Tuesday, May 31, 2011

From Here to Infinity by Martin Rees

From Here to Infinity is one of those misleadingly short books that look as though they are going to be slight, but in fact slyly pummel the brain into seeing sense. By the end of it I not only wanted Martin Rees to gather the world leaders into a small room to give them a good talking to, but for the man to give up his day job of Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, and take up a more important position: that of Prime Minister, since his country clearly needs him. I am not being facetious. I am serious. Any country that gives up £117 billion to bale out a few bankers, and then goes on to allow them to be paid more in bonuses than it devotes to teaching its undergraduates, or supporting university scientific research, needs to examine its priorities.

Martin Rees makes an excellent case for increased expenditure on high-risk no-end-in-sight scientific research (it has been shown to pay dividends in the long run) as a way of not only returning to prosperity but, more importantly, providing a viable world for our grandchildren.

The book is based on the Reith lectures Martin Rees gave in 2010, but updated using more information, so the figures about cuts and expenditure are up-to-date. The first part, 'The Scientific Citizen', stresses that it is important that science is understood and appreciated by everyone, because for the first time in the history of our species we are determining the future of our biosphere. The stakes are high, and so it is vital that we all understand what science has done and can do, and stresses the importance of good science communication.

In a previous book (Our Final Century) Martin Rees estimated that there is only 50% chance that the human race reaches 2100 without a major setback, and then points out that this is regarded as optimistic by many. The second section, called 'Surviving the Century', deals with the fact of global warming as demonstrated by the Keeling curve. He calls for research on clean energy to garner the same spending and credibility as the Manhattan Project. The general tone, however, is not completely pessimistic. By 2050 the population of the world may have peaked, and the developing nations could well have caught up with the developed world in terms of technology. Sadly, it is politics, which tends to put self-interest before what is best for the planet, that may ultimately scupper these possibilities. The section ends with a riveting thought experiment.

The third section discusses what is possible to predict and what is not. He then describes which discoveries in the last century have been key to shaping the modern world; and how difficult it would have been to predict. I particularly liked his hosepipe analogy to explain how extra dimensions are hidden from us. He predicts that it the next scientific breakthroughs will be in the interface between biology and engineering, and also in nanotechnology. He also believes that we will increase our understanding in fields such as the workings of the brain, aging, robotics, the origin of life and space-travel. The ways in which scientific discoveries are made might also change, with machines taking out the time-consuming process of trial and error.

'A Runaway World', the final section, considers creativity in science, and the conditions under which such creative thought flourishes. Despite the internet, enterprising individuals tend to swarm together, which can lead to a brain drain in places such as Africa. To mitigate this he suggests an alternative to aid - creating an attractive research institute in developing countries to retain talent. Places such as these in the developed world, such as Cambridge's science park in the UK, attract talent because they are perceived, thanks to various incentives, to be conducive to high risk ventures at low risk. It is in these places that great innovations happen, and therefore are the engines for long term prosperity and confronting global challenges. It is therefore vitally important that we maintain these scientific havens. The innovators that congregate in them should be given free-reign to develop their research path, and not be dogged by too many bureaucratic demands on accountability.

He finishes by pointing out the need for scientists to act as global citizens before going on to consider the lesson of Ely Cathedral. In a particularly moving passage, he says that just as the builders of Ely Cathedral knew they wouldn't live to see its completion, so we too should take on a similar altruistic attitude in our dealings with our planet. It is our only legacy, and the future of our grandchildren will be determined by how we treat it now. This is more important than politics, which is why I think we shouldn't leave a politician in charge.

From Here to Infinity is out tomorrow. Thanks to Profile books for the review copy.


Blogger Paul Halpern said...

I certainly agree with you that society should have a greater emphasis on education and research, rather than on corporate profit. Martin Rees' book sounds fascinating. I hope you get a chance to interview him for your blog at some point.

Wed Jun 01, 03:17:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I'd love to, Paul. He does seem incredibly busy, though!

Wed Jun 01, 06:15:00 am  

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