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22 September 2021

Martin Rees Q&A: “There is a widening gap between the way the world is and the way it could be”

The astrophysicist on life at Cambridge, GK Chesterton’s advice, and fearing the worst for the planet.

By New Statesman

Martin Rees was born in York in 1942 and is the UK’s Astronomer Royal. His research interests include space exploration, black holes, the multiverse and prospects for extraterrestrial life.

What’s your earliest memory?

A happy one – our family’s arrival at the home in the Shropshire countryside where I spent my childhood.

Who are your heroes?

Joseph Rotblat – prime exemplar of a concerned scientist. He worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos but thereafter dedicated his long life to nuclear disarmament.

What book last changed your thinking?

The report by my friend Partha Dasgupta on “the economics of biodiversity” spells out the case for valuing “natural capital” and highlights concerns about population growth. Let’s hope it’s at least as influential as Nicholas Stern’s climate report.

Which political figure do you look up to?

To paraphrase Margaret Mead: “It takes only a few determined people to change the world – indeed nothing else ever has.” If there are such people today, they aren’t politicians. Though I admire Gordon Brown, who met his biggest challenge – the 2008 financial crisis – successfully, and has not enriched himself in his “afterlife”.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

The biggest possible niche topic: theories of the multiverse.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

For most people, conditions improved in the past 50 years. But sadly I wouldn’t bet that this trend will continue. So I’d stick with the “here and now”.

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What TV show could you not live without?

I watch BBC shows on politics and wildlife. Top choices are The Andrew Marr Show and anything fronted by David Attenborough.

Who would paint your portrait?

I already had one done for the National Portrait Gallery by Benjamin Sullivan – a brilliant hyper-realist who later won first prize in the BP Portrait Award. He painted me, my chair, laptop and coffee mug in meticulous detail.

What’s your theme tune?

Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, which was used in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

GK Chesterton averred: “If a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly.” I regret not following this advice and devoting time to painting, gardening, proper cooking, etc.

What’s currently bugging you?

It’s dismaying that – despite the huge potential benefits science offers – there is a widening gap between the way the world is and the way it could be. We need to think longer-term, globally and rationally.

What single thing would make your life better?

A change of government.

When were you happiest?

Now. Here in Cambridge, retired professors are humanely treated. I’m grateful to still be in an environment offering stimulus and new opportunities.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I especially envy those who have the musical talent to become composers.

Are we all doomed?

I hope not but fear the worst. The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this is the first when one species – ours – can determine the planet’s future. It’s now our turn to be good ancestors.

“On the Future: Prospects for Humanity” by Martin Rees, with an updated post-Covid preface, is published by Princeton University Press on 5 October

[see also: Gina Yashere’s Q&A: “This planet needs a good shakedown. Wipe it out, start again, Etch A Sketch-style”]

This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play