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Thinking space

The Astronomer Royal on aliens, atheism, and prospects for the apocalypse

17 December 2011

12:00 AM

17 December 2011

12:00 AM

Martin Rees is sitting in the Master’s Lodge of Trinity College, Cambridge, with a laptop balanced on his knee. ‘I want to show you this,’ he says, tapping the keys with long, neat fingernails. Two red swirls appear on either side of the screen, gliding towards each other. When they meet it’s messy, like two ripe tomatoes smashing together in mid-air. We are watching one of the most violent events in the universe. ‘That’s two galaxies colliding,’ he explains.

In five billion years our own galaxy may be one of the exploding fruit. That’s when the Milky Way is predicted to crash into Andromeda, creating an intergalactic splatter known as ‘Milkomeda’. But like many things in our universe, it’s far from certain. Few people are better equipped to follow this cosmic food fight than Rees. The emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge has worked on more than 500 research papers, expanding our understanding of such celestial exotica as gamma ray bursts, redshifts, quasars and black holes. Astronomy, one of the oldest sciences, has advanced dramatically in the past half century, thanks in no small part to Rees.

We now understand the ‘ultra-early universe’, as astrophysicists call it, with some precision. At first, the cosmos was like a bad nightclub: exceedingly hot and densely packed. Then came the Big Bang. A nanosecond later every particle in the expanding universe carried as much energy as can be generated by the Large Hadron Collider. Our sun was formed 4.5 billion years ago and will begin to die in another five billion. Our bodies are the result of four billion years of evolution and are composed of the ashes of dead stars.

But there are plenty of things astronomers still don’t know. What came before the Big Bang? What banged and why? And does Ming the Merciless really live on the planet Mongo, or are we all alone in the universe? Astrophysics is a bustling bazaar of competing explanations. Some researchers claim that there was not one Big Bang but many (eternal inflation), others that space has ten dimensions (superstring theory). When lecturing to non-scientists Rees likes to mention casually that there could be a three-dimensional universe just a millimetre away from us. But if that millimetre was measured in a fourth spatial dimension we would be completely unaware of it.

If you find that mind-blowing, you’re not unusual: the universe may be just too complicated for the three pounds of grey matter behind your eyes. ‘We should be amazed that our brains, which evolved to cope with the life of our remote ancestors, living on the African savannah, have been able to get so far in understanding the counter-intuitive world of the quantum and things in the universe,’ Rees says. ‘But just as a chimpanzee isn’t aware of the problems of quantum theory it seems to me that it’s conceivable that there are aspects of reality of which we are unaware.’

That reality may include aliens. Rees suggests that they could be right in front of us, but if they don’t have humanoid features we might never recognise them. Has he ever seen a UFO? ‘No, and I’m sceptical of anyone who claims they have done. If the aliens have come they wouldn’t just meet a few cranks or make a few corn circles and go away again.’

Rees looks severe in photos (like ‘a sparrowhawk sighting a wood pigeon’, as Prospect put it), but he is gentle in person. His long, straight nose gives him a bird-like appearance, but he’s more barn owl than beady-eyed predator. He was born in 1942 and grew up in Shropshire, attending a school run by his parents. He went from Shrewsbury School to Cambridge, and over the next four decades he assembled a stellar CV, working at Harvard, Princeton and Kyoto and scooping up armfuls of awards, including the Balzan and Crafoord prizes. He was knighted in 1992, named Astronomer Royal in 1995 and served as president of the Royal Society until last year.

But Rees is also well known for a more recent accolade: the £1 million Templeton prize, which he won in April. The Presbyterian investor Sir John Templeton created the prize in order to honour ‘entrepreneurs of the spirit’. The biologist and hardcore atheist P.Z. Myers called Rees ‘a soggy piece of toast’ for accepting a prize which implied that scientific discovery revealed something about the divine. Richard Dawkins had previously referred to Rees as a ‘compliant Quisling’ because he thought he was too friendly to the Templeton Foundation.

The episode was interesting because it highlighted a fault line in modern atheism that may prove to be as significant as the one that divides Catholics and Protestants. Myers and Dawkins are, of course, New Atheists. Rees describes himself as an ‘accommodationist’ who thinks that scientists should engage believers rather than harangue them. He is a ‘tribal Christian’ who appreciates the round arches of Ely cathedral and listening to King’s College choir sing Fauré’s In Paradisum. But he is no more of a believer than Dawkins. Rees might warm a pew in the college chapel this Christmas, but he will spend most of the holiday with a pile of astronomy books. He endorses the view of Woody Allen, who once said: ‘I’m astounded by people who want to “know” the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.’

‘This is one of my concerns about the motives of people who accept dogmatic religion,’ he says. ‘They want answers. And I think you should accept that most things are a mystery and may always remain so.’

Alongside the Templeton prize, Joe Public may recognise Rees from his 2004 Channel 4 series What We Still Don’t Know. Reviewers loved it. Rees thought it was awful. ‘I was rather unhappy with it,’ he says, sinking so deeply into his armchair that the shoulders of his suit jacket rise up to ear level. ‘But I realise that it was my fault. What I’ve learnt from talking to people who have made more successful programmes is that you have to commit a huge amount of time, and I didn’t. Since I didn’t, I can’t properly grumble that it didn’t come out the way I hoped it would.’

He admires the new generation of science presenters — Marcus du Sautoy, Jim Al-Khalili, Brian Cox — who have succeeded where he thinks he failed. ‘I may be a better lecturer, but they are better on the telly,’ he says. ‘They certainly look prettier.’

Unusually for a scientist, Rees loves politics. Inspired by the A-bomb pioneers turned peace campaigners Joseph Rotblat and Hans Bethe, he wants to contribute to public life, not just physics journals. In 2005, he was appointed to the Lords, taking the title Lord Rees of Ludlow and sitting as a crossbench peer.

‘I always describe myself as Old Labour. And I’ve become an angrier old man as I get older,’ he says, not looking the least bit angry. ‘It depresses me that none of the three major parties adequately prioritise attempts to reduce inequality. I also feel they ought to be more concerned about maintaining UK control of our core assets, like the infrastructure, water and airports. I’m also concerned about the downside of making workers insecure. So I’m a supporter of UK Uncut and similar campaigns.’

Does he support the Occupy movement? ‘Yes. I think most people do. Everyone knows that it is the top 1 per cent which have benefited financially in the past 20 years in the US and also in this country. And one feels that redressing that imbalance should be a higher priority.’

Rees plans to spend more time at the Lords when he steps down as Master of Trinity in June. The 69-year-old will also
devote himself to research and, when the time comes, hopes to be buried in a country churchyard according to the rites of the Anglican church. Does science offer any hope of an afterlife? ‘Um, I don’t think it does,’ he says. ‘It’s fairly clear that our thoughts are linked to physical events in our brain. I suppose my main hope is that my personality will survive until death. The sad case is when people lose their personalities through Alzheimer’s and suchlike. I have a wish that my personality will survive until my death, but certainly no expectation that it will survive beyond.

‘There’s a Californian futurologist who believes that life expectancy may increase so fast that he will live for ever. And there are a few eccentrics who do pay for their bodies to be frozen.’ Rees places his hands under his chin, miming decapitation. ‘The cut-price ones just freeze their heads.’ But that doesn’t appeal to him: he doesn’t think future generations would have any interest in defrosting a Cambridge don.

Rees accepts that he won’t survive the 21st century, but worries that neither will anyone else. ‘I think it’s most unlikely that we will wipe ourselves out completely,’ he says reassuringly. ‘But the risk of something as bad as a global nuclear war shouldn’t be dismissed.’ His greatest fear is that a small band of fanatics — he calls them the global village’s ‘village idiots’ — will get hold of world-altering technology. ‘And their idiocy could have global consequences if they are schooled in the kind of biotechnology that may be developed in the coming decades. I think it will be a bumpy ride.’

But the cranks may have to act fast. Some claim that we won’t even survive 2012 because a giant asteroid will destroy the Earth. ‘Complete nonsense,’ says Rees. ‘The point is that things like asteroids are quantifiable but very low risks. Those risks are no higher now than they were for the Neanderthals.’

So our leading astronomer has good news for those who aren’t looking forward to the New Year. Don’t worry: it’s not the end of the world.

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