It is his appointment as president of the Royal Society, becoming Britain’s official voice of science, that brings me to Lord Rees’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Cambridge where he remains master of Trinity College. Well, that’s the pretext, but I also want to quiz him about the origins of life, his “multiverse” theory and the G-word.
Rees’s work in unravelling the mysteries of the cosmos is acknowledged internationally, although we know him best as the astronomer royal who shakes up our preconceptions with provocative theories. One such was the philosophical teaser that humans and their imagined universe may be no more than a giant computer simulation, reminiscent of the one dreamt up by Douglas Adams in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
He has always portrayed his job as astronomer royal as something of a hologram, since the title is purely honorary and lost its link to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1972. It allowed him to speak up for astronomy, but now he is jettisoning the role to speak up for science generally.
The Royal Society gives him a much bigger platform as the world’s oldest existing scientific academy, at the forefront of inquiry and discovery since its foundation in 1660. Its backbone is its fellowship of 1,400 eminent scientists, increased each year by 44 — an honour only short of a Nobel prize.
Herein lies one of the many pitfalls awaiting Rees: only 10% of his fellows are women. A running sore is that for two years this elite academic club has snubbed Lady (Susan) Greenfield, whose nomination was leaked amid accusations of a whispering campaign against her.
Unrepentantly, Rees says: “It’s disappointing how low it is, but that is a symptom of the low proportion of women in science generally.” The number of eligible women candidates is only 8%, he points out.
As he enumerates the society’s initiatives to encourage women in science, I remind him that the controversy concerns one particular woman. “There are all kinds of outstanding scientists who are not members of the society, because it does have a limited membership which is chosen primarily for distinction in research,” he replies enigmatically.
He acknowledges the raft of issues on which the society is expected to advise the government, including nuclear power (which he favours in an energy mix), stem cell research, climate change and nanotechnology. “I think the Royal Society as a body has to be cautious about expressing collective views on controversial issues,” he says. “It’s our job to try and lay out the scientific background.”
I succeed in transporting Rees back to the revolutionary “big bang” moment that he witnessed. Of course, this was not the actual micro-second of creation 13.7 billion years ago (he is only 63), but the ferment at Cambridge in the mid-1960s when young Turks such as Rees and Stephen Hawking helped to overturn the notion of a universe of infinite age.
“It was a time when young people could quickly make an impact,” he says modestly. “When the subject was changing fast, the experience of older people was at a heavy discount.”
The loser was Fred Hoyle, the pioneering astronomer and science fiction author who clung to the theory of a “steady state” universe and became regarded as a crank. Hoyle had been supportive of Rees’s early career. “What Fred did,” he recalls, “was to lose interest in routine science and over-reached himself by going into all kinds of new subjects on which he wasn’t really an expert.”
Hoyle may have got the wrong answers but he asked the right questions, which remain relevant. Famously, he said the chance of Earth being fine-tuned to life was the same as a storm rushing through a scrapyard and assembling an airliner. He side-stepped the question of God by suggesting that life began in space when a dying alien species seeded the universe with building blocks of life.
Rees broke down this fine- tuning to six numbers governing the rules of nature. For example, one number, N, reflects the strength of gravity relative to the strength of electrical forces.
N is roughly 1036, which means that gravitational forces are a million million million million million million times weaker than electrical forces. If the force of gravity had been stronger, stars would form — and die — perhaps too quickly for life to evolve.
Again, this apparent tweaking implies an intelligent creator. But Rees, too, side-steps the God question by positing a “multiverse” of infinite universes, perhaps with “extra spatial dimensions” and undetectable. This, of course, makes the statistical likelihood of life on Earth more plausible. Rees admits that it is “pure speculation”; to the layman it sounds as contrived as Hoyle’s explanation. Is Rees running away from the big question?
“Let me say that I don’t see any conflict between science and religion,” he says. “I go to church as many other scientists do. I share with most religious people a sense of mystery and wonder at the universe and I want to participate in religious ritual and practices because they’re something that all humans can share.”
He is an Anglican for cultural, aesthetic and “tribal” reasons, he says. But he disagrees that just because we cannot understand something we should invest it with religious significance.
Yet most of the key problems have not been solved, he agrees. This is the subject of the book he is writing, What We Still Don’t Know, which looks at the key questions of the 21st century.
The barrier we may have to confront is our stupidity, he suggests. Computers may enable us to make a new class of discoveries, but the limits of human intelligence may prevent us grasping what they are: “My dog can’t understand quantum mechanics and there’s no guarantee that the laws (of nature) will match what human brains can understand either.”
Rees has the diplomatic touch for his new job: his dog was out of hearing.
We take you on a tour of discovery in the capital of New South Wales, Sun, sea and surf in the city of Sydney