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.

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