Monday, English cosmologist and astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees was awarded the Lewis Prize for science writing at RU. This meant that there was a much hyped talk, attended by the usual seminar attendees, as well as a distinguished and elderly selection of outside guests. There was also a quite fancy reception, with free food and wine, that resulted in my missing my yoga class.
Lord Rees has a ridiculous number of official honors, including professorships at Cambridge university, president of the Royal Society, Astronomer Royal, member of United Kingdom’s House of Lords, and foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences. The one that may have impressed the audience most, however, was a slide he showed of a photograph of the moon landing, personally signed to him by each member of the team.
As for the content of the talk itself, it was filled with images that encouraged the imagination to grasp our place in the cosmos: “all carbon in our bodies is debris from once dead stars. We are made of nuclear waste from the nuclear power that makes stars shine.” Or the idea that if we truly are the only life in the galaxy, something Lord Rees found doubtful, we could envision ourselves like a tiny seed, with the potential to grow much larger than ourselves. We should not, however, make the mistake of assuming that we are the zenith of the evolution of life on earth. The sun, that will dictate the length of survival of our planet, is less than half way through its life span. When it does burn out, taking the earth with it, no one living species still present will resemble who we are now. That is, if our life form, at our current stage of evolution, does not destroy the world first. Lord Rees ended his talk by stating that this century, for the first time in history, is the one when a single species actually holds the future of the earth in its hands– leaving us with a responsibility, the enormity of which, his talk had just revealed to us.
The cosmos is not something I regularly think about. In Lord Rees’ words, I deal in a world of complexity, where the biology of a flea is infinitely more complex and detailed than that of our galaxy. When I do contemplate the vastness of the cosmos however, and how many details must have come together to allow such life on this one small planet, it is dizzying. I truly admire a brain that can not only wrap itself around the causes of this, but to be able to use the power of physics and mathematics to reveal it. Mathematics, as Lord Rees pointed out, are the one thing we could have in common with an alien life form, who would be looking out at the same laws of the cosmos as we do. He was later asked in the questions to explain, using his hands, how the big bang could have occurred. His response “I don’t fully understand it myself”, resulted in a relieved wave of laughter across the room.
I took my photo today, after returning from this talk– turning the lights outside my window into out of focus planet-like orbs, and using a layer taken from a slide from Lord Rees’ talk.