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Questions and answers with Martin Rees

With his latest book, the renowned cosmologist seeks to bridge the gulf between pure science and applied work, and between scientists and the wider public.

By Jermey N. A. Matthews

Questions and answers with Martin Rees

With his latest book, the renowned cosmologist seeks to bridge the gulf between pure science and applied work, and between scientists and the wider public.

Martin Rees, the Lord Rees of Ludlow, is professor emeritus of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, and the UK's astronomer royal. He was President of the Royal Society from 2005 to 2010 and is a foreign associate for several scientific academies, including the US National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Pontifical Academy. He has also served on many projects connected to education, space research, arms control, and international collaboration in science.

Rees completed his PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Cambridge, where he's also held a number of positions, including, for 10 years, director of the Institute of Astronomy. His research has covered topics in high-energy astrophysics and cosmology, including black holes and quasars. In addition to his research papers, he has written eight books, most recently, From Here to Infinity: A Vision for the Future of Science (W. W. Norton, 2012).

Physics Today recently caught up with Rees to discuss the book.

PT: What challenges did you face turning your Reith Lectures into a book, and how is this book different from Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning (Basic Books, 2004) or other similar books you've written?

Rees: My four lectures were given before a live audience, each in a different place, so they had to be self-contained. And of course there was a time limit. The book keeps the basic structure, but more than doubles the length. My first lecture drafts were too long, and in this book I've been able to put the extra stuff back in, and also expand the text in response to all the feedback I got from the [BBC] radio audience. However, I have substantially altered the present edition to target it to an American readership.

In contrast, Our Final Century—stupidly retitled Our Final Hour by the US publisher—addressed global threats stemming from pressures on the environment and raised concerns about the downsides of ever more powerful technology. The present book straddles all these topics and gives me the chance to think afresh and give an updated perspective on them all.

PT: What is your vision for science?

Rees: In the book I adopt three roles: an astronomer, a general scientist, and a citizen—an anxious member of the human race. I start with a historical vignette, going back to the early days of the Royal Society in the 1660s. The society's fellows indulged their curiosity. But they were also immersed in the practical agenda of their era: improving navigation, exploring the New World, and rebuilding London after the Great Fire.

Today's scientists have similar motives. But research is now professionalized, arcane, and technical. There's consequently a communication barrier between different fields of science, between pure and applied work, and between scientists and the wider public. One of my themes is how to bridge these gulfs.

As regards science itself, I speculate in the book about what advances we can expect in the coming decades. More controversially, I suggest that we should be open-minded about the possibility that there may be some aspects of physical reality that we'll never grasp, simply because our brains aren't up to it. We'll hit the buffers and further enlightenment will have to await the emergence of some more intelligent species, whether organic or silicon-based.

PT: What do you see as the main challenges to the future of scientific research and education? And how do you think the science community can address societal challenges?

Rees: Quite a lot of my book deals with the big questions of providing food, resources, and energy for a population that will be nine billion by 2050, and holding environmental degradation and climate change in check. It's rare for an issue to be purely scientific—almost always, economics, ethics, and other considerations are relevant too. Indeed the gulf between what science enables us to do and what applications are prudent, or ethical, or economic, will get even wider than it already is. Scientific advisers should be prepared to challenge decision-makers and help them navigate the uncertainties. President Obama (who would, incidentally, have won by a complete landslide if Europeans had a vote) recognized this. He opined that scientists' advice should be heeded 'even when it is inconvenient—indeed, especially when it is inconvenient.'

All scientists, as concerned citizens, have a special responsibility to engage with the public and in policy debates. And here, physics has offered outstanding role models, especially those that were involved in the Manhattan Project. Many of them returned with relief to peacetime academic pursuits. But the ivory tower wasn't, for them, a sanctuary. They continued not just as scientists but as engaged citizens, promoting efforts to control the power they had helped unleash. But defense and arms control are a diminishing part of the agenda for today's scientists [who] have a special obligation to engage: by involvement with NGOs or campaigning groups, via blogging and journalism, or through political activity.

The threat of global nuclear annihilation has been in abeyance since the cold war ended. But new technologies are opening up new vulnerabilities. For instance, global society depends on elaborate networks—electricity grids, air traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery, and so forth. Unless these are highly resilient, their manifest benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic breakdowns cascading through the system. And the threat is terror as well as error: Concern about cyberattack, by criminals or by hostile nations, is rising sharply. Synthetic biology, likewise, offers huge potential for medicine and agriculture, but could facilitate bioterror.

How science is applied isn't just a decision for scientists. That's why all citizens need a feel for scientific concepts and a realistic attitude to uncertainty and risk. And this leads to education. Neither the US nor the UK can be proud of its science education at [the precollege] level. In both countries, there are far too few excellent school teachers, especially in math and physics. I hope that innovations using the internet—for example, the Khan Academy —can help. I'm convinced that higher education will be transformed by technology. It's been a hundred years since H. G. Wells said that the future would be a race between education and catastrophe. That's equally true today; indeed the stakes are now higher.

PT: According to the review, your denial that science and religion should be regarded as enemies has caused you to be branded as a 'compliant Quisling.' To what extent do such seemingly opposing forces like science, religion, and politics need to work together to address the challenges humans face?

Rees: All I'd say on this question is that political decisions, just like private ones, need to be guided by a system of ethics or values. It's clear that religion is the source from which many people, including many scientists, derive their values. And it's religious belief that strengthens their commitment to live by their values. I'm not myself religious, but I have no wish to insult or denigrate those who are. I may therefore be not only a 'quisling' but also an 'accommodationist,' another term of abuse used by some antireligious zealots who would like to extirpate all religion.

PT: What books are you reading at the moment?

Rees: I find that more and more of my scientific reading is done on the web. The actual books I read are biographies, novels, and policy. At the moment it's Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth (Nan A. Talese, 2012), Ray Monk's biography on Oppenheimer (Jonathan Cape, 2012), and some timely but depressing books highlighting the inadequacies of the market economy and the downsides of globalization, including: The Price of Inequality (W. W. Norton, 2012) by Joseph Stiglitz; What Money Can't Buy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) by Michael Sandel; and How Much is Enough? (Other Press, 2012) by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.

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