April 14, 2005

Rees Explains Einstein

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Yesterday evening, Sir Martin Rees, a professor at Trinity College in the University of Cambridge, eloquently examined Einstein’s belief that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible” in his lecture, “Einstein’s Legacy as Scientist and Icon.”

The first lecture in a series of three, Rees spoke not only about about Einstein, whose logic he said was “so compelling he had little need to defend it,” but also about his work on general relatively and quantum theory, which he said “are two of the greatest scientific pillars of the 21st century.”

Rees said general relatively was greatly ahead of its time when Einstein first constructed his theory, as it was hardly understood by scientists themselves, which “is in glaring contrast to today,” as his theory is now invaluable to the understanding of various concepts of the cosmos, such as the existence of black holes.

“A theory like Einstein’s is also crucial to the theory of an expanding universe,” Rees said, explaining the three possibilities for the universe’s future: recollapse, where the universe will stop expanding and begin to decrease in size; deceleration, where the universe will continue to expand but at a slower rate; and acceleration, where the universe will continue to increase the rate of its expansion. Rees said that evidence points to the third possibility, saying that the universe is expanding at a faster rate than in the past, and saying that “the universe will go on and on.” Rees described the importance of this discovery by saying that Einstein’s original formula for the expansion of the universe, once thought to be incorrect, contained a rate that might explain this constant acceleration.

Rees also discussed the “interconnectedness between the very small and the very large.”

“The everyday world is determined by atoms… while stars depend on nuclear energies,” he said.

Rees talked about the complex structure of elements within the world, saying that, for example, life on Earth is dependent on the physics of the planet, for “if gravity were any stronger, we would be crushed.” Rees continued, saying, “if the physics were different … we could not have these layers of complexity … The laws of physics are given and cannot adjust to the surroundings. The recipe for our universe allowed for something complex.”

However, Rees said that “we have learned that our planet is special, but we are not surprised,” saying that there are multitudes of galaxies and planets in the universe, some devoid of life, while “others are productive.”

Speaking on our complexity, Rees said “we are halfway between atoms and stars … in fact, with surprising precision. The number of people it would take to equal the size of the sun is about equal to the amount of atoms in each person.”

Elaborating, Rees spoke about the complexity of biological organisms in relation to the universe, saying that an insect is more complex than a star and that “there are no complex chemicals in a star, while even in the smallest organisms, there is layer upon layer of structure.” Rees continued by saying that “properties of biology remain unsolved,” and “knowing the progression of biological entities is extremely difficult and is one of man’s greatest challenges.”

Rees concluded his lecture by saying that “Twenty-first century science is changing the world faster than ever. It may even change human beings themselves … Most people are not aware, but there is more to come. Even our sun is only halfway through its life.”

Giving perspective to time, Rees said “all recorded history would be but a few steps,” and that there are six billion years of life left in our sun.

“We should not think of human beings as the cultivation. There will be entities as different from us as we are from bacteria when the sun becomes a red giant,” Rees said.

“What happens in this century depends on our choices,” he said, “and if we choose wisely, Einstein’s legacy will continue to resonate loudly.”

Prof. Thomas Eisner, the J G Schurman Prof. of Entomology and the J G Schurman Prof. of Chemical Ecology, whose book For Love of Insects was mentioned by Rees in his discussion of the complexity of insects, said the lecture was “inspiring,” while Prof. Emeritus Kurt Gottfried, physics, said that the lecture was “superb.”

Tad Bardenwerper ’05 said the lecture was “really fascinating — He grabbed my attention from the start by explaining some extremely complex questions, and he didn’t let go for an hour.”

Also enthusiastic were students Ann Hubert ’05 and Kelley Hess ’05. Hubert said “it was really interesting to get a perspective on where we fit [in the universe].”

“He did a really great job connecting the large with the small scale,” Hess said.

Rees is an Astronomer Royal in the United Kingdom and a professor of cosmology and astrophysics and master at Trinity College.

Archived article by Jacquelyn Nastri
Sun Staff Writer