Festival of Science, Cheltenham: Martin Rees on Life in the Cosmos

In terms of UK Science, I can’t think of a bigger name than Martin Rees, or to give him his proper title, Baron Rees of Ludlow. President of the Royal Society, Astronomer Royal, with if you will pardon the pun a stellar career in academia, and author of a number of highly acclaimed books, one of which, Just Six Numbers, I frequently reference and quote as it is so beautifully and clearly written. When it comes to the public understanding of science Lord Rees is a giant, and I think many of my generation accord him the respect my dad holds for Sir Patrick Moore for sheer verve in presentation.  Suffice to say I have immense respect for the chap, and when I heard that he was speaking and Dave R offered to buy us both tickets I leapt at the chance.

This was the best attended of all the events I went to all week, held in the EDF tent, and sponsored by Winton Capital, a hedge fund management company about whom I know nothing but am delighted that they chose to sponsor this event so if you have money unlike me I guess you should have a look at their site, and their reputation is very good I was told. The whole Science Festival was also sponsored by Pfizer — while I am known for my distaste for the world of finance and “big business”, I thoroughly applaud and respect those companies who invest in science education so I have taken the time to mention them, and hope you understand and will bear them some good will for their generous corporate sponsorship. Well done to them all for investing in our future.

So anyway, it was very busy, and I was surprised at how the demographic had shifted; the audience was on average older, with a higher proportion of men, but also ranged from maybe 7 to their mid to late 80’s, all united by their love of astronomy.  It was heartening to see so many people there, especially given the torrential rain and high winds that buffeted the marquee alarmingly. Indeed after the sunshine of the last few days the Science Festival in the rain was a desolate sight.

A rain swept Cheltenham Science Festival

The talk opened with a picture of Sir Isaac Newton (“a really unattractive man”) and after that laugh was spiced with humour throughout.  Newton in the Principia calculated the velocity needed for a cannonball to enter orbit, which I always find hard to envisage as what it is, a kind of endless falling! And then we were off, for a really wide ranging discussion of all kinds of fascinating aspects of space, from the scales of the universe, cosmic inflation, event horizons through Cosmological Fine Tuning (on which Rees was admirably open minded saying the question can not currently be resolved as far as I could make out), manned versus robotic space travel and much much more.

One thing that really shocked me was when Lord Rees pointed out that there is only 66 years from the Wright Brothers first powered flight to the first men walking on the moon, some 42 years ago now.  I thought for a moment that our knowledge of space may be stagnating, then I realised as Rees spoke on the tremendous achievements of those 42 years in terms of unmanned space exploration, and thought of my shock on first seeing pictures taken on Mars, and just how far our probes have gone – Voyager is now approaching the edge of the solar system. Still from Kitty Hawk to the moon in less than a single lifetime – indeed my grandmother lived through both events, and long enough to see the Pathfinder missions to Mars, yet as she once told me as a young girls she had disliked aeroplanes believing they would disturb the angels in the clouds! (She remained deeply if unorthodoxly religious, and curious about scientific discoveries, right till her death.)

This is what Rees does so well: he uses brilliant illustrations that make you think. A picture of an Ouroborous showing the cosmic scale of things was really gripping, with humanity falling right in the middle from the atomic scale through to the astronomical. If you have read Just Six Numbers you will be familiar with this, but still nice to see again. Another interesting thought which surprised me was that to today’s kids the moon landings are something old, historic, “like the Wild West”.  I was born in the year of the moon landings, and when I was young we were all excited by space travel, and many of my friends wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. ( I hoped to be an archaeologist, and ended up a third-rate ghost hunter. These things happen!) Now few kids would aspire that way — this is one of the themes Marina Benjamin explores in her fascinating little book Rocket Dreams, where she charts with nostalgia how my generations love of Space, the final frontiers has been replaced by a new generation who seek potentialities in the unlimited fantasies and virtual worlds of cyberspace.  Well worth reading that book actually.

Lord Rees at the book signing after the event

I did not have a notepad on me to take notes, so I scribbled some phrases on my ticket. One thing I found very interesting was the idea that “nowhere in the solar system is as hospitable as even the top of Everest or the South Pole.”  Still Martin Rees remains as always an optimist about our potential, while pessimistic about politics, with I think good cause. “A technological optimist, a political pessimist” was how he put it as I recall.

He ended stating that this century has a special responsibility, as we can finally destroy our evolutionary progress and throw it al away by destroying ourselves, or perhaps move on in to space, or something to that effect. I’m going to end though with my favourite quote of the  whole talk, that hopefully I have got right…

It is better to read first-rate science fiction than second-rate science, more entertaining; and no more likely to be wrong

– Martin Rees

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About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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One Response to Festival of Science, Cheltenham: Martin Rees on Life in the Cosmos

  1. hemp says:

    He is a rare individual in that his sense of mystery and wonder for distant worlds and other forms of life doesnt eclipse his awe of humankind..He argues that even science is not unassailable and its truths can be quite difficult to grasp. In fact the mere questions that scientists ask today could not have even been imagined 30 years ago..We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation which were aggregating and reposting for those who werent able to follow along.

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