privacy of an individual heart and soul. But in experience is not, in any ordinary sense, personal. Oscar Wilde played on this paradox when he said, the death of the hero, Balzac's Lost Illusions, was one of the great sorrows of his life, underlining in the process,

that art can only be subjectively apprehended, though of course, he was joking about the particulars. What he experienced was what every receptive reader experienced, the exaltation of reading a great novel. Art does not so much stare back at us as stare through us. It can find us wanting, just as it can make us feel whole. Democracy, for heaven's sakes, is there to make the experience of art available potentially for the greatest possible number. The duty of our politicians when it comes to art is not to deny the distinctiveness of art, still less to demonise and scapegoat the artist, confusing as the picture may sometimes get, but to make art available to every member of society, regardless of how well off they are or where they went to school. History is littered with the bonfires of the vanities - Savonarola terrorised renaissance Florence and even Botticelli was sympathetic to the witch-hunters and image-burners for a while just as some liberal-minded people, keen to protect the innocence of kids, have found themselves on the side of the puritans and the prohibitors. It seems to me that it's easy to be muddle-headed about this when it comes to questions of harm, consent and what have you and to fail to acknowledge that the license of art,

its ability to appear transgressive and radically unreasonable, is part of the cloud of unknowing that comes with the territory.

It's part of the wonderment of history that Madame Bovary, and James Joyce's Ulysses, like Lolita in the 1950s, Portnoy's Complaint in the 1960s, were the subjects of bans. It seems absurd in terms of the moral standards that have emerged let alone the aesthetic and critical consensus. It's perhaps worth remarking in passing that aesthetic judgement is likely to be ahead of the common garden moralising. This makes sense if you allow that art is a form of truth and that its basis is moral. In any case, society now accepts that TS Eliot was right to defend Ulysses and Patrick White was right to defend Portnoy. But just in case we think these battles are won forever, Lolita, for reasons that may seem familiar, is once again under fire. Not from the censors, but from vigilantes, who recently managed to have it withdrawn

from over 1,500 retail outlets across this country. Well, there must have been a complaint. It figures, of course. We spend most of our lives in a world where we go at a green light and stop at a red light. Of course, we have to live like this. No one seriously denies that this is how we have to function in society. But it's not how the imagination works and it's not how art works. Recalling Dostoevsky's The Possessed, that devastating novel about terrorism, whether in the text or as a postscript at the end, any edition will include Stavrogin's confession - a scarifying chapter about the sexual abuse of a young girl. The Possessed is conventionally referred to as the greatest political novel ever written. The supreme prophecy of totalitarianism, we would run a mile from Stavrogin in real life, but it's in the nature of art that we let him into our imagination. TS Eliot once said, "I can only say, 'There, we have been,' but I cannot say where." This was no doubt true of the epiphanic experience Four Quartets traces, just as it's true of the experience of making art. It's also true of the effect of art on the individual. An effect which, as I say, transcends the red light/green light world. One of the great and obvious things about artistic experience is that it abides. Once you've finally got Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, you've got it forever. It will abide for you in a world of jingling and jangling, of trash and diversion. We have no easy social measurement for the way we are charged by the experience of art, but we know we are changed utterly. And however poor in spirit, or morally down and out,

we know that we are the better for it. In fact, that we are immeasurably richer for it. The particular talismans for any individual will vary, whether it's Mozart and Mahler, Shakespeare and Bach, Visconti and Bergman, Bacon or Rothko or any and all of these. We go to our graves defining ourselves in terms of the art we know. There was once a widespread perception of this. But it seems to be receding. At least as a value that can be publicly invoked, sure of receiving reciprocation from the electorate. Does this represent some sad spectacle of a decline in values as well as a shift in perspective?

Have we really, at least as far as we are represented by our politicians, become a nation which has exchanged the bird's eye view for that of the slug? I trust not. it would be appalling if our politicians were really, as they sometimes seem to be, so frightened of the angry foot of every agitating wowser, that they are content to slide along the ground, oblivious to the moral imperatives and high claims of artistic attainment. There can be times when it's hard not to take this dim view. And they're also the pressures, of course, on everyone in everyday society. In a world where market forces have relativised all sorts of accepted aesthetic standards,

and have relegated the animation of the imagination, the creation and experience of art, to a low spot on the cultural food chain. Everyone knows that this is a falsification of value, that Hollywood action films designed for boys of nine don't compare well with Brando or Bertolucci at the height of their powers, but we're almost embarrassed to say so. In a world where everything tends to be reduced to a pedestrian wasteland of utilitarian contentment, where everyone spends an inordinate amount of time of cultural popcorn, who can blame the politicians if they're content to see art burn? I think we can, yes, it would require a statesman these days to publicly declare a love of art, and more particularly, when the going gets tough. but shouldn't this be a minimum requirement, if you believe that the totality of what we mean by art - the literature, the music, the visual arts - is the basis on which society rests, its moral raison d'etre? As a friend of mine said to me recently, "Without the law, we would have no society, but without art, we'd have no civilisation." What a perversion it is when zealots contrive that these two mighty things should be put on head-on collision course and how sad that our legislators, the people are supposed to make society fit for civilisation, should allow it to happen. Art is what connects us to history, just as it allows us to feel the ground of our own being as well as the farthest reach of where the imagination can fly. This is a potentially shared heritage, and what makes us who we are, even though we experience different parts of it,

and do so individually. When I look at a late Titian I get a sense of an almost anonymous perfection. It's like a force of nature. It brings to mind Homer's words, "And the God came down from the mountains like a storm." It's as if the name of the god has become a dynamic force, as if the nouned, naming the figure, has become a verb. When I look

at Caspar David Friedrich's Evening Star, the tiny figure runs with outstretched arms, cap in hand, across a small grassy hill, the spires of Dresden in the background. And it's as if you can see the entire history of the west hurrying through that western gate. I don't want to be merely artsy about this - to simply monumentalise the great art of the past.

We should also hold on to the perception, as in the fragment about the hanging twins at the start, out of which art is made. Recently when I found myself in that shopping mall, and in the midst of the crowds swirling past into the Village Cinema complex like a black hole, I caught sight of two teenagers embracing on the floor, just two kids caught in an embrace in a cavity beneath the escalator. They were inward-looking. They were so intent, so embedded, so uncaring of the world around them. The scene also reminded me of other things. But it was like an Eric Fischl painting. Two contemporary kid tourists in Rome, they were playing under a plinth which supported a sleeping hermaphrodite, Roman copy, the painting entitled The Sheer Weight of History.

But the poignancy and the beauty of this scene doesn't depend on the echo.

It was the continuity, the life that inheres in art, and out of which art comes, which was important. We need art if we are to survive as who we are. In order to be civilised human beings, we need to be able to experience art and if we can, create it. Is this to ask for a special dispensation? A different law for artists, so that they can commit their outrages? Not at all. It's simply to ask people to realise that the moral integrity of art inheres in the structures and pressures that produce it. In my studio, I have an etching by Piranesi that shows the Arch of Constantine in shadow with the Colosseum behind it.

For those who have eyes to see, it has the power of ungainsayable moral principle. The beauty and power of the image animates an apprehension of our own mortality

and, at the same time, as a consequence, makes us feel more alive. The supreme artistry is there as a fingerprint, an echo of moral integrity. The artistry is extraordinarily rare, but the principle it brings alive is at the heart of everything. As an image, it is true - it contains truths, it recommends truth. This is a making visual of the remembrance of things past. It dramatises, with great bareness and clarity, the plangency of the recapitulation of the memory that's made new

with the power of great elegy. It's a 300-year-old representation of a scene that's 2,000 years old. At the same time, it's absolutely intimate. The proximity of the gestures is absolutely real. The object itself is evidence of the impulse that has brought it into being.

This instance, which so powerfully intimates the mortality of life

and the immortality of the past, provides its illumination in complex intimations,

circling each other like a wagon train. I would have hoped there was a place for this in our polity as long as that we treasure the ruins of the past and feel the exhilaration of the transience in which we partake. Instead, we are greeted with horrors like the de-valuing of the VCA, we see a new growth in censoriousness, and the impulse to constrict the conditions under which art is produced, absurd attempts to conflate child welfare and artistic freedom as an issue. The idea that the two could be, in some way, mutually exclusive is absurd. We have bans on depicting the human body, attempts to ban Pasolini's Salo, and Lolita, and anything that so much as imagines child abuse. Isn't it clear that this way madness lies? Surely the last thing we should bequeath to the young in the name of child welfare is a regime of pandemic fear. Bill Henson exploring the light, the dark and the shades of grey in his Melbourne Art Foundation lecture. To see that address in full, head to our website, at - Well, Sebastian Junger is the American writer of the book that inspired the movie The Perfect Storm. For 15 months, Junger followed a single platoon through its tour of duty in Afghanistan's dangerous Korangal Valley. Through the harrowing experiences of the young men he joined Junger examines the physical and the mental strength needed to fight, to serve and to survive on a daily basis. The Korangal is in the Hindu Kush Mountains, very rugged terrain, six miles long. For a while, when I was there, a fifth of all of the combat in all of Afghanistan was taking place in the Korangal. 150 men in Battle Company were absorbing a fifth of all the combat for 70,000 NATO troops. The guys were in something like 500 fire fights during the course of their deployment. Everyone out there was almost killed, um, including me. And not in a kind of abstract way, "While we were in a warzone," of course, you know, "you could be killed." In a very specific way - like, there were guys walking around with holes in their uniforms from bullets that had cut through the fabric and not touched them. I was leaning against a HESCO one morning. A HESCO is a big wire basket, eight by eight by eight, that they line with a kind of moleskin, and they fill them with dirt to make fortifications.

This is what they build outposts out of. You can fill them by bulldozer or, in this case, by hand.

I was leaning against a HESCO at one of the outposts, and talking to someone, and something you have to understand about bullets is that they go much faster than the gunshots that fire them. So if someone's shooting at you from a distance, you don't know it at first. You...the sign that you're getting shot at by someone from a distance is there's a very strange, and pretty subtle snapping sound that bullets make when they break the sound barrier past your head. And it's a pretty subtle sound, like, it's the kind of sound where you're not sure you heard it at first, and people glance at each other like, "What...was that...?" And by the time you finish the sentence, "Was that someone shooting at us?" you realise someone is,

and you hear the gunfire, "Ta-ta-ta-ta," that follows later. So at any rate, it's not an obvious thing when someone shoots at you. It takes half a second to kind of confirm it. And um, so I was leaning against the HESCO, talking to someone,

and some dirt flew into my face. And I had just time to think, "What was that?" And then I heard the "ta-ta-ta-ta", and it was the first round of the first burst of an attack that went on, you know, a fire fight that went on for about an hour. And the bullet hit a few inches from my head. It was close enough to spray me with dirt. Every guy out there had that experience. I was in a Humvee that was blown up by an IED. One of the things that I became very interested in was fear, how we deal with fear. If you're a foreign reporter or a soldier, you have to establish a relationship with fear, where you're in control of it. You're not going to make fear go away, and you don't want to. But you do need to be in control of the relationship. And I really tried to examine my own fear and how I dealt with it because I felt it gave me an insight into how soldiers do the same thing. So, when the IED blew us up, it went off under the engine block, we were OK, but the Humvee was on fire, and we were taking fire. We knew we'd have to bail out. It was a very bad situation. Um, and what alarmed me was that I wasn't alarmed.

I was completely calm - my heart rate was barely,

you know, my heart rate was probably 60. I was so flatline that I thought I'd been wounded. I'd literally, I was like, "I must be wounded, because this is crazy what's happening and I'm not even reacting." I wasn't wounded, we got out of there. I reacted later. My fear reaction came six hours later that night, and I had a real insight into what happens with soldiers. They defer their emotional reaction to what's happening until they have a chance to process it, but that chance doesn't come for a year. So, when you see guys that come back, and they're just crashing, um, emotionally crashing, they're doing what I did that day, but they're doing it with an accumulated year's worth of feelings. I was up at an outpost called Restrepo. It was named after the platoon medic, Juan Restrepo, a beloved guy within the platoon. He was shot in the throat on a patrol in a little town called Aliabad, and he bled out, trying to tell the guys - I mean, he was the medic, so there was no medic to treat him - he bled out during a fire fight, trying to tell the guys how to save his life. And they named an outpost after him. The main base in the Valley was called the Korangal Outpost. It's the company headquarters. Tiny little place. And it would take fire, very effective fire from the high ground all around it. So, they decided, the command decided to occupy the high ground, take that away from the enemy. So, two platoons walked up this ridge line, a two-hour walk south from the KOP, the Korangal Outpost. Walked up this ridge line at night with tools and weapons, and started digging. They had sandbags - there's no sand up there, it's just rock, so they had to pick the rock out of the ground with pickaxes,

fill the sandbags, pile them up. They worked all night long because they knew they would get hit as soon as it got light. And it got light, they got hit. They dropped their tools, grabbed their weapons and fought back till the shooting died down.

And then they went back to work. And they worked and fought continually for 24 hours to build this outpost. They were attacked 13 times that day, sometimes from an arc of 360 degrees in the 100-plus degree heat. But they survived, they did it. Only one guy was hit. And that was the outpost that I spent much of 2007/2008 with this platoon. There was no running water up there, so the guys couldn't bathe for a month at a time - that was, the rotation up there was about a month. So, they just lived in their clothes until their clothes literally fell off them. There was no cooked food up there. They ate MREs. There was no Internet, there was no phone, there was no way to call their girlfriends, their wives. They were attacked sometimes four or five times in a day.

They would do patrols into enemy territory, which was the bottom half of the valley, where they were almost guaranteed to come into contact. They're up there for a month at a time,

they go back to the main base for a few days, take a shower, burn their clothes, get new clothes, call their girlfriends and go back up. Those are they guys I was with. I say in the book it was a weird kind of anti-paradise up there. Everything that young men like, that young men enjoy, was not up there. There were no women, there was no alcohol, there was no television, there was no sports. There was nothing.

The only compelling thing up there was combat. And combat was extremely compelling. And everything that people don't like was up there in abundance. In addition to people trying to kill you, there was tarantulas, and snakes and scorpions, and it was incredibly hot in the summer, and swarming with flies, and crawling with fleas - they wore flea-collars. They built these little plywood hooches. For a while, they didn't even have electricity. They got a little generator, they built some plywood hooches to keep themselves warm in the winter, and they built little bunks in them at all crazy angles. They didn't have a level or a plumb line up there. Everything was completely skewed. One hooch was so off-kilter that it was a weird optical illusion. You could put a marble on one of the bunks, and swear it was rolling upwards, because all the angles were so crazy. It was really like some bizarre funhouse. You could reach, from your bunk, you could reach three other guys with your arm, everyone was so tightly packed together. Everyone slept ready to go, their boots on the ground loosely tied, so you could slip your feet into them without the laces trailing. Weapons ready, body armour ready. Everyone was able to be out the door in 30 seconds, because they would attack at dawn. There was an outpost two valleys to the north called Ranch House, where the enemy overran it. They were inside the wire, they were fighting hooch to hooch with 9mm handguns.

And the lieutenant out there called in air-strikes on himself because they were getting overrun, and it worked. At first, the pilots wouldn't do it. They refused. And he convinced them, he said, "We're gonna die anyway, you might as well." So the A-10s did gun runs through the American base and saved the Americans who were in it. They sent out a patrol - this is again, two valleys to the north, the same company sent out a patrol. They wound up with a casualty rate of 80 percent

by the end of the deployment. They sent out a patrol, a 28-man patrol, they got ambushed, and in three minutes, every guy was down. Every single guy was hit. So, a lot of bad things were happening, and at Restrepo, it was only a 15-, 20-man outpost so it was very vulnerable and everyone went to sleep knowing, "Wow, we might wake up to... a catastrophic attack and the last minutes or hours of our lives." One of the ways they dealt with the stress, um, the stress and the boredom, and the insects and all the unpleasantness up there was with humour. I'm gonna read a short part, a short bit about humour. If you put a bunch of men on a hilltop for a year they get, they learn, how to be very funny. The guys are experts of a sort, at being funny. And they seem to go out of their way to be maybe it's the only way to stay sane up there. Not because of the combat - you're never saner than when your survival is in question. But because of the unbelievable screaming boredom. "OK, who's going to die today?" was a standard one-liner before patrols. Their humour, by the way, was incredibly vulgar and very morbid. There was a guy named Anderson, who, unfortunately and tragically, two previous Andersons in previous deployments had been killed in the Valley. So, this Anderson, everyone was like,

"Anderson, forget it, you're not making it out of the Valley. You might as well give me your laptop now because, you know, you're not going to make it."

"Hey Anderson, what do you want on your tombstone?" I heard someone ask, before we all headed down to Korangal, which was an enemy village in the south of the valley, "Now that's messed up," Anderson muttered as he put on his helmet. Before patrols, guys promised their laptops to each other or their boots or their iPods. One pair of friends had a serious agreement that if one of them should die, the other would erase all the porn on his laptop before the army could ship it back to his mum. AUDIENCE LAUGHS

Mothers were an irresistible source of humour - and my apologies to the mums out there - mothers were an irresistible source of humour - "If I start banging your mum when we get home, will that make me your dad?"

Some version of that was pretty much boiler plate humour at Restrepo.

Once I watched O'Byrne grab someone's ass and give it a good deep squeeze. O'Byrne was the character I really focused on in the book. He was the only guy who got out of the army. He's a civilian now. Everyone else stayed in. Half the platoon, they finished their deployment in August '08 and in December '09, they went back to Kunar province, within miles of the Korengal and they are all out there now. Once I watched O'Byrne grab someone's ass and give it a good deep squeeze. When the man demanded an explanation, O'Byrne said, "I'm just trying to get an idea of what your mum's ass is gonna feel like when we all get home." LAUGHTER Only wives and girlfriends are off-limits because the men are already so riddled with anxiety over what's going on back home that almost nothing you could say would be funny. Anything else - mothers, sisters, retarded nephews - was fair game. Writer, Sebastian Junger, speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California. To see that address in full, head to our website at or watch out for more on ABC News24. Finally today, is there anybody out there? It's 50 years since radio telescopes were first turned skywards to search for signs of life in outer space,

and since the establishment of SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. But with the passing of the years and still no results,

it might be time to ask - are we looking in the right places? The search has extended to Earth-like worlds, orbiting other suns. But amazingly, the discovery of brand new life forms may be more likely to happen in our own back yard. Wrangling this lively and illuminating ABC Cafe scientific event, are Bernie Hobbs and Paul Willis. If the chances, even on a good day,

if the chances are that infinitesimally small, and it still worked out in our favour that, you know, we get a message from within 500 light years, and we send a response, so it's a round-time for messages of 1,000 years, what's the point? Carol, I, er... this actually eludes me. I do not really see why we're bothering. Yeah, I think the reason we would look is because it speaks to ourselves, and our search for ourselves and the search for our place in the Universe. It's very easy for us to think that everything we're looking at right now has always been here. Well, it hasn't. It hasn't even been here for 10, 20 years. So if you're looking back, you know, 50 years, things are very different. If you look back 100, very different. You look back 1,000 years and keep going backwards and realise that we've only been here half a billion years as microbes to begin with and here we are. And we don't actually know how life formed on Earth,

so some of the questions may be answered by maybe looking for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

In astrobiology, we're looking for microbes on Mars but why just limit it to that? Why just look for dumb life? It's not intelligent not to look for intelligent life as well if you have the means to do it. Fred, you put your hand up at the mention of the word 'astrobiology'? I always think it's worthwhile explaining what astrobiology is, because it's a fairly new discipline and it's a kind of umbrella within which scientists can study the possibility of living organisms beyond the Earth. So, it encompasses astronomy, of course,

it encompasses biology, biochemistry, geology, planetary science - all of those things come under the umbrella of astrobiology. The biologist love it,

because they've always wanted to talk among themselves about astronomy. And the astronomers love it... (PANEL LAUGHS) ..because for the first time, it allows them to talk professionally about sex, which we never have done before.

So, all of the sudden, astronomers are sex workers. And it's a really interesting, puts a really interesting dynamic on your - I think astronomers have always been sex workers. Your research funding must be, er... ..somewhat limited at the moment. That's probably why Carol's just got a million dollars. Yesterday I came back from an astrobiology conference in Houston, for example, there were about 4,000 people there. Oh. Oh, are you finished? OK. I'm finished. A lot of people. It's a big field. Got a lot of people very enthusiastic about it, and we're all working hard to try to find something. OK, on that, Carol, you did mention looking on Mars for dumb life. Can you give us a quick survey of what we've found today?

Have we found anything? Is there any scientific evidence to date of where we're at with any kind of life form,

I don't care how stupid, that is ex-Earth. Well, we haven't found a single extra-terrestrial microbe, so the answer is no, we haven't found anything. But there... Well, yes we have. Maybe all the microbes on Earth are extra-terrestrial. Well, it's possible that we are the Martians, yes. Indeed. Oh, picky, picky! Hey, this is science! This is not radio, this is science too, you know! Well, talk us through that, Charlie. Well, the Mars rock, ALH-8001, is thought to have had life on it. The jury is still out on that - Martian life. Now, if it eventually is proven that that is past life on Mars, and it came to Earth, then it's possible that life on Earth was actually seeded from life on Mars, which got going before us, in which case, we are the Martians.

So, we're the extra-terrestrials, you know? So, that's always possible. But we don't know of a single extra-terrestrial microbe on Mars but we do know, we do know the geological circumstances for water exist on Mars, and we do know that water is on Mars right now. Liquid water? Under the - well, not liquid... Frozen water.'s frozen water. But it's estimated that there's collectively enough water on Mars to support a million people. And are we still stuck on this idea of liquid water being necessary for life? Because I saw something about, um, in an asphalt pond in... You mean "inspired by" that idea, not "stuck on it". ..oh! (PANEL LAUGHS) Touche! Didn't realise you were going to be under the spotlight tonight, Bernie! I read something last week about in an asphalt pond somewhere in Trinidad, Tobago, a filthy stinking thing with only a fraction of the quantity of water you would expect that would be necessary to support life, and yet there they were, kazillions of little bugs breeding and living happily. Does that shake up the idea that liquid water is necessary for life? No, I don't think so, there was water there. There are places, however, where there's water on Earth where there's no life. For example, there's lots of water in the mantle that is above 122 degrees. 122 degrees is the upper temperature limit on life, and there's lots of water on Earth at higher temperatures, under higher pressure - that's why it still remains liquid at above 100 degrees. Now, Paul Davies, you may have heard of him, has had a thing or two to say in his new book that's looking at this whole question of why we haven't heard anything from space - The Eerie Silence. It's taking a, not just looking at the history of the SETI program, and the search, but also questioning, are we doing it the right way. He raises this question of, um, or he's a bit of a fan of the shadow, um, bio... The shadow biosphere. Weird life, yes. ..that life has evolved separately. And he's saying that we should be looking in places, at the super-hot water, and maybe we're just looking for the wrong kind of life. Can you - ? Well, we are looking, and yes, that's the "weird life". Um, however, the way we're looking is highly prejudiced, highly biased towards the kind of life we know about. That doesn't sound like us at all! It's very hard to look for life that you cannot specify,

and for example, we have a genetic code - ACGT - these are the four nucleotides in our DNA. Let's suppose that there were some weird life that only had three nucleotides. Well, I believe that all of our metagenomic surveys would not be able to pick that up in the environment. Another way to say that is that about 99 percent of all the bacteria, all the microbes on Earth, have not been cultured, and therefore have not been looked at very carefully. So, even among the ones with the normal kind of life we know very little about. So, we've gotta look harder. But biologists are pretty set on, "Hey, if I can culture it, I'll look at it! And if I can culture it, then I can say things about it." But that's only a tiny fraction of what might be out there, and we're hypothesising that there's lots of other weird stuff that may have originated in, well, let's say 3.9, 4.0 billion years ago in between these massive impacts that hit the Earth, and frustrated some life. But maybe there's another kind of life that originated independently, and made it through some of those impacts. So, I guess, going back to your original question, Bernie, what we need to look for, when we look beyond the Earth, is signs of activity or phenomena that could only be produced by living organisms. It's, the logic is that if you can find something that is a signature of life, a so-called biomarker, then there's a good chance that you've actually found it. And there are already hints that that might be the case. One of the things that I thought Carol was about to say, and I'm interested to ask her about it, is the idea of these methane plumes in Mars' atmosphere. Mars... Yeah, sorry about that. I wasn't gonna mention it, Paul! You have no idea what it's like sitting here. That's the reason I'm at the other end of the stage... Good thing his anus is upside down. Yeah, that's right. LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE Nice one. The team from ABC Cafe Scientific trying to get ET to phone home. Well, that's all for today. I hope we sparked a passion for more intergalactic big ideas. If we have, point your browser towards our website - where you'll find the full length versions of everything you've seen on the show today plus a vast selection of the best talks and lectures around.

And don't forget, Wednesdays at 11am on ABC1, is where you'll find the newest serving of Big Ideas Extended Mix, and new shows too, on ABC's News24. I'm Tony Jones. Till next time. Closed Captions by CSI

This Program is Captioned

Live. Once more with

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