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4th May 2022

Lord Martin Rees: Astronomy brings ‘a special perspective’ on work and life

Lord Martin Rees

As the Astronomer-Royal, I would argue that it’s a great luxury to look at the stars – but then the cosmos is part of our environment. It is the unique part of it which has been observed and wondered at by all human beings everywhere in the world’s large history. They’ve all gazed up at the same vault of heaven.

To be more technical, every atom in our bodies was made in a star which lived and died some 5,000 years ago. I think the public is fascinated by this, just as they are about dinosaurs – which I suppose some people might say are irrelevant now. So I’m not apologetic for trying to understand space.

Besides, space technology is used for practical purposes. By observing things in the cosmos we can study the laws of nature under far more extreme conditions than you could ever simulate on earth: more intense radiation, and longer gravity and so forth, so that one can understand more deeply the laws of nature.

If people ask if there any other special perspectives which astronomy allows me to bring to everyday affairs, it is perhaps the awareness of a long future. Most people who accept Darwinian evolution, they’re aware that we’re the outcome of nearly four billion years of evolution, but I think many think that we humans are the culmination of all that and the top of the tree. No astronomer can believe that, because earth is less than halfway through its life – the sun has six billion years to go until it dies. And the universe may have an infinite future head of it. I might quote Woody Allen who said: “Infinity is very long, especially towards the end.” We are perhaps nearer the beginning than the end of more and more wonderful complexity, and although that’s a vastly longer time scale than one can easily imagine, it gives a different perspective.

We should share the mystery and wonder of the universe, but we should accept that our brains may not understand the depths of it, just as a monkey can’t understand quantum theory.

Astronomy also engenders humility. Most students find it pretty hard to understand even a single atom. Therefore I’m very sceptical of anyone who claims to have more than a very incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality. It’s why I’m suspicious of doctrinal religion, though I do support the social function of religion as a way of bringing people together.

Religion is part of our culture. I was brought up traditionally in the Anglican church, and hugely value the accretions of architecture and musicianship. But if I were born in Iran, I’d feel the same way about Islam, and in the same spirit.

As a writer, I’m very much on a computer. I have friends who write books, who start with a sheet of paper, begin at the beginning and go on. I’m not like that – I write bits and it gradually comes into focus. The books I’ve written have all grown out of having written articles and lecture notes. I would never sit down with a fresh topic and write a book out of the blue. 

Most jobs involve some aspect of mathematics and some sort of skill with computers. Science should be regarded as part of our culture. Small kids are fascinated by space and dinosaurs. The tragedy is that as they get older they lose interest in that rather than broadening it to embrace the rest of science and this is partly due to the lack of inspirational teachers in secondary schools.

Everyone needs to have some feel for science. We need to know how the world works and where our food comes from. It’s sad that there are young people who’ve never seen a dark sky or a birds’ nest or never been on a farm – or couldn’t say where their liver is in relation to their stomach. One feels everyone ought to know a bit about basic numeracy too, so they can’t be bamboozled by statistics. It’s also important for responsible citizens, due to the implications in relation to climate and environment. If you want the debate to rise above the level of Daily Mail slogans, everyone needs a basic understanding of science. For science to be optimised, we need to have a public who understands it well enough to be part of democratic discussion.

Lord Rees is the Astronomer-Royal and the author of numerous books, most recently On the Future (Princeton University Press)

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