Martin Rees

‘We should all be evangelists for new technology’ - Professor Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

Image credit: Nick Smith

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees discusses engineering within the scope of science and why we should listen to Greta Thunberg above other climate influencers.

“We should all be evangelists for new technology,” says Martin Rees. We live in a world where “the global population footprint is getting heavier. The grand global challenges can only be solved with the assistance of new technology. Our everyday lives are substantially eased by the developments of science over the past century, but we now have to look forward at areas like bio and cyber to see how technology can empower us more.

“If you look at the Covid-19 pandemic,” says the Astronomer Royal, “in enabling us to get vaccines within a year, science was our salvation.” The international co-ordination of scientific effort and manufacturing capacity of the global pharmaceutical industry that compressed the time required to bring vaccines to the public to less than a year, represents for Rees, “a good example of how science can feed into human welfare very quickly”.

Now in his 80th year – his birthday was commemorated by a special edition of ‘The Sky at Night’ – the cosmologist and astrophysicist perhaps best known for his work on black holes and the formation of galaxies, has logged his views on these broader challenges in his book ‘If Science is to Save Us’.

It’s not all good news. The other side of the coin to the Covid-19 vaccine example is that “it is now possible to construct artificially modified viruses which are more transmissible than real ones. One of the things I discuss is that a few bad actors now have the ability to cause global devastation by, for instance, releasing an engineered virus. This is a big challenge to governance: to cope with possibilities such as this and, analogously, cyber attacks that can destroy or disable infrastructure such as national power grids. There are downsides to technology, and the stakes are higher because the threats are big.”

At this point, Rees refers to an “extraordinarily prescient” quotation from more than a century ago in which H G Wells expressed that survival would depend on “a race between education and catastrophe”.

In ‘If Science is to Save Us’, Rees discusses the global challenges facing the Anthropocene era, an unofficial term given to the time humans have had a substantial impact on the planet, expressed as a geologic epoch. To address such issues – that include threats to the biosphere, the climate and energy crises, biotechnology, cyber warfare and artificial intelligence – “scientists have an obligation to promote beneficial applications of their work”.

He uses the word ‘scientist’ in a broader context than you might imagine the Astronomer Royal would, to explicitly include engineers. This is because the need to harness our prowess as problem-solvers has never been so pressing, which means the scientific world needs to “embrace technology and engineering as well. Problem-solving motivates us all – whether one is an engineer facing a novel design challenge or an astronomer probing the remote cosmos. And having myself had a career focused on academic science, I want to emphasise that, despite their symbiosis with ‘pure’ science, it’s the ‘applied’ activities that engage far more brainpower and resources.”

Rees says these days we’ve become accustomed to the expression ‘follow the science’ that gained traction through repetition from the daily media briefings during the coronavirus pandemic. He comments that “there’s never been a time when ‘experts’ have had such public prominence,” but there is a problem of over-simplification because while “politicians must take cognisance of expert advice”, the same experts are necessarily dealing in the ‘organised scepticism’ of scientific uncertainty, while politicians are suspicious of variability. “In reaching decisions this advice must be tensioned against other factors: the feasibility and public acceptability of particular measures, and their economic and human costs.”
Rees goes on to say that the pandemic helped with the public understanding of science due to the visibility of experts “dealing with urgent matters”.

It was clear, says Rees, that they were “groping for the truth early on over matters such as the wearing of masks and mutation rates. But all that got clarified and the public was able to understand that in real time. The government chief scientists did a good job in explaining all this without being too technical. It was an educative experience.”

‘Science popularisers keeping long-term issues like climate on the agenda.’

Professor Martin Rees

More generally, Rees believes that “it is important that the public is aware of the scope and limits of science at all times. But ethics, politics and economics come into this as well,” creating scenarios where competing ideas – such as imposing lockdown versus the negative effects of restricting access to school education – “need to be balanced”. It is important to remember “that scientists are only experts within science”, while politicians need to bring in the views of other people “to make important decisions based democratically on wide discussion. If that discussion is to rise above the level of slogans, then the public does require a feel for science, which the UK’s education system is not providing us with very well today. We need this feel of science so that we can be informed voters on the increasing number of issues where there is a scientific dimension, such as health, energy and the environment.”
Advising politicians is a tough job, says Rees.

“To be fair to them, they have an urgent agenda with lots of things on their plate that have to happen immediately. Long-term issues, even if important, therefore tend to get not enough attention. Covid was one case where it was simultaneously scientifically important and urgent, which was why it got the attention that it did.” He goes on to say that he’s known government scientific advisers who have been frustrated by not being able to get their voice heard, which is why “what journalists do – and others who popularise science – is crucially important”, when politicians find themselves in a pressure situation. As former President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said: “We know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected when we’ve done it.”

When it comes to decisions about climate, policy decisions “involve extra expense now for the benefit of the far future. But politicians tend to discount what will happen after their term of office, as well as putting less priority on what will happen in remoter parts of the world.” When trying to advise politicians on issues that are distant in time and global in reach, “given their short-term focus and their local constituency, that’s hard. The only way we can make this happen is to ensure that the voters are aware of these issues.”

The only certain way of making sure that planning horizons beyond the timeframe of the political cycle are considered, says Rees, is by “science popularisers keeping long-​term issues like climate on the agenda”. For proof of the efficiency of the idea, Rees refers to what he calls a “rather disparate quartet” of influencers on the climate debate: Pope Francis, David Attenborough, Bill Gates and Greta Thunberg. Of the four, perhaps Thunberg is the most important, “because there’s the possibility that she’ll still be alive at the end of the 21st century: and so we should listen to her in particular”.

Astronomers deal with vast timescales that are incomprehensible to most of us. And so is it a paradox that Rees, who is perhaps more accustomed to publishing on concepts such as cosmic microwave background radiation or the distribution of quasars, should be focused today on a temporal span that is minuscule compared with that he encounters in his day job? The short answer is ‘not really’. This is because being an astronomer “has the effect of giving one the awareness of what it means to have a long future”.
He says he hopes most people are aware of the scientific fact of evolution that has spanned over a billion years from the emergence of the first lifeforms “of which we are a part. But many think that somehow we are the culmination at the top of the tree.”

On the other hand, “astronomers are aware that the Sun is less than halfway through its life and the universe has potentially an almost infinite future”. Which means they are more likely to think of humans as just one stage in an emerging and complex process. On the timeline of millions of centuries stretching in both directions, the past 100 years represents what Rees calls a “special century ... the first in which one species has the planet’s future in its hands”.

Thinking in centuries is useful for Rees, who reminds us that the engineering community routinely references the achievements of the Industrial Revolution, such as Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s London sewer system that played such an effective role in relieving the capital of cholera epidemics. “So it may well be that we need to think centuries ahead too.”
One of the inevitable realisations we come to, when looking at science in units of centuries, is that it is new. Our planet has existed for 45 million centuries and yet the word scientist didn’t come into circulation until the 19th century, when it was coined by William Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge (coincidentally, Rees was from 2004-2012 also Master of the same establishment).

Furthermore, “the link between science and technology didn’t exist in the old days. Of course, there’s been a huge amount of folk wisdom over the centuries and enough technology to build cathedrals and all that. There was great experience of technology in various areas, but historically it wasn’t based on scientific ideas. The steam engine wasn’t built on any understanding of thermodynamics – that came later.”

It’s only since mid-Victorian times that there’s been a symbiosis between scientific ideas and their application. “Now, of course, we know there is a two-way exchange between science research at universities and its application. It’s too naïve to say that there’s a scientific discovery and then it’s applied, because there’s also the reverse trend in that better instruments carry forward science.”

Advances in astronomy, says Rees, have been predicated on better engineering rather than deeper thought. At one point in his book, he points out that today we’re no wiser than the philosophers of Ancient Greece: we’ve just got better machines now. Also, “there’s often quite a long delay between a discovery and its application”. At this point Rees describes a cartoon that’s popular among his engineering friends, in which two beavers are looking up at a colossal human-made dam. One beaver turns to the other and says: “I didn’t actually build it, but it’s based on my idea.”

The title of Rees’s latest book – ‘If Science is to Save Us’ – is an unfinished thought, possibly containing a fundamental ambiguity depending on whether you think of it as starting or ending a sentence. It can be read as a warning or a note of optimism, which seems to encapsulate the author’s position. “I’d describe myself as a scientific optimist but political pessimist,” says Rees, “in that I think that science if properly applied can produce a world which, for everyone in it, is as good as the one that we enjoy in the prosperous ‘global north’. In fact, present-day science, without any new discoveries, could have that effect. But we are hoping for new developments that will create new opportunities. Just as microelectronics and vaccines have transformed the world, there may be others. In particular, high-tech food production is going to be an important and benign technology.”

Yet on the other hand, “the political challenges are great, and the current political situation is dismal, and the worry about restraining bad actors is going to be a real challenge to governments”. Rees thinks the price we are going to pay for safety and security as the 21st century unfolds is that “we’re going to have to give up on the idea of privacy in order to avoid there being people who can use readily available technology to produce massive, even global-scale, catastrophes via cyber or biotechnology. We’re going to have a bumpy ride through the century, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to avoid setbacks like that.”

The Achilles Heel for Rees could be as obvious as the internet’s ability to keep functioning. He ponders how much worse the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic might have been had the internet failed. It would have been harder for governments to communicate with the public, for members of society to keep in touch, for scientists to exchange ideas. And while the internet is prone to sabotage, Rees thinks it more likely to just break down: “I worry about us becoming over-dependent on complex globe-spanning technology. So I do have this mix of optimism and pessimism.”

‘If Science is to Save Us’ by Martin Rees is from Polity Books, £20

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