Apr 3rd 2017

Aliens, very strange universes and Brexit  – Martin Rees Q&A

Martin Rees is Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, at the University of Cambridge, the Astronomer Royal, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, and a former President of the Royal Society. The following interview was conducted at Trinity College, Cambridge, by The Conversation’s Matt Warren.

Into space

Q: How big is the universe … and is it the only one?

Our cosmic horizons have grown enormously over the last century, but there is a definite limit to the size of the observable universe. It contains all the things from which light has been able to reach us since the Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago. But the new realisation is that the observable universe may not be all of reality. There may be more beyond the horizon, just as there’s more beyond the horizon when you’re observing the ocean from a boat.

Martin Rees in 2005

What’s more, the galaxies are likely to go on and on beyond this horizon, but more interestingly, there is a possibility that our Big Bang was not the only one. There may have been others, spawning other universes, disconnected from ours and therefore not observable, and possibly even governed by different physical laws. Physical reality on this vast scale could therefore be much more varied and interesting than what we can observe.

The universe we can observe is governed by the same laws everywhere. We can observe a distant galaxy and see that the atoms emitting the light are just the same as the ones in the lab. But there may be physical domains that are governed by completely different laws. Some may have no gravity, or not allow for nuclear physics. Ours may not even be a typical domain.

Even in our own universe, there are only so many ways you can assemble the same atoms, so if it is large enough it is possible that there is another Earth, even another avatar you. If this were the case, however, the universe would have to be bigger than the observable one by a number which to write down would require all the atoms in the universe. Rest assured, if there’s another you, they are a very, very long way away. They might even be making the same mistakes.

Q: So how likely is alien life in this vast expanse?

We know now that planets exist around many, even most, stars. We know that in our Milky Way galaxy there are likely millions of planets that are in many ways like the Earth, with liquid water. The question then is whether life has developed on them – and we can’t yet answer that.

Although we know how via Darwinian selection a complex biosphere evolved on Earth around 4 billion years ago, we don’t yet understand the actual origin of life – the transition from complex chemistry to the first metabolising, replicating structures. The good news is that we will have a better idea of how that happened within the next ten or 20 years and crucially, how likely it was to happen. This will give us a better understanding of how likely it is to happen elsewhere. In that time, we will also have technologies that will allow us to better search for alien life.

But just because there’s life elsewhere doesn’t mean that there is intelligent life. My guess is that if we do detect an alien intelligence, it will be nothing like us. It will be some sort of electronic entity.

If we look at our history on Earth, it has taken about 4 billion years to get from the first protozoa to our current, technological civilisation. But if we look into the future, then it’s quite likely that within a few centuries, machines will have taken over – and they will then have billions of years ahead of them.

In other words, the period of time occupied by organic intelligence is just a thin sliver between early life and the long era of the machines. Because such civilisations would develop at different rates, it’s extremely unlikely that we will find intelligent life at the same stage of development as us. More likely, that life will still be either far simpler, or an already fully electronic intelligence.

On intelligence

Q: Do you believe that machines will develop intelligence?

There are many people who would bet on it. The second question, however, is whether that necessarily implies consciousness – or whether that is limited to the wet intelligence we have within our skulls. Most people, however, would argue that it is an emergent property and could develop in a machine mind.

Q: So if the universe is populated by electronic super minds, what questions will they be pondering?

We can’t conceive that any more than a chimp can guess the things that we spend our time thinking about. I would guess, however, that these minds aren’t on planets. While we depend on a planet and an atmosphere, these entities would be happy in zero G, floating freely in space. This might make them even harder to detect.

Q: How would humanity respond to the discovery of alien life?

It would certainly make the universe more interesting, but it would also make us less unique. The question is whether it would provoke in us any sense of cosmic modesty. Conversely, if all our searches for life fail, we’d know more certainly that this small planet really is the one special place, the single pale, blue dot where life has emerged. That would make what happens to it not just of global significance, but an issue of galactic importance, too.

And we are likely to be fixed to this world. We will be able to look deeper and deeper into space, but travelling to worlds beyond our solar system will be a post-human enterprise. The journey times are just too great for mortal minds and bodies. If you’re immortal, however, these distances become far less daunting. That journey will be made by robots, not us.

Q: What scientific advances would you like to see over the coming century?

Cheap, clean energy, for one. Artificial meat is another. But the idea is often easier than the application. I like to tell my students the story of two beavers standing in front of a huge hydroelectric dam. “Did you build that?” asks one. “No,” says the other. “But it is based on my idea”. That’s the essential balance between scientific insight and engineering development.

On expertise

Q: Michael Gove [the British politician who was a leader of the campaign for the UK to leave the EU] said people have had enough of experts. Have they?

I wouldn’t expect anything more from Mr Gove, but there is clearly a role for experts. If we’re sick, we go to a doctor, we don’t look randomly on the internet. But we must also realise that most experts only have expertise within their own area, and if we are scientists we should accept that. When science impacts on public policy, there will be elements of economics, ethics and politics where we as scientists speak only as laymen. We need to know where the demarcation line is between where we are experts and where we are just citizens.

If you want to influence public policy as a scientist, there are two ways to do it. You can aspire to be an adviser within government, which can be very frustrating. Or you can try and influence policy indirectly. Politicians are very much driven by what’s in their inbox and what’s in the press, so the scientists with the greatest influence are those who go public, and speak to everyday people. If an idea is picked up by voters, the politicians won’t ignore it.

Q: Brexit – good or bad?

I am surprised to find myself agreeing with Lord Heseltine [former UK Conservative government minister] and Tony Blair [former Labour prime minister], but it is a real disaster, which we have stumbled into. There is a lot of blame to be shared around, by Boris Johnson et al, but also by Jeremy Corbyn [leader of the UK Labour party] for not fighting his corner properly. I have been a member of the Labour Party for a very long time, but I feel badly let down by Corbyn – especially as Labour voters supported Remain two to one. He has been an ineffective leader, and also ambivalent on this issue. A different leader, making a vocal case for Remain, could have tilted the vote.

On the other side, Boris Johnson [now UK foreign secretary – who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU] has been most reprehensible. At least Gove has opinions, which he has long expressed. Boris Johnson had no strong opinions, and the honourable thing to do if that is the case is to remain quiet. But he changed his stance opportunistically (as in the Eton debating society) and swung the vote.

Q: But why is it such a disaster?

My concerns are broad geopolitical ones. In the world as it is now, with America becoming isolationist and an increasingly dominant Russia, for Europe to establish itself as a united and powerful counterweight is more important than ever. We are jeopardising something that has held Europe together, in peace, for 60 years, and could also break up the United Kingdom in the process. We will be remembered for that and it is something to deplore.

One thing astronomers bring to the table is an awareness that we have a long potential future, as well as the universe’s long past – and that this future could be jeopardised by what happens in the coming decades.

Q: More broadly, how much danger is the human race in?

I have spent a lot of time considering how we as a species can make it into the next century – and there are two main classes of problems. First, the collective impact of humanity as its footprint on the planet increases due to a growing population more demanding of resources. Second, the possible misuse by error or design of ever more powerful technology – and most worryingly, bio-tech.

There is certainly a high chance of a major global setback this century, most likely from the second threat, which increasingly allows individual groups to have a global impact. Added to this is the fact that the world is increasingly connected, so anything that happens has a global resonance. This is something new and actually makes us more vulnerable as a species than at any time in our past.

Q: So terrorism will pose an even greater threat in the coming century?

Yes, because of these technologies, terrorists or fanatics will be able to have a greater impact. But there’s also the simple danger of these technologies being misused. Engineering or changing viruses, for example, can be used in benign ways – to eradicate Zika, for example – but there’s obviously a risk that such things can get out of control.

Nuclear requires large, conspicuous and heavily-protected facilities. But the facilities needed for bio-tech, for example, are small-scale, widely understood, widely available and dual use. It is going to be very hard indeed properly to regulate it.

In the short and intermediate term, this is even more worrying than the risks posed by climate change – although in the long term, that will be a very major problem, especially as both people and politicians find it very difficult to focus on things further down the line.

I have been very involved in campaigns to get all countries involved in research and development into alternative, clean energy sources. Making them available and cheap is the only way we are going to move towards a low carbon future. The level of money invested in this form of research should be equivalent to the amount spent on health or defence, and nuclear fusion and fourth generation nuclear fission should be part of that.

Q: In the medieval world, people would start building cathedrals that only later generations would finish. Have we lost that long-term perspective?

That’s right. In fact, one very important input behind the political discussion prior to the Paris climate agreement was the 2015 Papal Encyclical. I’m a council member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which helped to initiate the scientific meetings which were important in ensuring that the encyclical was a highly respected document. Whatever one thinks of the Catholic church, one cannot deny its long-term vision, its global range and its concern for the world’s poor. I believe that the encyclical, six months before the Paris conference, had a big impact on the leaders and people in South America, Africa and Asia. Religion clearly still has a very important role to play in the world.

Q: Have you ever encountered anything in the cosmos that has made you wonder whether a creator was behind it?

No. Personally, I don’t have any religious beliefs. But I describe myself as a cultural Christian, in that I was brought up in England and the English church was an important part of that. Then again, if I had been born in Iran, I’d probably go to the mosque.

Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Browse articles by author

More Essays

Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."
Nov 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "I imagined America as the land of the free that gave voice to the forgotten. Where race, color, and creed do not matter and human rights are guarded with zeal. Where the ingathering of all cultures and people made it richer and human resources and talent knew no limits or constraints. Where opportunity awaits the able and generosity is extended to the needy. Where everyone is equal before the law and political differences are valued to make America better. Where sacrifices are willingly made to right the wrong morals and fortitude guide its leaders. Where caring about friends and allies is the hallmark of the nation and opposing oppression near and far is the emblem that distinguished America. This is the character of America. This is the soul of America. This is what made America great. The America that gave me a home. The America that fulfilled my dreams."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."