Brief encounter: Martin Rees, Astonomer Royal

"Among scientists, Galileo or Darwin would be good company— Newton absolutely not"
September 20, 2018


What is the first news event you can recall?

It was the 1951 Festival of Britain on the South Bank, especially the “Dome of Discovery”—fascinating to a technically-inclined child. It’s shameful that the millennium celebrations were such a come-down from this inspiring achievement of the hard-pressed Attlee government.

Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with?

Among scientists, Galileo or Darwin would be good company— Newton absolutely not. But I’d actually choose an explorer: Captain Cook. No future explorers will experience the isolation of these great pioneers—nor have so little foreknowledge of the wonders or terrors they might encounter. Even voyagers into deep space will be in communication with Earth, and robotic probes will have preceded them.

What is the book you are most embarrassed you have never read?

Scientists now report their findings in barely readable technical papers, rather than books: that’s what they call “the literature.” But I’m embarrassed not to have read—or even just turn the pages of—the seminal books of pre-20th century science some of which really were “literature.” Two in particular are Darwin’s The Origin of Species and the Memoirs of William Smith, the pioneering geologist.

What is your favourite quotation?

Einstein said: “The most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible.” It’s obviously a favourite for those in my line of work, and gives us hope of progress.

One bit of advice you’d give to your younger self?

I’d quote the old man who said: “if I’d known I’d live so long I’d have taken better care of myself.”

If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why?

I would spend it on the world’s most odious rulers—helping to create a maximum-security retirement home (on St Helena, for instance) for despots and dictators. If they had an alluring way out, some would take it. They would escape their just deserts, but that injustice would be hugely outweighed by the benefits to millions who would acclaim their removal.

The talent you wish you had?

My musical skills are close to zero but if I could have been born with different talents, I’d covet those of a composer. In science, if a particular discovery eludes you, someone else will make it (generally quite soon). But musical compositions are the unique creations of an individual. To quote the great immunologist Peter Medawar: “when Wagner took 10 years off in the middle of composing the Ring Cycle to compose Tristan and Meistersinger, he wasn’t worried about being scooped on Götterdämmerung.”

What is the biggest problem of all?

I think it’s to reconcile freedom, security and privacy in an interconnected world where just a few people can, by error or design, create catastrophes or social breakdown that could cascade globally, and social media can spread panic and rumour literally at the speed of light.