Life and the cosmos

A powerful lecture by the eminent Lord Martin Rees

Martin Rees at Jodrell Bank, 2007

I came across this interview a few days ago in connection with some book research that I was undertaking.  Please don’t be put off by the 56 minute length because Martin Rees is one of the most pre-eminent cosmologists around today, as well as being the UK’s Astronomer Royal since 1995.

Make a promise to yourself to settle down sometime soon and watch the lecture, given at the University of Melbourne’s Medical School in 2010.  And a warning! I going to pick up on some of the important points made by Martin Rees in a couple of posts next week.

Here’s how the lecture was reported by the Australian science website, SixOne Science,

Lord Rees in Melbourne

In a packed Sunderland Lecture Theatre in the University of Melbourne’s Medical School, Lord Martin Rees gave the inaugural Derek Denton Lecture in Science and the Arts. Lord Rees, an eminent and accomplished astrophysicist and cosmologist, is coming to the end of his five year tenure as the president of The Royal Society. The event even managed to attract or Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who entered without a noticeable entourage and with no fanfare, and the Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser, a scientist himself.

The lecture was entitled “Life and the Cosmos”, a grand and sweeping title if ever there was one. It seemed like an impossible amount of material to cover in the allotted hour. However, Rees delivered an entertaining, humorous account of life from the big bang, through the formation of stars and galaxies, to the origins of life and perhaps the biggest crowd pleaser, the search for extra-terrestrial life. Most in the lecture theatre would not have learnt anything new, but this lecture was aimed at a general audience and the material was interesting enough to keep everyone interested for the hour despite being squashed into an ageing undergraduate lecture theatre complete with squeaky desks and a slightly musty smell. Perhaps Mr. Rudd was sufficiently uncomfortable to increase university funding, we can hope.

Whist this was predominately an overview of the subject material, Rees expressed some opinions about space exploration. He seemed torn between his human curiosity and the cost of human exploration. Given the advances in robotic exploration vehicles, Rees has difficulty in justifying the cost of sending humans on planetary exploration missions. Perhaps the best case for robotic exploration was made by the amazing photos he showed from the surfaces of Mars (photos) and Titan (photos), a moon of Saturn. Interestingly, Rees believes that if human exploration does proceed in the future it will be led by the Chinese or groups of private individuals. He also raised the issue of exploitation of other planets, something not often mentioned in the debate over human space travel. We need to decide if other bodies in our solar system are open for exploitation or if they should be preserved as wilderness, in a similar way to Antarctica. Given the pressures faced by places like Antarctica and the Amazon this will be an important debate should human exploration resume.

Rees concluded his lecture with the almost obligatory call for us to take better care or our own planet. He, like many others, recognises the unique place in history that we occupy. For the first time a single species is capable of exerting profound changes on the Earth’s natural and physical environments (although it might be argued that the first photosynthesizing cyanobacteria had a similarly singular influence by increasing the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere). It is interesting to note that he does not see colonisation of other planets as a solution as the Earth is still the only known planet capable of sustaining us. Although he did discuss the likelihood of discovering Earth-like planets (pretty good given advances in technology). However, Rees did not paint an overly pessimistic picture and he generally came across as optimistic and enthusiastic about the future.

The organisers of the Derek Denton Lecture series should be commended for attracting such a high profile speaker for the first of the series. Hopefully the series will be successful, and if so may need to be moved to a bigger venue. If you want to see the lecture it will soon be available here. The next lecture of this series hasn’t been announced yet, it will be on the Arts, but you can check here for future public events at The University of Melbourne.

2 thoughts on “Life and the cosmos

  1. I will have to come back to view the Video Paul.. Interesting and I agree we should concentrate on our own planet before exploration of others…. Thousands of species become extinct here due to Man’s over Deforestation and pollution… We need to explore cleaner energy.. and those who have already patented cheaper alternative fuel other than oil but been blocked by oil barons should be allowed to put their fuels on the market.. The walls of the bureaucrats will soon begin to crumble and if another War is not created to bring wealth to those who pull the political strings and People power takes over.. This world may just have a chance for survival. I pray that we wake up to ourselves before its too late, if its not already gone past the point of no return..

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    1. Sue, echo your feelings entirely.

      Do find time to watch Lord Rees’ lecture. Jean and I were very taken by it and later this coming week I shall be introducing a series hosted by Martin Rees that we have recently been watching previously screened on the UK’s Channel 4. P.

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