From Here to Infinity: A Scientific Elder Weighs In


Since my blog is in the midst of a science theme right now, particularly with the posting of a review of Rupert Sheldrake’s new book recently, this week I decided to keep on the same subject. So here is a review of Martin Rees, From Here to Infinity. Rees is a world-renowned astrophysicist and former President of the Royal Society, a prestigious post in the world of science, and even more so in England. He is a distinguished scientist as well as an articulate public spokesperson for the relationship between science and society.  In his new book, based on a series of lectures, given in 2011, all of those qualities shine through, even though the book itself adds little new to conversation about the role science should play in our world.

The book is based on four lectures, each one addressing a slightly different theme in relationship to science and society. Overall, Rees is a reasonable, gentlemanly writer, presenting a thorough and responsible, if relatively unremarkable and conventional, vision of science’s role today and in the future. Rees is perhaps best known in popular press for his 2003 book, Our Final Century (Our Final Hour in the U.S) in which he estimated that Humanity had about a 50% chance of surviving the challenges of the coming century.  The advent of ever-more powerful and dangerous technology was high on his list of concerns as well as concerns about Climate Change. When someone is in a position once held by Isaac Newton and Samuel Pepys, they tend to get taken seriously by the public. So Rees proclamation of the significant dangers facing our species in the coming century received some prominent reception and media attention. Rees has also been one of the more prominent scientists to wade deep into the territory of the anthropic principle, exploring how finely “tuned” the universe seems to be for the emergence of life and complex chemistry. His book Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe, was one of the more prominent and popular books pursuing that subject.

From Here to Infinity is organized in four chapters, each representing one of the lectures given as part of the Reith Lecture series in 2009.  In the first chapter, The Scientific Citizen, Reed addresses the role science plays in our society. In this somewhat bland opening chapter, Rees calls on scientists to improve their communication methods to the public and calls on the general public to appreciate the importance of data from science without inappropriately revering it. In perhaps the most interesting passage, he insightfully points out that in the 21st century, with so mnay powerful new technologies coming down the road, the gap between what can be done and what should be done in science is growing larger. Only an informed public can negotiate that emerging truth.

In the second chapter, Surviving the Century, the narrative picks up a notch, with his analysis of where things stand with some of the major problems that confront science and all of us in the next century. He expresses his concerns about population, suggesting that, while some of the more dire predictions of the last decades have proved vastly overstated, there is still a chance that dangerous trends like the rate of the population growth could come back to haunt us. Energy security, Climate Change, and genetic modifications, are also high on the list of Rees’s potential threats and he gives a smart, well-informed, concerned but hopeful view of the coming decades.

From there, Rees moves on to the edges of science in the chapter, What We’ll Never Know. “If I were to conjecture where the scientific cutting edge were to advance fastest,” he writes, “I’d plump for the interface between biology and engineering.” Rees also point out that there are likely many limits to our knowledge of the natural world, but gives a good overview of some of the more fascinating areas that science will venture into in the years ahead. And true to his astrophysicist roots, he spends some extra time on exo-planetary possibilities, speculating on the possibilities of life in other solar systems, even intelligent life. And he reminds us that evolution itself likely has some post-human breakthroughs up its sleeve that we can hardly conceive of today.

In the final chapter, Rees leaves aside his speculative, cosmic side, returning to Earth, where he addresses science education in a rapidly globalizing world. Here he is the scientific elder, trying to look after the future of his chosen field, arguing for a robust approach to scientific education while maintaining a respect for other fields and disciplines. In this chapter, he directly addresses the ongoing struggles between science and religion, objecting to the resurgent atheism so popular today, invoking a more humble approach to deeper, metaphysical questions. “My personal view, a boring one, for those who wish to promote constructive dialogue between science and religion—is that even something as basic as an atom is quite hard to understand.”

For those like myself us who love science, but feel that much dialogue and discussion is needed about its place in culture and its role in making meaning in the now an future world, this book is a bit of a disappointment. Rees is a true elder in the scientific community with a long and distinguished career both as scientist and as a public representative of science. His thoughts are reasonable and respectable, hard to argue with. But there is little here that ignites interest, stirs the heart or makes any deep, important statement about the role of science in the contemporary world. The book is at it’s best when he is talking about science itself, technology and Climate Change change, and population growth and science of the future. But his analysis of science in society fails to cut very deep. And in a time when science is resurgent and triumphal, when religion is defensive and reactionary, when technology is rushing forward so extraordinarily fast, and the explosive collisions of all of these trends seems far ahead of our capacity to keep pace, Rees’s thoughts, however reasonable, just don’t seem adequate to the moment.

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