Martin Rees, Britain’s leading cosmologist, studies stars. Neuropsychologists like me study brains. But we seem to find a shared wavelength on multiverses, aliens, climate change and science fundingby Paul Broks / February 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
I arrive early at Carlton House Terrace, home of the Royal Society, and am ushered into the President’s Room. It’s like Dave Bowman entering the surreal hotel suite at the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The furniture and decor are earthly and familiar, with the faded elegance of an Oxbridge senior common room. But the scale is wrong. No one has an office this big back on Earth. Behind me, through the window, the virtual reality winter sky is dying over a simulacrum of St James’s Park. Martin Rees materialises to my left, teacup in hand, and settles his slight frame in the adjacent chair. He has come straight from a House of Lords debate on food production, by teleportation perhaps. I switch on my digital recorder. “I have to think before I speak now,” he says, mindful of an earthling custom I don’t always observe.
But he turns out to be human, and I relax. This year’s BBC Reith lecturer, Martin Rees—Lord Rees of Ludlow—astronomer royal and master of Trinity College, Cambridge, is a cosmologist of world renown and one of our foremost public intellectuals. He is also president of the Royal Society, which is currently celebrating its 350th anniversary, and so stands as a figurehead for the whole of British science. When he estimates that our civilisation has only a 50 per cent chance of surviving the present century, we should take note. If, in the next breath, he says that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (Seti) will be one of the most important challenges for science over the next 20 years, then suspend disbelief.
“So, as astronomer royal, are you often summoned to the palace for briefings on gamma-ray bursts in distant galaxies? Does the Queen show much interest in extraterrestrials?” No, these aren’t the questions I put. Not yet, anyway. Instead, I ask whether science has enough good stories. There’s a long pause. Perhaps he’s wary of a trick question. But no, he’s just thinking before he speaks. He turns the question this way and that, dismantles and reassembles it, threads it through with allusions to the grand narratives on cosmos and quantum, evolution and consciousness. He cites legendary quests and iconic heroes (Galileo, Newton, Einstein) and points to the fuzzy frontiers where strange tales grow in the telling. “Our aim is to provide the best possible stories we can,” he concludes. Except that he hasn’t concluded. He’s off again: “But another way to interpret your question…” It’s a fair example of Rees’s style of thinking. He’s a “big picture” man, a synthesist, always looking for patterns and connections and, finding them, turning them inside out for another view.