A head in the stars

The As­tronomer Royal on God, plan­e­tary ac­tiv­ity, ro­bots and the ori­gin of life

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Lord Rees, the As­tronomer Royal, talks to Rod­er­ick Eas­dale about God, ro­bots and the ori­gins of life

ICOULD carry on do­ing the job posthu­mously so ex­igu­ous are the du­ties,’ laughs Martin Rees on whether he’ll be As­tronomer Royal for life. ‘It in­volves some obli­ga­tion to bang the drum for sci­ence and astronomy, but that’s it.’ The in­cum­bent used to be di­rec­tor of the Royal Ob­ser­va­tory, but now all the mod­ern tele­scopes are in the Ca­nary Is­lands, Hawaii or Chile, where view­ing con­di­tions are bet­ter. The post was cre­ated by Charles II in 1675 when he founded the Royal Ob­ser­va­tory at Green­wich; our mar­itime na­tion needed astronomy for nav­i­ga­tion and the Ad­mi­ralty ran it.

‘The As­tronomer Royal was the first govern­ment-ap­pointed sci­en­tist and astronomy the first pro­fes­sion­alised sci­ence,’ Lord Rees ex­plains, ‘apart, per­haps, from medicine, but I like to say that astronomy is the first that did more good than harm.’ From the late 1950s, Green­wich be­came a museum and the post be­came an hon­orary ti­tle given to a uni­ver­sity-based as­tronomer.

It was around this time that Lord Rees be­came in­volved in the field. ‘There was the first ev­i­dence of the Big Bang, black holes and so on. It was a good sub­ject to get into as al­most ev­ery­thing was new and so the old guys had no ad­van­tage. It still is ex­cit­ing,’ he en­thuses as one of the ‘new old guys’—he turns 75 this week. ‘It’s ad­vanc­ing at such a rate due to tech­nol­ogy. In most sci­ence, new in­stru­ments are as im­por­tant as any­thing else, so en­gi­neers de­serve as much credit as sci­en­tists.’

He wasn’t starry-eyed as a child —his in­ter­ests grow­ing up in a vil­lage out­side Lud­low, Shrop­shire, were ‘Na­ture and num­bers’ and he read math­e­mat­ics at Cam­bridge, mov­ing to astronomy for his Phd.

The role may bring nei­ther in­come, nor even meet­ing The Queen, but the Tem­ple­ton Prize he won in 2011 was pre­sented by The duke of Ed­in­burgh at Buck­ing­ham Palace and is worth £1 mil­lion. This an­nual prize is for ‘an ex­cep­tional con­tri­bu­tion to af­firm­ing life’s spir­i­tual di­men­sion, whether through in­sight, dis­cov­ery, or prac­ti­cal works’. Lord Rees doesn’t be­lieve in God, how­ever: ‘I don’t un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence be­tween an athe­ist and an ag­nos­tic, but I would be an athe­ist I sup­pose.’ What was his re­ac­tion to the award? ‘Sur­prised, but also very proud.’

He does sup­port the Church of Eng­land: ‘The Church and the aes­thetic cre­ations of the ar­chi­tec­ture and mu­sic are a part of our cul­ture that I would hate to see weak­ened.’ When he was Master of Trin­ity Col­lege Cam­bridge, weekly at­ten­dance at col­lege chapel was a ‘happy’ duty. He would have loved to have been a com­poser—‘i wish I had the mu­si­cal tal­ent’—yet life as a Cam­bridge as­tronomer has its mu­si­cal com­pen­sa­tions: ‘The amount of mu­sic per­formed rou­tinely ev­ery day in Cam­bridge is hugely im­pres­sive and im­por­tant.’

He’s ‘never been very re­li­gious’, so it isn’t sci­ence that turned him to athe­ism, but he does say that he knows how hard it is, as a sci­en­tist, to un­der­stand and ex­plain often rel­a­tively sim­ple things so is ‘re­luc­tant to ac­cept dogma that claims to have found all the an­swers’.

Lord Rees is often asked whether we’re alone in the uni­verse and is pre­pared to be­lieve that we are not; he is in­volved in a project search­ing for life on other plan­ets by look­ing for ev­i­dence of ma­chines there, as only other life could have cre­ated them. He reck­ons there is a 1%–2% chance of find­ing ma­chines, al­though the chances of there be­ing life else­where are higher. ‘We don’t un­der­stand the ori­gin of life yet, so we can’t tell whether it was a fluke or some­thing that was in­evitable and so would have hap­pened else­where.’

He’s re­as­sured by how sci­ence is taken ‘pretty se­ri­ously’ in the uk. ‘We have a good record of sup­port­ing sci­ence. Also, we link it to pol­icy—for ex­am­ple, in the reg­u­la­tion of em­bryo re­search —which we do bet­ter than in main­land Europe or the USA, as par­lia­men­tar­i­ans have en­gaged with sci­en­tists.’

He is him­self now a par­lia­men­tar­ian, hav­ing be­come a ‘Peo­ple’s Peer’ in 2005 as Baron Rees of Lud­low: ‘It has ev­ery­thing that a small town should have—a won­der­ful church, a river and very fine El­iz­a­bethan and Ge­or­gian ar­chi­tec­ture.’ He’s a mem­ber of the Labour Party, but stresses that Peo­ple’s Peers were picked to be free of party af­fil­i­a­tion, so he sits on the cross­benches. ‘The last elec­tion in which I cam­paigned was in 1992. Post 1997, I have de­scribed my­self as dis­en­fran­chised Old Labour, but, as a cross­bencher, I can’t cam­paign, even though Old Labour is now resur­gent.’

He pre­dicts that ro­bots will take over many jobs and not just blue-col­lar ones. ‘They could do con­veyanc­ing, ac­coun­tancy and med­i­cal di­ag­no­sis, but some things they will not be able to do well—plumb­ing will be too in­tri­cate and no ro­bot will be able to plan and main­tain a fine herba­ceous bor­der.’ He sees hu­man jobs be­ing in­creas­ingly con­fined to the car­ing in­dus­tries: ‘My sce­nario is to have a mas­sive re­dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth from the ro­bot own­ers to fund lit­er­ally mil­lions of jobs, for car­ers in par­tic­u­lar.’

How­ever, he cheer­fully points out, ‘sci­en­tists are the worst at pre­dic­tions. A pre­vi­ous As­tronomer Royal de­scribed the no­tion of space travel as “ut­ter bilge”’. If he’s wrong, he can at least fall back on his ad­vice to stu­dents that they will ‘get more out of first-rate sci­ence fic­tion than sec­ond-rate sci­ence’, al­though he doesn’t actually read or watch it him­self and has never even seen an episode of Star Trek: ‘The only tele­vi­sion I watch is pol­i­tics pro­grammes and na­ture doc­u­men­taries.’

Could a ro­bot be As­tronomer Royal? He ducks the ques­tion: ‘The best dis­cov­er­ies will be made via sym­bio­sis of peo­ple and ma­chines. As [chess grand­mas­ter] Gary Kas­parov says in his new book, hu­man plus com­puter can beat ei­ther a hu­man alone or a com­puter alone. As outer space is a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment for hu­mans, it’s where ro­bots and ar­ti­fi­cial fab­ri­ca­tors will have the great­est long-term scope.’ Rod­er­ick Eas­dale

‘We don’t un­der­stand the ori­gin of life yet, so we can’t tell if it was a fluke or in­evitable

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