Prof Martin Rees

MAY 31 2010
The right man at the right moment, talking on the issues at the top of the agenda. I have no comments so far other than to recommend listening carefully to what he has to say. It is not simple, his message, depending as it does on the education his listeners have received in their lifetime to date, from schools, parents, media of all sorts and their peers, to understand what he is saying, clear and concise though it is. This applies to the scientific community as much as others.

Professor David Nutt, shouting from the back row, demonstrated at a stroke the converse of the point he was no doubt trying to make. This man still thinks he was sacked because politicians did not understand his science, and that they were wrong to sack him. Not so. His fatuous remarks about the relative dangers of horse-riding and drug-taking were what sealed his fate. He might as well have insisted that a space programme should be scrapped on grounds of danger rather than expense if he wished to prove Martin Rees's clear and correct contention that political decisions are not scientific decisions even when they are about what do do with the science we have. A different overall policy on the legality of drugs could be adopted if it was politically acceptable. As things are it is not, and Nutt's ex-officio opinions were not acceptable. Horse-riding is to be encouraged, drug-taking is not, but to reach that conclusion you need to have acquired sufficient knowledge to have developed a little wisdom..

JUNE 8th 2010
The second 2010 Reith Lecture, "Surviving the Century" was as appropriate as the first. I have nothing to add at this stage. The questions from the floor were excellent, as were the answers. I am not wholly sure that the spin-off from the Cern Hadron Collider is worth the electrical energy and brain power expended but will give it the benefit of the doubt on the grounds of timing. We would not start the project now so it is just as well it was started when it was, and quite a lot has been learned in the process beyond the science it is investigating which will have applications of significance. The international and multidisciplinary aspects are also extraordinarily important.

I also appreciated the words of Prof Rees when he gave credit, where credit was due, to the environmental policies and effective actions
of the last UK government.

JUNE 15th 2010
The third lecture,
  "What we will never know", was not controversial. It was good to hear the judgment that "Time machines will remain fiction". That is not just because of the paradox that Professor Rees mentioned, should we be able to travel back in time as effective agents, but because of what we have discovered about the nature of time with respect to matter, mass and energy. I have covered this briefly in a review on Amazon of Brian Greene's 'Fabric of the Cosmos'. Travelling in time, other than as we do daily together when locally associated, involves travelling in space. If we remain where we are, time-travel faster or slower than is dictated by the local environment is impossible. We may travel to another part of the cosmos and, if we are able by the application of exceptional force over time, reaching speeds near to that of the electromagnetic spectrum, that will slow our personal time relative to the place we have left. However, should we return home, we will not have travelled to the future in any way substantially different from staying put and being 'frozen' for the length of time that passed there. We will have aged less. The effects of both Special and General relativity combine in such a way as to make the slowing of time possible for the traveller. Such an exercise is unlikely to be carried out, though one day in the far distant future the slowing of time for long-distance space travellers might be important.

Why cannot we play the same trick in reverse? We can! The very same speed of light C allows us to experience the past remotely providing we do NOT travel there. We can observe an environment 12 billion years ago and be grateful we are not 'there'. We can never see the future or travel to the past because the first has not occurred and the second cannot be co-located with the observer. We can get to the future but no faster than the environment allows us. We could only go back in time if we went beyond the space-time event horizon and there is no personal  portal handy or likely to be. Nor, if you went back in time in that way, could you be returning in reverse to the world you had lived in unless you were to lose all memory and be the same as you were and therefore repeat the identical actions. For this reason, even the paradox of going back to change history is impossible with a time machine even should one be invented. The inventor who used it would find  himself back in the past with no idea there was any time machine in the future! On a universal or even stellar scale, that is another matter altogether. Information or energy might recycle through negative space-time, but we are talking 'time-machines' here and as the good professor says, they are fiction.

He pointed out there remain many mysteries at the extremes of the small and large scale of universal phenomena. The known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. "A pity Rumsfeld did not stick to philosophy" had the audience chuckling, though I was thinking "a pity he discovered philosophy a little late in life!". Rees spoke well about the hierarchy of complexity and how the higher levels of organization are 'not imperiled' by the insecure base or uncertainty of quantum mechanics. However this brought him to a brief consideration of chaos theory and the famous 'butterfly' example which is one I am not happy with. There are indeed chaotic systems, and a small event can have consequences that multiply, but the reason weather forecasting is difficult is not related to individual butterflies or matters on that scale but to an excess of variables of far greater significance on a larger scale which are still too many to analyse and compute. One cannot rule out a tiny input being the trigger but rather like the assassination of a well-known arch-duke, if it hadn't been one thing it would have been another in most cases. I think Prof Rees agrees actually. It is some of the unknown unknowns or at at least unobservables or unrecordables in sufficient number and detail in advance that make most predictions difficult, rather than chaos theory. The calculation of planetary orbits cited is, I agree, not typical but that is because of the singularly low level of variables and unknowns to take into account.

Instability with uncertain boundaries is the nightmare scenario which only catastrophe can resolve. I get the impression that these lectures are careful designed to encourage a greater involvement of the public and potential scientists in rational debate and a more comfortable communion with politics, society and ethical choices based on avoiding confusion and prejudice. At the end of the argument there are choices to be made and these are best made in the light of estimated outcomes of each possibility rather than the repetition of possibly misunderstood proverbs.

Accepting the value of both reductionist and holistic science, Rees was fond of using the word 'continuum' to describe the relationship of what are sometimes seen as opposing views of reality. I like this. He used it both when describing the relationships of the physical world, where there are extremes but no necessary contradiction, and the world of ideas and perceptions.

Prof Rees mentioned the 'enhancement of life-span' as a goal of science. Here I have to say I think our science is a bloody nuisance. To lengthen the average human maximum natural life-span It is the greatest non-priority it is possible to imagine. As for those Americans who are freezing themselves on death in case the technology for eternal life arrives after their conventional demise, surely they are the incontrovertible proof that what I say is true - a world where we had to put up with these guys any longer than we have to is not one I care to contemplate for my children.

There were good questions form the floor as usual. A mention of the multidimensionality of the universe which to my mind is not the same as that of 'parallel' universes and instead of 'permitting them' could render the case for them superfluous, but that is for future discovery.

Earlier we got onto consciousness, and whether a sufficiently complex robot could merit 'consideration' by its owner.operator. Could it get 'bored' or be offended, even hurt. Here I expected something sensible from Lord Rees but since it is not his speciality he merely posed the question. The answer is clearly no, unless we mean the respect and care that should be given by any operator to a piece of machinery. I am quite disappointed that so few people understand what is meant by artificial intelligence. The day we create a robot that has real feelings that have to be respected it will be a collection of cells with memory going back billions of years. Many of us have created such. My parents did and the machine they produced is typing this text. It has been updating its program assiduously for the last 70 years and will be interested to know if you, dear reader, care if you hurt its feelings. If you think it is talking rubbish then you will have offended it greatly. I can tell you nobody looks after it but itself, though it has enthusiastic support from family and friends whenever it calls on them. It reckons it will be dead in a year but none of the technicians it has consulted has the remotest idea what has gone wrong. It remains of a very cheery disposition and is perfectly happy to join the scrapheap and leave room for later models. To get back to the question: the answer is a mouse merits respect by a human, even if we need to kill it as it is one too many in the wrong place a the wrong time for us, so we should kill it humanely if possible. A machine that is assembled from manufactured parts, unless these are grown in a lab using such parts as living cells, with neural network and emotional autonomy on the level of said mouse for example, does not require humane treatment.

There was a bit more discussion on the brain, with everyone appearing to agree that conscious in humans was a mystery of which we understood little. Personally I can't see what more there is to understand unless we want to fiddle with it and probably damage it in the process, but there are many who want to fix what they see as its shortcomings. Colin Blakemore talked about understanding how atoms (inanimate) made brains (animate and self-conscious) as being a great journey to be made in understanding, but surely if we can understand how atoms came to make a cell, the whole mystery is cracked and, actually, those of us who understand geometry as well as the other stuff DO know how and why atoms formed cells, even if we do not know the precise environment in which this is most likely or to what extent it is happening spontaneously these days. We know that sponges are the first form of cell agglomeration an differentiation follows later. Face it, the brain is inevitable.

Space exploration was intelligently discussed with the role of robots to the fore, but also support for human space travel by pioneers. These, it was rightly suggested, would be the risk takers in the mold of adventurers of former days. I agree. There may be even those willing to risk a one-way ticket if they could reach a new and important destination and report back with information on which the future of those at home might depend. The strange science fiction of the crew sent to land on an asteroid headed for earth in order to destroy or deflect it could come true. For each personal risk taker there will have to be financial risk-takers of course, prepared to lose all in some cases if a commercial return is expected on their investment unless it is government, coalition or globally funded.

The possibility of alien life was intelligently discussed and what difference its existence would make to science on earth. The point was made that due to distance no meaningful exchange or conversation would be possible, we could only hope to learn that life or intelligent life was possible and had once existed elsewhere. What difference would that make? Not as much as you might suppose to our behaviour because whether we are unique or one of many intelligent civilizations we should be extremely humble and extremely careful as well as adventurous. We must seek to find, and we must find to survive in a dynamic environment.

Lord Rees has not decide whether life is a fluke or not. Here I have to say we have enough information to know it is an inevitability. On universal terms, Earth is replaceable just as the fertilized ovum in a mothers womb is replaceable on a species scale. Yet also in another way, and for the mother, irreplaceable.
Chandra Wickramasinghe was in the hall to add some serious celebrity to this debate. My own view is the whole of nature is quite evidently an evolving whole in the course of self-realization on logical and geometrical principles that we discover reproduced in our brains, which it inevitably forms. We are bound to understand it as we are fragments of the whole which reproduces itself, just as the DNA in a single human cell can give rise, in the right conditions, to a whole human being.

Rees makes the point that humans are not the end of evolution, and that the dominant life forms of the future will be as different from us as we are from a bug. I disagree profoundly. Many principles come into play in the evolution of evolution. Many are well known in mathematics and geometry. Humanity is reaching at a rapid speed the form in which it can function as part of a process which must by default serve the overarching requirement of the self observing, self-sustaining universal existence. The evolution of life will continue, but with many possible human/machine achievements and processes, Humans have a size and shape and attributes appropriate and adapted to planetary life, and advanced life will grow and survive in a specific range of gravitational conditions. A homo-spatiens could evolve adapted to lower or zero gravity over time with double-jointed attributes but generally speaking, because of our ability to make machinery and devices, major design changes of the human body will now cease. You read it here first.

Can machines take over the world? The question was raised. Certainly not other than in the way they already have. Some worship the automobile, some planes, some trains, some computers and the Internet. Machines can destroy the world, but not run it imaginatively other than at times, in places, briefly. A machine to cope with Murphy's law takes billions of years to build. We are part of it.

Richard Dawkins was given a passing reference which was appropriate. Dawkins is not 'wrong', just small-minded, and his war with fundamentalist nutters is not even helpful. We can in time explain complex systems in terms of reductionist elements, a list of their parts, but so what? Why would a human body not have parts? It grew them for goodness sake, to enable the whole to take in energy and 'boot up' for a lifetime.

David Willets, the minister for science was there to avoid saying he was going to cut science funding. The Cern Hadron Collider was defended on much the same grounds as I tolerated it further up the page.

Finally. on the issue of what can know and what we can never know, the first entry I saw on the online discussion this lecture was this:

1.  At 10am on 15 Jun 2010 General Jack Ripper wrote:

It is impossible to know everything as in order to store that much information you would require something as big as the Universe to store it in.

Remember that everything includes the position and behaviour of every single atom that exists.

The Universe itself is the only thing that could ever know everything, humans are far too limited.

While that is not necessarily true, as information can be compressed rather than expanded to show the graphical truth in 3 dimensions and time, General Jack Ripper has unwittingly revealed the reason for the existence of the material universe. Even if we restrict our definition of knowledge to knowing the typical outcome of of all significantly distinguishable events, all knowledge has to come from experience, and this is it! On our humble, personal scale, each one of us can only share an abstracted impression of the whole, and contribute our tiny lifetime experience to that whole. That little bit, to the extent that we have lived and understood at some stage the experience, plus that of others we can rationally relate to, is our own knowledge. Then we have to consider what we call emotion. But not here and not now!

JUNE 22nd 2010
The 4th and final lecture was at the Open University, Milton Keynes. A doctor's appointment prevented me from going but these days there is no need to attend anything when the broadcast and written transcript is available and, particularly in this case, the questions from the floor afterwards are so perfectly posed and perfectly answered. I have nothing at all to add. These lectures were addressed to the British public, in clear concise language. They should be required listening and reading for every single person in these islands. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into them. If there was one point on which I am ruefully cautious it was on knocking a career in 'the city' as opposed to science. Not all trading is in derivatives, though unfortunately such trading is used in some cases out of necessity, and the investment Martin Rees needs for science education, research, development and application comes from many sources, not least government tax revenues from the banks and bankers, who also manage the resources required by start-ups of all sizes. However the point was well made, we have to recover our national status as a pioneering society in engineering and technology and manufacturing where appropriate of all sorts so that it covers more of the range. Leading in computer game software from time to time is not enough. The question from Lord Haskins was particularly trenchant and amusing, referring to the global need for cooperation while at the same time basing commercial viability on competition. Food for thought and some planning here.