April 18, 2005

Rees Discusses Global Challenges

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Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal and master of Trinity College of Cambridge University, highlighted new challenges that the global community will face in the wake of improving technology. The third and final lecture in the Messenger lecture series, “Science and Survival in the 21st Century,” was held in Rockefeller Hall’s Schwartz Auditorium on Friday afternoon.

Rees emphasized technology’s capacity for human advancement, while asserting that this progress also carries ethical problems.

“Science is changing faster than ever,” Rees said. “We need to focus on maximizing its benefits while minimizing its risks.”

Before 50 years ago, Rees said, humans were concerned only with natural disasters. Now, however, the worst threats come from human actions, particularly involving technology. Emphasizing the threat of nuclear war that resulted from the Cuban Missile Crisis, Rees called the Cold War “the greatest threat that ever confronted humanity.” Although this fear has eased, humans should still not discount the threat of a global nuclear catastrophe because of constantly changing geopolitical alignments.

Concentrating on the ethical dilemmas that accompany technological progress, Rees said severe global consequences can arise when technology lands in the wrong hands.

“We are kidding ourselves if we think technology and education breeds [only] rationality,” he said. He feels the possibility of a biological attack by terrorists is a serious threat.

Rees also focused on technology’s ability to alter humans’ minds, attitudes and physique. Rees worries that if humans are eventually able to achieve genetic modification, it may lead to more serious inequality issues between social classes.

“It will certainly make things more scary and exhilarating,” Rees said.

Karen Masters, grad, said that she liked that Rees did not offer an answer to the problems of technology.

“It was just a call to think about everything,” Masters said.

Rees said the most positive prospects for technology in the 21st century include space travel and exobiology. Rees urged humans to broach the possibility of alien life with “utter open-mindedness.”

He said discovering humans were alone in the universe would be disappointing but would also boost our “cosmic self-esteem.” Earth would be considered the most interesting planet in the galaxy and humanity’s survival would be crucial.

Rees said that, from the perspective of a practical scientist, he does not support sending people into space. Because of space travel’s high cost and extreme risk, Rees believes that lunar missions should only be private ventures spearheaded by private individuals. Humans cannot live on other planets, Rees said, so space travel does not make sense from a practical standpoint.

“Space does not offer a solution to Earth’s problems; no one is going to run away to space,” Rees said. “We must solve Earth’s problems here on Earth.”

President Jeffrey Lehmann ’77 described Rees as “one of the extraordinary minds of our time” during his introduction. Rees is considered one of the world’s leading astronomers, cosmologists and astrophysicists; he is also one of the leading scientists in determining the evolution of the universe and explaining how the universe came out of the cosmic “dark ages.” Also influential with his theories about the relationship between science and philosophy, Rees has examined why the universe has certain characteristics and the relationship between sentient humans and this universe.

Rees inspired thought among audience members.

“I like how he drew our attention past calamities and threats that are so pervasive … you don’t really think about many of these threats [on a daily basis]. I wonder how we will be able to learn from [the talk],” said Ann Hubert ’05.

Archived article by David Andrade
and Olivia Oran
Sun Staff Writers