“Heresy!” Lord Martin Rees, UK’s Astronomer Royal, exclaimed—though seemingly tongue-in-cheek—when I handed him a copy of Darwin Overthrown: Hello Mechanobiology prior to his May Day Simons Foundation lecture in New York: “Physics in Real and Counterfactual Universes.”
Rees had been quietly reviewing his notes in Gerald D. Fishbach auditorium when I caught up with him, having skipped high tea in the foundation’s lounge.
I didn’t expect Rees, a former president of the Royal Society (2005-2010), to publicly break with Darwin, especially after embracing natural selection in his most recent book, On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, in which he refers to “the timescales of Darwinian natural selection that led to humanity’s emergence.”
I say Rees responded “seemingly tongue-in-cheek” because even though he is not a journalist closely following the science discourse—e.g., Eugene Koonin has told me: “No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally” and that “biology has to become the new condensed matter physics”—Rees does have a keen interest in origin of life. And he did factor into James Simons’ decision to create SCOL (Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life), which for the last half dozen or so years has been investigating pre-Darwinian/non-Darwinian science with Rees as one of its principal players.
Said Jim Simons to me in 2014 (The Origin of Life Circus: A How To Make Life Extravaganza):
“And then he [Martin Rees] asked me if I was interested in origins of life. And I said, ‘Yes, that’s an interesting subject.’. . . Three years ago maybe. . . .He [Rees] is very interested in this, which I didn’t realize, and he waxed eloquently, and he pointed out that it’s not very well funded. I said, that’s very interesting that it’s not very well funded. So he sort of put that in my head.”
Martin Rees charms, his ice-blue eyes twinkle as I mention that I include an interview in Darwin Overthrown with Craig Hogan, one of the discoverers of dark energy, who now heads Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics. Rees was Hogan’s PhD advisor.
Saying further that I quote him (Rees) in the text:
“Craig has forged unusually original and versatile theoretical insights into astrophysics. If you look at any number of subjects—from dark energy to how the Universe began—-you’ll find the earliest papers are from Craig.”
We discuss doing an interview (as well as the logistics), following his return to Cambridge. He hands me his card, after which he promptly returns to his notes.
An overflowing crowd has assembled for the Lord Rees of Ludlow lecture but the Simons team has thought of everything, preparing extra screens in the foundation’s adjacent lounge and satellite auditorium across the street.
Rees elaborates on the nature of our flat universe in his lecture, talks about gravitational subtleties, the importance of dark matter and energy, and his fascination with the idea of a multiverse. Even if we can’t test for a multiverse, Rees thinks it’s important to theorize.
He continues to be especially excited about the possibilities of exoplanets but is in sync with Dutch astrophysicist Frank Helmich, who told me at a 2017 meeting in Groningen that it will be decades before we have instrumentation that can detect necessary biomarkers.
“Yes there are so many planets in the galaxy, there must be habitable planets. That doesn’t mean that there is life there. I don’t know, I really don’t know. Probably there is. But there’s no way I can prove it now. However, if we are able to find the right biomarkers, which we can’t at the moment, and if we’re able to build very large telescopes in which we can see the atmospheres and soil—-we may be able to detect it. But this is decades away.”
A good bit of Rees’ presentation was honestly prefaced with warning signs about speculation ahead.
Rees is a 2011 recipient of the Templeton Prize (£1M). In his book, On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, he says he does not believe in God but “share[s] a sense of wonder and mystery with many who do.” That same year (2011) he reluctantly addressed the subject at greater length with Ian Sample in The Guardian.
Rees thinks it’s counterproductive to fight the religious community or exclude it from the science discourse, even though he sees science and religion as separate realms. So against a background of groans in Fischbach auditorium, Rees found a polite way to respond to a questioner seated in the room across the street who asked if dark matter isn’t just another name for God.
Rees says this in his book:
“By attacking mainstream religion, rather than striving for peaceful coexistence with it, they [atheists] weaken the alliance against fundamentalism and fanaticism. They also weaken science.”
I was able to get in the final question of the session—asking Rees what his concept of “post-human” is.
He obviously did not want to be pinned down or to venture into Asimov and/or HAL territory, so Rees referred me to On the Future: Prospects for Humanity. But this is about as specific as Rees gets on the subject in his book:
“It’s likely that ‘inorganics’—intelligent electronic robots—will eventually gain dominance. This is because there are chemical and metabolic limits to the size and processing power of ‘wet’ organic brains. Maybe we’re close to these already.”