British scientist contemplates the world of our descendants

A forthcoming book by one of Britain's leading scientist wonders what kind of world our descendants will live in.

PROF. MARTIN REES, May 27, 2018. (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE)
PROF. MARTIN REES, May 27, 2018.
The changes on Earth – some 45 million centuries old – that occurred from 100 years ago to the present were minimal compared to the ways it will be transformed during the next century.
Prof. Martin Rees, the official “Astronomer Royal,” master of Trinity College and director of the astronomy institute at Cambridge University who eyes the shimmering stars through his telescope, also peers into the telescope in his brain to predict the future.
He has written On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, a 257-page volume that is due to be published by Princeton University Press in October. The Jerusalem Post received an advance copy of the engrossing and provocative book that will make readers ponder what kind of existence their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have.
The stark cover of transmogrified and fading pastel letters on a black background provides a hint that the future may not be completely welcome.
The handsome, 75-year-old Rees, a member of the UK’s House of Lords (“Lord Rees of Ludlow”) and a former president of the Royal Society, has written numerous books on humanity – where it was and is and the influence of science on it. Among his more scientific works are Cosmic Coincidences: Dark Matter, Mankind and Anthropic Cosmology; New Perspectives in Astrophysical Cosmology; Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe; Gravity’s Fatal Attraction: Black Holes in the Universe; Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century – On Earth and Beyond.
Having also written more than 500 published research papers, the astronomer has contributed insights on cosmic microwave background radiation, the clustering and formation of galaxies and the distribution of quasars, which he claimed are powered by huge black holes. But he has also delivered many public lectures and spoken often on TV and radio.
Some of his books were written for the general public who will wonder along with him, “Will the human race survive the 21st century? What lies ahead: more of the same, better or worse? Are we heading for a utopian or dystopian future? Ironically, the author states, “Scientists are rotten forecasters, almost as bad as economists.
For instance, in the 1950s, an earlier astronomer royal said that space travel was utter bilge.”
Rees was the only child of two teachers in York who established and ran a boarding school in the UK. He describes himself as an atheist. “I was brought up attending the English church. I value its musical and architectural legacy and would be saddened if this were eroded. Religion is part of our communal heritage.
I make a comparison to the Jewish faith. There are a lot of people who identify as Jews but say they are atheists, but nevertheless light candles on Friday. It is a custom. I understand and resonate with that attitude. Likewise, even though I don’t have any religious beliefs, I cherish the culture I grew up in.”
He earned his three academic degrees in mathematics, astronomy and astrophysics at Cambridge, writing a thesis in 1967 on “Physical Processes in Radio Sources and Inter-Galactic Medium.”
When he did his post-graduate work in astrophysics, his field was replete with new discoveries and breakthroughs on the discovery of black holes and neutron stars and proof of the Big Bang launching the universe. Since then, Rees has received an impressive number of prizes and some eight honorary doctorates from universities around the globe.
A SCIENTIST through and through, Rees insists “The future of humanity is bound to the future of science, and our prospects hinge on how successfully we harness technological advances to address the challenges to our collective future. If we are to use science to solve our problems while avoiding its dystopian risks, we must think rationally, globally, collectively, and optimistically about the long-term future.
Advances in biotechnology, cybertechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence – if pursued and applied wisely – could empower us to boost the developing and developed world and overcome the threats humanity faces on Earth, from climate change to nuclear war.”
At the same time, he continues, further advances in space science will allow humans to explore the solar system and beyond with robots and artificial intelligence. “But there is no ‘Plan B’ for Earth, no viable alternative within reach if we do not care for our home planet.
Although the potential of human cloning and living on far-off planets scare people and even academics, Rees believes we cannot halt technology and that it should be applied properly.
He is not one of the doomsayers who claim human civilization will be destroyed completely, but he does think there will be serious problems ahead. “We’re going to have a bumpy ride. There are basically two kinds of problems: We’re putting a lot of pressure on Earth’s resources and biosphere, and technology is advancing faster than we can cope with it. We’re moving into an era in which small groups – and even individuals – are being empowered by technology to have a wide or even global impact. I am particularly worried about biotechnology and artificial intelligence.”
The next century “will surely be drastically different from the present,” Rees writes.
“There has been an explosive disjunction between the ever-shortening timescales of social and technical change and the billion- year time spans of biology, geology and cosmology. Humans are now so numerous and have such a heavy collective ‘footprint’ that they can transform or even ravage the entire biosphere. The world’s growing and more demanding population puts our natural environment under strain and could trigger dangerous climate change and mass extinctions.”
But instead of halting science, Rees urges enhancing “our understanding of nature” and deploying appropriate technology more urgently. If science is appropriately applied, he continues, science could offer “a bright future for the nine billion people who will inhabit the Earth in 2050.” Fifty years ago, world population was below three billion. It now exceeds seven billion.
“Humans already appropriate around 40% of the world’s biomass, and that fraction is growing. The resultant ecological shock could irreversibly impoverish our biosphere. Extinction rates are rising: We’re destroying the book of life before we’ve read it. Biodiversity is a crucial component of human wellbeing.
We’re clearly harmed if fish stocks dwindle to extinction; there are plants in the rain forest whose gene pool might be useful to us. But for many environmentalists, these... arguments aren’t the only compelling ones. For them there are further ethical issues: preserving the richness of our biosphere has value in its own right over and above what it means to us humans.”
He says he is not particularly worried about asteroids wiping out mankind. Nuclear war, however, does concern Rees. “At any time in the Cold War era – when armament levels escalated beyond all reason – the superpowers could have stumbled towards Armageddon through muddle and miscalculation. During the Cuba crisis, I and my fellow-students participated anxiously in vigils and demonstrations.
But we would have been even more scared had we then realized just how close we were to catastrophe. Kennedy was later quoted as having said at one stage that the odds were ‘between one in three.’ And only when he was long retired did Robert McNamara [US defense secretary from 1961 to 1968] state frankly that we came within a hairbreadth of nuclear war without realizing it.
“It’s no credit to us that we escaped. Khrushchev and Kennedy were lucky as well as wise.
Be that as it may, we were surely at far greater hazard from nuclear catastrophe than from anything nature could do. Indeed, the annual risk of thermonuclear destruction during the Cold War was about 10,000 times higher than from asteroid impact.”
Population explosions, especially in the Third World, need not necessarily mean hunger, writes Rees, because less waste, more vegetarians and vegans, and water-conserving, hi-tech agricultural techniques – perhaps including genetically modified crops – could feed all mouths. “Optimists remind us that each extra mouth brings also two hands and a brain.”
REES IS optimistic that clean energy will replace fossil fuels. As for destroying the environment, he writes that regulations can help.
“But this won’t gain traction unless the public mindset changes. Attitudes in the West toward, for instance, smoking and drunk driving, have transformed in recent decades.
We need a similar change in attitude so that manifestly excessive consumption and waste of materials and energy... become perceived as ‘tacky’ rather than stylish.”
As for the effects of science on medicine and health, the author notes that gene editing offers huge benefits for human health. “But there are risks that I call ‘bioerror’ and ‘bioterror.’ Many people are being empowered to use this technology. It’s not like developing a hydrogen bomb, which can’t be done clandestinely by a small group. Much of biotech can be done on a fairly small scale. It’s almost a hobby among students. There have been discussions about regulating these kind of technologies.”
However, he observes, “That gets harder all of the time. I don’t think regulations could be enforced effectively. It could be as hopeless as enforcing international drug and tax laws. My worst nightmare would be that some crazy guy with an ecology fantasy that humans were a plague would try to use some type of biological technique to kill lots of them, without caring who they were.”
Rees does not agree with the late Prof. Stephen Hawking who felt since humans were messing up Earth so badly, they should move to other planets and start again. “There is no place in space that is as benign as the harshest places on Earth such as the South Pole. And a mass migration into space isn’t a feasible response to the problems on Earth. We need to solve the problems we have here. It would be a mistake to think that we could solve things by leaving.”
Cyberterrorism could have devastating effects. “We live in an interconnected world increasingly dependent on elaborate networks: electric-power grids, air traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery, globally-dispersed manufacturing and so forth. Unless these globalized networks are highly resilient, their manifest benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns... Our cities would be paralyzed without electricity. Supermarket shelves would be empty within days if supply chains were disrupted. Air travel can spread a pandemic worldwide within days. And social media can spread panic and rumor, and psychic and economic contagion, literally at the speed of light.”
Rees writes, “English villages in the 14th century continued to function even when the Black Death halved their populations. In contrast, our societies would be vulnerable to breakdown as soon as hospitals overflowed and health services were overwhelmed, which would occur when the fatality rate was still a fraction of one percent. But the human cost would be worst in the shambolic but burgeoning mega-cities of the developing world,” What will keep humanity busy in the future, when robots threaten to take over the workplace? “Advances in software and sensors have been slower than in number-crunching capacity. Robots still can’t match the facility of a child in recognizing and moving the pieces on a real chessboard. They can’t tie your shoelaces or cut your toenails. But machine-learning and sensor-technology are advancing apace. If robots could observe and interpret their environment as adeptly as we do they would truly be perceived as intelligent beings, to which (or to whom) we can relate, at least in some respects, as we to other people. And their greater processing speed may give them an advantage over us.”
Whatever may occur in our descendants’ lifetimes, scientists and the general public in general have an obligation today to engage in public debate, Rees says. “There is too little planning, too little horizon scanning, too little awareness of long-term risks. It would surely be shameful if we bequeathed to future generations a depleted and hazardous world... We need to think globally, we need to think rationally, we need to think long term, empowered by 21st-century technology but guided by values that science itself can’t provide.”