Interview Spotlight: Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

Interview Spotlight: Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

In our latest interview, we have the privilege of talking to Astronomer Royal Professor Martin Rees, The Lord Rees of Ludlow, OM, FRS, FREng, FMedSci, FBA (Hon). The internationally renowned cosmologist and astrophysicist talks about how to successfully engage the public with science and gives us an insight into his latest book ‘On the Future: Prospects for Humanity’.

Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

The interview

You are a prominent figure in science and the author of seven books of popular science. As an expert science communicator, your books are written in a way that the general public can relate to. Do you have any advice for researchers about how to successfully convey their research findings to the public?

“The world’s future depends on making wise choices about key societal challenges: energy, health, food, robotics, environment, space and so forth. These choices involve science. But these choices shouldn’t be made just by scientists. They matter to us all and should be the outcome of wide public debate. For that to happen, we all need enough ‘feel’ for the key ideas of science, and enough numeracy to assess hazards, probabilities, and risks, so as not to be bamboozled by experts or credulous of populist sloganising. Moreover, quite apart from their practical use, these ideas should be part of our common culture. More than that, science is the one culture that’s truly global: protons, proteins, and Pythagoras are the same from China to Peru. Science should transcend all barriers of nationality. And it should straddle all faiths too.  To grasp the key ideas isn’t so difficult. Most of us appreciate music even if we can’t compose it, or even perform it. Likewise, the key ideas of science can be accessed and enjoyed by almost everyone — if conveyed using nontechnical words and simple images. The technicalities may be daunting, but they can be left to the specialists. However, how science is applied concerns us all.

Findings and concerns need to inform planning and policy. So how is this best done? Direct ties forged with politicians and senior officials can help, and links with NGOs and the private sector too. But experts who’ve served as government advisors have often had frustratingly little influence. Politicians are, however, influenced by their inbox and by the press. Scientists can sometimes achieve more as ‘outsiders’ and activists, leveraging their message via widely read books, campaigning groups, blogging and journalism, or, albeit via a variety of perspective, through political activity.

If their voices are echoed and amplified by a wide public, and by the media, long-term global causes will rise on the political agenda. Iconic images can help: the polar bear on its melting ice-floe has had a long-term influence on attitudes to climate police, and more recently ‘Blue Planet 2’ pushed oceanic pollution up the agenda via the filming of an albatross returning from thousands of miles foraging in the Southern Ocean regurgitating plastic rather than the hoped-for nourishment.

A special obligation lies on those in academia or on self-employed entrepreneurs; they have more freedom to engage in public debate than those employed in government service or in industry. Academics, moreover, have the special opportunity to influence students. Polls show, unsurprisingly, that younger people, who expect to survive most of the century, are more engaged and anxious about long-term and global issues.”

You were elected to the Academia Europaea in 1989, a year after the Academia was established. You have said previously that Astronomy and space science are subjects where pan-European collaboration has been strong and effective. How do you see future collaboration?

“One of the most gratifying trends in the last few decades has been the rise in the whole spectrum of European science. When I was a postdoc, around 1970, I met my contemporaries from Germany, Italy and Holland because we all went for a spell in the US. Now, those who get PhDs from our Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, a world leading centre, are more likely to do a postdoc in Germany, Holland or France, and there’s an equivalent flow in the other direction. In the ‘big sciences’ of astronomy and particle physics, the best facilities are now European, not American.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research has been the leading facility in particle physics for the last 20 years. In astronomy, the European Southern Observatory (another European Consortium) has the world’s best optical telescope — four 8 metre instruments linked together, and is building a next-generation telescope bigger than is planned in the US. And, in space technology, although NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) had a much higher profile and bigger budget than ESA (European Space Agency), most of NASA’s effort goes on the manned programme — in science the two agencies are roughly level-pegging. Fortunately these international consortia are governed by separate conventions from the EU so won’t be unduly damaged by Brexit. There are some complications regarding ESA, because it has direct EU funding for some of its applied work, e.g. the ‘Galileo’ project – an improved GPS – which has security implications. And of course Brexit will be damaging insofar as it impedes freedom of movement, and makes the UK seem less welcoming, and less ‘plugged in’ to global academia.”

Your latest book is called ‘On the Future: Prospects for Humanity’. Could you summarise your greatest concerns highlighted in the book.

“Advances in technology have led to a world where most people enjoy a safer, longer, and more satisfying life than previous generations, and these positive trends could continue. On the other hand, environmental degradation, unchecked climate change, and unintended consequences of advanced technology are collaterals of these advances. A world with a higher population more demanding of energy and resources and more empowered by technology could trigger serious, even catastrophic, setbacks to our society. There’s an institutional failure to plan long-term, and plan globally.

Politicians look to their own voters and the next election. Stockholders expect a payoff in the short run. We downplay what’s happening even now in faraway countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for new generations. Without a broader perspective, without realizing that we’re all on this crowded world together, governments won’t properly prioritise projects that are long-term in a political perspective, even if a mere instant in the history of the planet. This is the first century, in the 45 million since our Earth formed, where one species — ours — can determine the planet’s future.

It would be a shaming contrast with our forebears if, despite our far greater knowledge and wider horizons, we persisted in short-term policies that denied future generations a fair inheritance. Our perspectives should be global and stretch at least a century ahead. Our responsibility to our children, to the poorest, and to preserve life’s diversity surely demands nothing less. Activists and experts by themselves can’t sustain political commitment to these long-term issues. Only if their voice is amplified by a wide public, and by the media, will long-term global causes rise high enough on the political agenda.”

How does an astronomer come to make predictions that are relevant to society?

“My own scientific field, cosmology, has a history of expanding horizons. We’ve had three ‘Copernican’ revolutions: the original  realisation that the Earth went round the Sun, not vice versa; then realising that our Sun was one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way; and then the discovery that there are billions of other galaxies, that have all emerged from a hot dense beginning, the ‘big bang’. We’re perhaps due for a fourth revolution: what we’ve traditionally called ‘the universe’, the aftermath of ‘our’ big bang, may be just one patch of space and time in a perhaps infinite archipelago. There may have been many big bangs, not just one. The patch of physical reality that we can observe could be as constricted, in relation to the whole, as the perspective of the Earth available to a plankton whose ‘universe’ is a spoonful of water. Odd though it may seem, some of the best-understood phenomena are far away in the cosmos. 

Astronomers can convincingly attribute tiny vibrations in a gravitational wave detector to a ‘crash’ between two black holes more than a billion light years from Earth. In contrast, our grasp of some everyday matters that interest us all, diet and childcare for instance, is still so meagre that ‘expert’ advice changes from year to year.  When I was young, eggs and milk were proclaimed to be good for us, then they were thought bad; now we’ve come full circle. And there is still no cure for many of the commonest ailments. But it actually isn’t paradoxical that we’ve achieved confident understanding of arcane and remote cosmic phenomena while being flummoxed by everyday things. It’s because astronomy deals with phenomena far less complex than the biological and human sciences (even than ‘local’ environmental sciences). The smallest insect is more mysterious than a star or a galaxy. Fully understanding it must maybe await the emergence of a more intelligent species than ourselves.”

Posted 6th March 2018. For further information please contact Juliet Davies, Executive Officer
Interview Spotlight Series

Interview Spotlight Series

Explore our collection of interviews, featuring Members of Academia Europaea and colleagues connected with the Academy, as they offer insights into critical research topics.

Exploring the bilingual brain: An interview with Professor Li Wei MAE
Published 17th April 2024. Li Wei discusses his groundbreaking research on bilingual brain development, and the significant benefits of language exposure in both childhood and later life.

Bridging science and policy in Europe: Insights from Pearl Dykstra MAE
Published 8th April 2024. Pearl Dykstra discusses her roles within the European Scientific Advice Mechanism, and the importance of collaboration in science and policy.

From the Silk Road to the One Belt, One Road Initiative: an interview with Samuel Lieu
Published 12th March 2024. Samuel Lieu MAE discusses his co-director role in the UNESCO-sponsored ‘Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum’ project, and how his diverse range of scholarly interests led him from the Silk Road to the Byzantine.

AI’s opportunities and challenges: Insights from 2024 Hypatia Prize Winner, Nuria Oliver
Published 23rd February 2024. In this interview, the 2024 winner of the Hypatia European Science Prize, Nuria Oliver MAE, shares her reaction to receiving the award and discusses the opportunities and challenges of Artificial Intelligence.

Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Katalin Solymosi
Published 26th October 2023. Katalin Solymosi FYAE, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe, talks about her motivation for taking on the role and her plans for the YAE.

Overcoming barriers in male-dominated world: an interview with Ann-Christine Davis MAE
Published 17th October 2023. Ann-Christine Davis MAE talks about making history as the first female Mathematics professor at Cambridge, the challenges she’s faced, and the positive effect of support from male colleagues.

Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Eugene Yeo
Published 10th October 2023. Eugene Yeo, inaugural recipient of the Academia Europaea Sydney Brenner Medal, speaks about his personal connection with Sydney Brenner and continuing his legacy as a mentor.

Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Michael Udvardi
Published 10th October 2023. Michael Udvardi, recipient of the The Adam Kondorosi Academia Europaea Award for Advanced Research 2023, shares why this award is special to him and his research into sustainable agriculture.

Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Jean-Pierre Changeux
Published 10th October 2023. Jean Pierre Changeux MAE, Academia Europaea’s Erasmus medal winner, shares what the award means to him and discusses key aspects of his research.

Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Johanna Ivaska MAE
Published 9th October 2023. Johanna Ivaska MAE shares her passion for cancer research and the challenges faced by female scientists.

A conversation on gender equity and allyship in STEM: an interview with Jeremy Sanders MAE
Published 11th September 2023. Jeremy Sanders MAE talks about his personal inclusion agenda and setting an example as a male ally.

AE’s Annual Conference in Munich: An invitation from Don Dingwell
Published 4th September 2023. Don Dingwell MAE, Vice-President of Academia Europaea, extends a warm welcome to all Members for our 2023 Annual Conference.

Why we need more women in science: An interview with Dame Athene Donald MAE
Published 27th June 2023. Dame Athene Donald MAE talks about her book which examines the modern way of working in scientific research and how gender bias operates within it, drawing on the experiences of leading women in science.

30 years of the European Review: an interview with Alban Kellerbauer
Published 1st June 2023. European Review Editor-in-Chief, Alban Kellerbauer MAE, discusses his ambitions for the journal, and what makes the ER distinctive.

Telling the stories of women scientists: An interview with Magdolna Hargittai MAE
Published 12th May 2023. Magdolna Hargittai MAE discusses her book which focuses on the achievements of female scientists and the importance of role models in promoting and supporting more women in STEM.

Telling the story of émigré scientists: An interview with Istvan Hargittai MAE
Published 3rd May 2023. Istvan Hargittai MAE discusses his motivation for writing his latest book Brilliance in Exile, which explores the lives of Hungarian émigré scientists who have made significant contributions to science after leaving their country of birth.

Interview with Jaume Bertranpetit MAE, AE Barcelona Knowledge Hub Academic Director
Published 20th March 2023. Jaume Bertranpetit MAE, Barcelona Knowledge Hub’s Academic Director tells us about his priorities and ambitions for the Hub.

Changing landscapes in academia: an interview with Susan Wray MAE
Published 7th March 2023. Marking International Women’s Day 2023, Susan Wray MAE shares her passion for physiology, and the people who have had the greatest impact on her work and career. She discusses gender equality in academia as well as her hopes for the next generation of scientists.

An interview with Katalin Solymosi and Linn Leppert
Published 19th December 2022. Katalin Solymosi FYAE and Linn Leppert FYAE discuss Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, their experiences as women in science and the importance of the CALIPER project in addressing the gender balance in STEM fields.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Carl-Henrik Heldin MAE
Published 27th October 2022. Carl-Henrik Heldin MAE shares his views on the role of science in addressing global challenges, and his work with the Nobel Foundation.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Sierd Cloetingh MAE
Published 27th October 2022. Sierd Cloetingh MAE, recipient of the Academia Europaea’s 2022 Gold Award, gives us his reaction to receiving the award and tells us about some of his activities on behalf of AE.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Philippe Aghion MAE
Published 27th October 2022. Philippe Aghion MAE, Erasmus medal winner, tells us about his work on growth and innovation.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Nancy Cartwright MAE
Published 27th October 2022. Nancy Cartwright MAE, winner of the Hypatia Prize, tells us about her recent work and the role philosophy can play in facing present-day challenges.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Helga Nowotny MAE
Published 26th October 2022. In this joint interview, Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Helga Nowotny MAE discuss a range of topics, including innovation, interdisciplinary research, public and policy engagement, and the impacts of technology.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Moniek Tromp FYAE
Published 26th October 2022. Moniek Tromp FYAE, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe, tells us about her ambitions and priorities for the YAE.

Celebrating physiology: an interview with David Paterson MAE
Published 4th October 2022. David Paterson MAE, President of the Physiological Society, was in Cardiff on 29th September 2022 to mark the life and work of neurophysiologist Thomas Graham Brown FRS (1882-1965).

Mathematics and Planet Earth: an interview with Valerio Lucarini MAE
Published 1st September 2022. Valerio Lucarini MAE explains the role of mathematics in climate science, the importance of interdisciplinary research collaboration and the need to engage with policymakers.

Music as a strategic issue of Ukrainian independence: an interview with Lyubov Kyyanovska MAE
Published 17th August 2022. Luba Kyyanovska MAE discusses her life as a musicologist, from her early studies in L’viv to life beyond the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Life as a Ukrainian scientist: an interview with Yaroslav Shuba MAE
Published 21st July 2022. Yaroslav Shuba MAE charts his life as a scientist, from the Soviet era to independent Ukraine.

Dedicating my next 20 years to climate change: An interview with Sir David King FRS MAE
Published 14th March 2022. AAAS Award winner and former UK Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King MAE, shares his ambitious plans to tackle the global challenge of climate change.

The rewards and challenges of working in mental health: an interview with Professor Karina Lovell
Published 24th January 2022. Karina Lovell MAE shares insights into her career and research in the mental health sector.

My passion to serve the research community: an interview with Academia Europaea’s new President, Professor Marja Makarow
Published 13th January 2022. In her first interview as President of Academia Europaea, Marja Makarow MAE tells us about her leadership roles and sets out some of her priorities for Academia Europaea.

A life in science with Professor Ole Petersen
Published 8th November 2021. Ole Petersen MAE, winner of Academia Europaea’s Gold Medal 2021 and the Cardiff Knowledge Hub’s Academic Director, speaks to us about the honour of receiving the Gold Medal and the current challenges he sees for science.

Special interview with Sir Roger Penrose, Nobel laureate and winner of Academia Europaea’s Erasmus Medal
Published26th October 2021. This interview with world-renowned mathematician, physicist and Nobel laureate, Sir Roger Penrose MAE, took place following a very special award ceremony in Oxford, on 24th September, at which Sir Roger was presented with the 2021 Erasmus Medal. 

Looking through the lens of good science, by Professor David Allison MAE
Published 15th September 2021. David Allison MAE, expert in nutrition and obesity, tells us about his passion for scientific rigour and evidence-informed policymaking.

A special collective spirit: Reflections on my time as President of Academia Europaea by Professor Sierd Cloetingh
Published 28th June 2021. Marking AE Cardiff’s 5th anniversary, Sierd Cloetingh MAE shares highlights from his role as President of Academia Europaea and reflects on the impact of the Academy’s work.

The role of the Young Academy of Europe by Dr Gemma Modinos, FYAE
Published 26th November 2020Gemma Modinos FYAE, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe, talks about her vision and priorities for the YAE.

From Research to Public Health Policy by Professor Martin McKee MAE
Published 12th May 2020. Martin McKee MAE tells us about his passion for Public Health, his role at the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies and his research on the adverse effects of movement restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Understanding asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by Professor Peter Barnes MAE
Published 27th April 2020. Peter Barnes tells us about his career highlights and the effect of COVID-19 on his research.

Making decisions at times of uncertainty, by Nils-Eric Sahlin MAE
Published 20th April 2020.Nils-Eric Sahlin MAE tells us about his research on decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, and his contribution to the evidence review on Making Sense of Science for Policy, coordinated by Academia Europaea.

Examining the sustainability of our food systems: By Peter Jackson MAE
Published 9th April 2020. Peter Jackson MAE tells us why he became involved in the study of food, and his role in the publication of a major evidence review on sustainable food systems.

Working at the interface between academia and policy, by Barbara Prainsack MAE
Published 26th February 2020. Barbara Prainsack MAE shares her experiences of the vital relationship between academia and policy.

My research career in big data analysis by Yike Guo, Imperial College London
Published 20th January 2020. Yike Guo MAE discusses the importance of big data analysis, the impact of his international education and his continued links with China.

Priorities for Plan S by Open Access Champion Johan Rooryck
Published 23rd September 2019. Open Access Champion, Johan Rooryck MAE, shares his priorities for Plan S and his passion for Open Access publishing.

Progress at the Academia Europaea’s Tbilisi Hub, Georgia, by David Prangishvili
Published 13th September 2019. The Academia Europaea’s 5th Knowledge Hub launched in Tbilisi, Georgia, in April 2019. In this interview, David Prangishvili MAE, Tbilisi Knowledge Hub’s Academic Director, tells us about his priorities for the Hub.

Interview spotlight: Dr Mangala Srinivas, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe (YAE)
Published 1st August 2019. Mangala Srinivas FYAE, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe (YAE), discusses the impact of being awarded an ERC Starting Grant, her role as the Chair of the Young Academy of Europe and why the YAE became involved in the debate on Plan S.

Interview spotlight: Professor Peter Hegyi, Director of the Centre of Translational Medicine, the University of Pécs
Published 1st July 2019. Peter Hegyi MAE, provides an insight into the importance of Translational Medicine.

Interview Spotlight: Theo D’haen, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature, KU Leuven
Published 18th June 2019. Theo D’haen MAE, Professor Emeritus at KU Leuven talks about his career highlights, the relevance of his research, the role of international collaboration in research and his thoughts on Plan S.

Interview spotlight: Rosalind L Smyth, Director and Professor of Child Health UCL Great Ormond St Institute of Child Health
Published 20th May 2019. Rosalind L Smyth MAE talks about her work as a clinician and academic at the UCL Great Ormond St Institute of Child Health, her commitment to Open Access and her views on gender equality in science.

Interview Spotlight: Christopher Smith, Professor of Ancient History, University of St Andrews
Published 20th November 2018. Christopher Smith MAE shares his most noteworthy professional experiences, explains how his research relates to modern society and tells us more about Sovereignty: a global perspective held in April 2019.

Interview Spotlight: John Tucker, Professor of Computer Science, Swansea University
Published 2nd August 2018. John Tucker MAE shares his professional highlights and what being a Member of Academia Europaea means to him.

Interview Spotlight: Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
Published 6th March 2018. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, The Lord Rees of Ludlow, talks about how to successfully engage the public with science and gives us an insight into his book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity.

Interview spotlight: Professor Ole Petersen, Cardiff Hub Academic Director and Vice-President Academia Europaea
Published 4th January 2017. As the very first in our Interview spotlight series, Ole Petersen MAE shares highlights of his life and career.

Share this page: