Cosmic man

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 funding
February 22, 2010

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.

The founders of the Royal Society, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, and the other “ingenious and curious gentlemen” who gathered at Gresham College would recognise Rees as one of their own. Their guiding spirit was the Elizabethan philosopher-scientist, Francis Bacon, who understood that science had two driving imperatives: “the search for enlightenment” and “the relief of man’s estate.” The founding fellows might have devoted their evenings to fathoming the motions of swinging pendulums, but their days were spent on man’s estate, notably helping rebuild London after the great fire. Rees operates according to a similar division of brain labour. His academic reputation is built on science of the purest, curiosity-driven variety. He has helped elucidate the processes underlying star and galaxy formation in the aftermath of the big bang, which in turn has brought us to our present God’s-eye view of the structure of the universe: the great foam of galaxies, clustered and strung in filaments across the void. According to the Oxford physicist, David Deutsch, Rees is “arguably the finest all-round theoretical physicist working today.”

But his feet are squarely set on planet Earth. A politician as well as a scientist, he sits on the cross benches in the Lords but accepts “old Labour” as a fair description of his true orientation. “I deplore growing inequality, declining institutional loyalties, and the selling off of core utilities.” The three main parties, he feels, are unduly relaxed about such trends. But it’s the apolitical platform of the Royal Society that gives him his more defined role in the politics of science and, in this final year of his term as president, climate change sits high on the Society’s agenda. He speaks eloquently on the subject, but dispassionately. He’s been called an alarmist for giving such grim odds on our chances of surviving the century (an estimate he stands by) but there is no hint of alarm in his delivery. The shenanigans at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (see p22) and the ineptitude of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change over the not-so-rapidly-melting Himalayan glaciers are embarrassments, but do not alter the fact that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are the highest for 500,000 years. Belching yet more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will force temperatures higher. If we don’t watch out, the Greenland ice cap will go and a foul megaburp of methane will issue from the arctic tundra with apocalyptic results. The gastric imagery and the alarmism here are mine. Rees just tells it like it is.


We all know the story. It’s bleak. So why do most people seem not to give a toss? Rees casts an avian glance. “It’s true,” he says. “The ordinary person does need a bit more convincing.” Yet even those who accept the scientific evidence and the catastrophic projections generally don’t engage much on a practical level; me, for example. I spend more time thinking about cricket than about climate change. There’s Rees’s birdlike gaze again—a sparrowhawk sighting a woodpigeon. “Most people discount the future,” he says. “Understandably, they care about their immediate surroundings and their kin rather than people in remote parts of the world, decades in the future.” Yet we turn a blind eye to the future even when our own lives are in jeopardy. “As in politics,” he says, “the immediate trumps the important.” Our future-blindness may reflect a basic limitation of the brain. “In so far as brains evolved to cope with everyday life on the savannah, they evolved in a context where you didn’t plan 50 years ahead and you cared about your local community. Although…” A pause. A sip of tea. “Although, it’s odd—I gave a talk at Ely cathedral not long ago. The people who built the cathedral had a limited view of the world. Their world was the fens, and they thought it would end quite soon, but nevertheless built this wonderful structure which is part of our heritage 1,000 years later. And it’s shameful in a way that we, with our longer horizons and greater resources, are reluctant to think 50 years ahead.”

There was some progress at Copenhagen, he thinks, but the time has come for radical thinking. All options should be considered. Including nuclear? “There’s a case for Britain having new generation nuclear but I’m uneasy about nuclear energy worldwide on a big enough scale to make a difference. It’s not clear we can handle the proliferation problem and waste disposal.” Rees has long been active in the Pugwash peace movement, which was founded in the 1950s by his late friend Joseph Rotblat, and Bertrand Russell, in response to nuclear weapons. In the long term, he thinks, fusion and solar energy might be better bets than nuclear power.

Or, in the very long run, empty space? The question is met with another birdish look. I remind him he wrote something about the energy latent in empty space. Is it possible that the world’s energy problems might one day be solved by harnessing the hidden power of nothingness? “Well I think that’s unlikely!” he exclaims, and I’m relieved to move on.

Besides the Baconian imperatives of curiosity and practicality, a third motivating force for Rees is the imperative to communicate his work to the wider public. His one excursion into television documentaries, What We Still Don’t Know, the 2004 Channel 4 series on cosmology was, he says, “a disaster” and a lesson learnt. “Entirely my fault,” he says—but for what, other than complying with the producers’ dumbing-down manoeuvres, I’m not sure. It does seem odd, though, that a man of his nous should have blundered into it in quite the way he apparently did. But he’s not a television man, he says: “The only things one watches these days are the politics and the wildlife.” Me too, I say, plus the football. “I don’t like football,” he says, which is unfortunate because his wife, the anthropologist Caroline Humphrey, does. She’s a Spurs fan and took him to the north London derby at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium. He hated it. “I can’t stand the players or the fans—their brutishness—and I don’t like being in a crowd of 60,000 people.”


There’s no dumbing down in Rees’s writing, and his popular books, including Just Six Numbers and Our Final Century are gems of clarity and brevity (“They tend to be quite thin”); stylistically as polished as any in the popular science genre. He says he is “not a natural writer” and has to work hard at it, which, I suspect, is what being a “natural writer” is about. His prose is cropped and he has a knack for the well-crafted, occasionally exquisite analogy—illuminating the laws of nature, for example, by way of the symmetry of snowflakes. A snowflake is shaped by the conditions of the cloud through which it forms and falls. Its unique morphology is determined by a particular history. Snowflakes differ in the “accidental” detail of their patterning but they all share the same hexagonal template, which is due to the basic structure of water molecules. For “snowflake” read “universe” and bear in mind that, in Rees’s scheme of things, there isn’t just the one universe. So imagine an arctic blizzard of universes, each cosmic snowflake having its own idiosyncratic patterns (laws of nature). If physicists are to achieve a truly fundamental theory it should tell us not only which features of our physical reality are “accidental” (our local laws of nature) but also those which reflect the bedrock laws of the “multiverse.”

Assuming there are bedrock laws, and assuming there is a multiverse? “Many physicists, and I’m one of them, entertain the possibility that there may be many big bangs, not just the one that we’re the aftermath of, and that those big bangs led to regions of space-time governed by different laws, some very different from ours, less propitious for life, or maybe more interesting. And what we’d like to know is…” I don’t mention it, but at this point a half-forgotten image comes to mind, a recollection that the very idea of there being a multiverse once made me vomit. “What we’d like to know is—and this is where the snowflake analogy comes in—are there some features which are common to all of them, and are there some which are just accidental features of how that particular big bang cooled down?” I hadn’t been feeling well and left work early. I’d fallen asleep listening to the radio and woke, in the evening, in the middle of a science programme. Someone was talking about astronomy. Pleasant images of stars and swirling galaxies filled my head. But the talk turned to black holes birthing baby universes and I began to feel queasy. It was the awesome suggestion that entire new universes may be bursting into existence with every tick of the clock that got me retching. Awe is the polar opposite of disgust and for some reason my brain seemed to have confused the two.

I refocus. What are the limits of science? It’s a question, he says, that brings us back to the limits of the brain. “There’s no particular reason why our brains, which evolved to cope with life on the African savannah 200,000 years ago, should be equipped to understand the deepest levels of reality. It’s rather remarkable we get as far as we can. We can understand the quantum world, which is very spooky and counter-intuitive, and we can understand Einstein’s theory of gravity. But just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be that there are aspects of reality which are beyond the capacity of our brains.” There is something strange and wonderful in the fact that the human brain, a dollop of jelly that evolved to control the bodily functions and behaviour of Palaeolithic hominids and which, anatomically, has probably not changed a great deal since the African exodus, is capable of contemplating the interior of an atom and the vastness of intergalactic space. We are scaled midway between atoms and stars, he says, there being roughly as many atoms in a human body as it would take bodies to match the volume of the sun. It’s from this middling vantage point that we’ve stumbled on what has proved, so far, to be an impenetrable riddle: how does the small-scale world mesh with the large? The two great pinnacles of 20th-century physics: quantum theory, which describes the world at the atomic level, and Einstein’s general relativity which, on the larger scale, deals in time, space and gravity, are fundamentally incompatible.

“I think we may eventually have a theory that does unify the very large and the very small—quantum and cosmos—and when that happens it will show that space itself has a sort of grainy structure, but on a scale a trillion trillion times smaller than an atom. There are reasons to believe that that’s where gravity and quantum theory meet.” But we shouldn’t assume that a unifying theory will necessarily lie within the scope of human cognition. “One thing we learn from astronomy,” he says, “is that the future is at least as long as the past. We are the outcome of 4bn years of evolution, but we’re not the culmination. Future evolution could be as dramatic as what’s happened up to now. Any creatures witnessing the demise of the sun 6bn years from now could be as different from us as we are from bacteria. And there may be many more advanced forms of consciousness in the universe.”

He believes there’s a good chance of finding evidence for extraterrestrial life—if not intelligence—quite soon. A major advance in astronomy has been the discovery of planets beyond our solar system. It’s reasonable to anticipate that some of them will be Earth-like. Detecting intelligence is another matter, but the search is worth pursuing. “I’m not advocating devoting huge resources to it,” he says. Science funding is rightly directed towards projects with visible targets and reasonable expectation of success. But, if Seti is a scientific sideline by comparison with the gigabuck particle physics of the Large Hadron Collider or the behemoth of biomedical research, it’s a deeply fascinating one. “We should be agnostic about what, if anything, is out there.” But surely it’s unthinkable that we are alone in the universe? “No,” he says. “The odds could be 10/20 to one against life getting started.” Consolingly, he’s inclined to believe we are not alone.

“Where are they, then?” It was the famous question posed by Enrico Fermi, 60 years ago over lunch with his fellow nuclear scientists in Los Alamos. This is the Fermi paradox. If, as many astronomers believe, the universe is teeming with alien civilisations, how come we see no trace of them? At conservative estimates, there are 100bn stars in our galaxy and 100bn galaxies in the observable universe. That’s a dizzying number of stars, and among the many zillions of planets orbiting those stars there are, surely, a few zillions capable of evolving intelligent, communicative life. So why the eerie silence?

Rees finds the Fermi paradox uncompelling. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So far, the search has been narrowly focused, cosmologically, in the sense that we are pointing our radio telescopes at the heavens with no idea where, or when, to look. It’s often described as a needle-in-a-haystack search, but that is to underestimate the task. You’d have to imagine looking for your needle through a drinking straw, and that the haystack is the size of Wembley stadium. The focus is conceptually narrow, too, because Seti has an inherently anthropomorphic bias. “We’re looking for something very much like us, assuming that they at least have something like the same mathematics and technology.” But as Rees acknowledges, alien intellects could be so different from ours that we might fail even to recognise patterns in their signals, let alone meaning. “They could be staring us in the face and we don’t recognise them.” Yes, perhaps there is evidence all around and we just don’t see it. We may, as a species, be suffering the cosmic equivalent of Anton’s syndrome, the neurological condition in which patients rendered totally blind by damage to the visual cortex believe they can see perfectly well. Perhaps the universe is an act of imagination. There’s no “perhaps” about it. The universe is an act of imagination, which is not to say there’s no “real world out there,” rather that our construction of it is shaped, and inescapably confined, by the powers of the human mind. Perhaps on a cosmic scale we are cosmically stupid.

He asks what I make of the big-thinking physicist Freeman Dyson’s suggestion that unusual neurological disorders may give insights into alien minds. He recalls attending a Seti conference at which Dyson (who is a friend of Oliver Sacks) was a fellow speaker. I can see what he’s getting at, I say, but my experience of working with the brain-injured has led me to an opposite view. Brain damage and mental disorder open the doors to the haunted mansion of the human mind. We see nothing but the ghosts in our own house—the alien within, not without. But then, maybe, as the Seti pioneer Frank Drake says, the search for alien intelligence is just “a search for ourselves, who we are and where we fit in the universe.” So it becomes a religion for the secular age, a quest for communion with superior celestial beings through which, perhaps, the supernatural is naturalised. Silentium dei; silentium ET.

One prominent figure in the Seti community envisages advanced aliens passing on the secrets of immortality. Would Rees—he’s now 67—like to live forever? “Yes,” he says, “but it won’t happen.” And when he dies, “I want, like George Orwell, to be buried in a country churchyard according to the rites of the Church of England.” I wonder what implications the discovery of extraterrestrial beings might have for Christianity. If, as Drake postulates, there may be 10,000 advanced civilisations in our Milky Way galaxy, have there been as many Christs, and as many crucifixions? (Hugh MacDiarmid imagines this in his poem, “The Innumerable Christ”). Rees says he knows Jesuit scientists who are quite relaxed about the idea.

So he’s a churchgoer? “Yes,” he says, a touch defensively. “But I have no specific religious beliefs.” His attitude as a practising non-believer would, he says, be common among Jews. “It’s a matter of custom and culture. I grew up in Shropshire in the tribe of the English who were part of the Church of England tradition and I deeply value the aesthetic associations of that culture, the music and the architecture, and therefore have no problem participating in the ritual. If I’d grown up in Iran I’d be going to the mosque.” He accepts no dogma. “And intellectual theology, well, I don’t go along with that.” What he finds “very hard to take in some people who really believe the stuff” is the craving for certainty. The world is full of mysteries and we should embrace the idea. I hadn’t thought of it this way before but science, I suppose, is a sort of craving for uncertainty. It marches on, as Max Planck said, “funeral by funeral,” old certitudes slain by successive generations of theory and experiment. “Even if physicists find their ultimate ‘theory of everything’ it will be nothing of the sort,” says Rees. Beyond quantum and cosmos there is complexity, and theoretical physics has little to say about the everyday worlds of biology and society—“an insect is far more complicated than a star or a galaxy, and when you get to the human brain...”


Yet fundamental physics can have practical spin-offs. Quantum theory underlies the mundane technology of the supermarket barcode reader. Technological advances—in electronics, for example—more often than not flow from pure science. So what does Rees make of the HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) proposal for 25 per cent of the Research Excellence Framework—the new system for assessing the quality of research in British higher education institutions—to be fixed according to “economic and social impact”? Would it undermine support for basic, curiosity-driven research as many academics fear? The impacts of science, he says, are often felt far away from the time and place of the original research. He’s fortunate to know many of Britain’s leading scientists, he says, Nobel prizewinners and their equivalent. “They’re all individualists but there’s one thing they’d agree on. Their work was unpredictable, long-term, and required a stable and supportive environment.” The cultures of science and enterprise don’t necessarily mix? “Even the wizards of venture capital are highly fallible when they try to pick discoveries with commercial potential. To expect a grants committee to make any worthwhile judgement—and, moreover, to do this at the proposal stage, before the work has even been done—seems worse than unrealistic.” It was “entirely predictable that the HEFCE proposal would generate huge timewasting.”

Scientists, though, must be encouraged to engage more with society. The 21st century will spin out ever more political and ethical choices with scientific dimensions: the response to climate change; the challenges of sustainable consumption; advances in the biomedical sciences, which, while promising long life and liberation from disease, also threaten social destabilisation. Neuroscience, as it demystifies the brain, may even unsettle our deepest intuitions about what it means to be a person. (See the special supplement on “The Future of the Brain,” from p61). Science must become part of the common culture, Rees believes, if debate is to rise above the level of the tabloid slogan, and this will be one of the themes of his Reith lectures. “We need more public intellectuals,” he says.

Mention of the Reith lectures creates a frosty moment. It was a few days before the BBC’s official announcement that he was to be this year’s Reith lecturer, but I’d been tipped off. When I mention this, he cuts me dead. There’s an awkward silence before finally he says, “I do a lot of lectures.” He may be a political radical but, in other respects, is deeply conventional, and clearly not given to the breaching of protocols. He’s wary, too, when questions veer to the personal. I know his thoughts on whether mathematics was discovered or invented (he has since followed up with more than 10,000 words on the subject via email) but I still don’t know whether he says his prayers. Rees, like the universe, is 90 per cent dark matter. Perhaps we all are.

I must have given the impression that I know slightly more about physics and astronomy than I actually do because now he’s talking rapidly about the convergence of Compton wavelengths and Schwarzschild radii and, frankly, losing me. I might have studied physics, I tell him, but I didn’t have the maths. The teaching didn’t help either. My grammar school physics teacher was a man of explosive anger whose joyless function was the bashing of facts into heads. He once threw me out of the class for asking whether thoughts consumed calories. It’s some consolation to learn that Einstein was “not a top notch mathematician” either and that while some branches of modern astrophysics demand a profound understanding of mathematics—deeper than Einstein’s work required—there’s quite a lot of fun to be had messing around with computer simulations. He produces a laptop and launches into an impromptu PowerPoint presentation. He is on his feet, standing over me to pick out the highlights of a tour of the cosmos. Among the graphs and tables and the quite beautiful animated simulations of galaxies in collision (why are they so beautiful?) there is a picture of an Apollo astronaut standing on the surface of the moon. Twelve men have walked on the moon and the photograph has been signed, for Rees, by seven of them. He gave a lecture in Philadelphia a few years ago “and there, in the front row, taking notes, was Neil Armstrong.” In a parallel universe Martin Rees would have taught me physics. I still wouldn’t have had the maths but it would have been a lot more fun.

And, for the record, the Queen doesn’t appear to show much interest in extraterrestrials but, “Nor has she asked me for her horoscope.”