LORD MARTIN REES
Cosmologist and astrophysicist, 75
The most exciting thing, which I have been able to do for much of my life, is to discover new things. Working with colleagues to see what we can learn about planets, stars, galaxies, black holes and all those things. It’s satisfying to know that there is wide public interest in the discoveries.
I’m officially retired, but I work as hard as ever: books, meetings, travel, getting involved in things. I’m fortunate to be based at Cambridge University, where retired people are treated humanely and are allowed to talk to younger people.
I got married rather late. We were both in our forties and didn’t have children. I think I would have liked to have been a parent, but that didn’t happen.
If you look at the public’s opinion as to who they trust, nurses and doctors come top, with scientists only a bit below them, far above politicians, businesspeople and journalists. What we have to do with that trust is engage with the public so that they really know the implications of our work, especially when it comes to big policy questions that involve science: health, energy, transport, the environment.
Young children are fascinated by the natural world, space and dinosaurs. There’s a lesson for educators: you don’t have to make science relevant to make it interesting. Dinosaurs are about as irrelevant to modern life as anything can be.
Activities one gets better at with old age and experience are speaking, writing and lecturing, especially for general audiences. It’s the benefit of experience. Research is better done by younger, sharper minds that can concentrate better. I was never very athletic, so I don’t feel much of a decline in my physical capabilities.
Scientists are technological optimists and political pessimists. We know that applying science can transform our world. But the gap between what can and should be done, and what will be done, is very wide and getting wider all the time. When we see disasters that can easily be remedied, like famines and the situation in Yemen, one is pessimistic that there will be a good life for everyone in the future. The threats are getting greater and the politics is discouraging. The chance of international collaboration to reduce the risks doesn’t look good.
My parents were both teachers and ran a small school. I went to their school until I was 13. It is slightly embarrassing to be taught by your parents. But they were very encouraging and cultured people.
Success in life is very poorly correlated with a person’s ability or merit. That is one of the strongest arguments for reducing inequalities.
Human brains haven’t changed very much since our ancestors roamed the African savannah 50,000 years ago. Our brains evolved to understand the everyday world, so it’s not surprising that they find something like quantum mechanics counterintuitive, or that Einstein’s theory of relativity is difficult to comprehend. It’s rather amazing that we’ve got so far.
Three years ago, I was involved in setting up the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. We’re a group concerned about risks to the whole world that humans can cause collectively or by misuse of technology. Ecological tipping points. Threats from biotech, cyber and AI. If we can reduce the probability of them by even one part in a million we’d have more than earned our keep. Can we do that? We’re raising the points that need to be raised.
One thing scientists share with religious people is the mystery and wonder of our world. I can’t accept religious dogmas, but nor am I in favour of aggressive atheists who rubbish religion. Understanding a single atom is hard enough, so I am sceptical of anyone who says they have more than an incomplete, metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality.
My predictions about the next 30 years are: more vegetarianism and more euthanasia. Am I vegetarian? I always choose fish if I can. Even if the world population rises to nine billion, we can feed everyone with factory farms and intensive agriculture. However, we will all have to become more vegetarian, and certainly can’t eat as much meat, or use as much energy, as present-day Americans do. Euthanasia is not the same as assisted dying, which is a decision made by someone of sound mind. I strongly support assisted dying and public opinion is 80 per cent in favour. It would be a comfort to many people, me included, to know that the option to end your life at the time of your choosing would be available in the UK.
Good practices for a long-lasting relationship are tolerance, understanding and respecting divergent opinions. Having similar political views helps, too. My wife and I are, in the words of the Daily Mail, “remoaners” and “saboteurs”.
We should learn less from the USA and more from Scandinavia.
To choose between noble causes requires knowing which one will alleviate immediate suffering. So, when the choice is between a trip to Mars or combatting global warming, we should try to make new technologies for the latter. Things like enhanced research and development into clean energy, smart grids, batteries and energy. The faster that research is done, the quicker the costs will come down and the more likely it will be that, for example, India, which needs more electric power, will leapfrog directly to clean energy without building coal-fired power stations.
I did a three-part series [What We Still Don’t Know] about 15 years ago on Channel 4. It got, by their standards, good ratings but I was dissatisfied with it. That was my fault in that I hadn’t given enough time to it, plus also feeling awkward appearing on TV. Only later I realised, through discussions with the “TV scientists”, how time-consuming it is to be a TV presenter. I don’t think it ’s possible to be a leading research scientist and to be a media star. The wellknown names—brian Cox, Alice Roberts, Neil [degrasse] Tyson, Jim Al-khalili etc—are all professional scientists but none has great research achievements. The only current exception to this trend is Robert Winston.