An audience watches IMAX 3D footage filmed by astronauts during the STS-125 Hubble Repair Mission in 2009. (photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA)
With Martin Rees as with other scientists I’ve interviewed across the years, I’m utterly intrigued by the language he uses to describe the stuff of his inquiry, the ideas that drive the work of his days — the deep structure of space and time, extreme phenomena in the cosmos.
He is an aristocrat in several senses in the world of British science. He’s a member of the House of Lords and holds the honorific title of Astronomer Royal. He recently ended a five-year term as president of The Royal Society, the august scientific fellowship to which Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking have all belonged. Yet the great value of this conversation, I think, is Martin Rees’ skill in bringing the vast frontiers of science down to earth, so to speak. He sees them, and is able to describe them, as matters for public understanding and pondering.
So, for example, he uses an analogy that became the playful title of this show. As he discusses the possibility of parallel realities — once the stuff of science fiction — he asks us to picture worlds that might be out of our range of perception because they are tightly rolled up in space like origami. Or we might be like ants on a flat plane, assured that the contours of our known world are all there is. But just beyond of our range of perception, other planes also teem with life.
In his conversation with me as in the prestigious Reith Lectures he gave in Britain in 2010, Martin Rees is especially good at evoking the great puzzles that physics carried from the 20th century into our own. There are the predictable laws of physics at cosmic scales that Einstein brilliantly described. Then there is the wild, anything goes “microworld” of reality at the smallest scales — the scale where cosmic origami might happen. I remember another great physicist, Freeman Dyson, describing this as the difference between the rules of nature at the “mountaintops” and in the “rainforest.”
And I find a great and strange comfort in Martin Rees’ desire to loop in a third level of complexity that begs for some kind of unity with the other two — that of life. He makes the remarkable assertion that human beings are the most extreme complex phenomena in the cosmos by far. It is possible, he says, to say definitively true things about the workings of stars — but not to say anything that is even remotely definitively true about dieting or child care.
In fact, on scientific frontiers from cosmology to genetics, new and complicated ethical and philosophical questions are being raised that need deliberation precisely in relation to complex human life. In his Reith Lectures, he named a few: How will our lengthening life spans effect society? Who should access the readout of our personal genetic code? Should the law allow designer babies? Should we use nuclear power or wind farms?
For pursuing this kind of inquiry, Martin Rees was awarded the 2011 Templeton Prize for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” He took some sharp criticism from some scientists and atheists for accepting the prize.
In the spirit of full disclosure, On Being receives funding for some of our shows from the John Templeton Foundation. But what brought him to our attention, compellingly, is that Martin Rees himself is firmly atheist. He is in fact as little interested in science-religion dialogue as in science-religion battles. Rather, in his third way between the two, he sees religious people as essential allies in the philosophical and ethical challenges that are being raised on scientific frontiers.
I’m grateful for the language Martin Rees uses to describe the role he’s discovered along this path — a calling to be a “science citizen.” His is an eloquent voice for many of our listeners, I think, who find the labels of “atheist” and “agnostic” too narrow if they seem to rule out ethical and spiritual life, however broadly defined. And he helpfully points at practical starting points for non-religious and religious to pursue meaning and mystery in our age — together, and with humility all around.