Wellcome Collection recently hosted Colliding Worlds, an event exploring the extraordinary research of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, in the thought-provoking context of a conversation with curator and art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist. From astronomy and ecological disaster to science fiction and advice to young scientists, watch the exchange below.
We’re also publishing excerpts of the conversations that led to this event in a seven-part series. In our first Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich asks Martin why he became an astrophysicist.
I’m very curious to know about the relationship between your work and art, and if you’ve had dialogues with artists. The first question I was curious about your beginnings because you started very early to connect to science, but I was wondering if there was an epiphany or a sudden revelation which brought you to cosmology and to astrophysics or how it all started.
No, I didn’t have any epiphany at all. I came rather gradually to astronomy. When I was at school I specialised in science more because I was bad at languages than for any other reason. I turned out to be good at mathematics, so it seemed natural to study that subject at university. But I quickly realised I was not cut out to be a mathematician and prefered a more ‘synoptic’ subject where I could apply my mathematical skills to some complex phenomena. I thought of being an economist but for various reasons I ended up doing astrophysics. This was in the 1960s — a specially good time for a beginner, because the subject was opening up with the first discovery of black holes, the first evidence of big bang, etc.
You were a pioneer of actually proposing these very big black holes as sort of power quasars. I was speaking to Gerhard Richter the other day, and he said his was all student work but then at a certain moment he had this revelation of the first kind of blurred photographic painting and that marked the number one in his catalogue raisonné. Now, a scientist doesn’t have that much of a catalogue raisonné as an artist – obviously there are the published papers and there are the books – but where would your catalogue raisonné start? What was the first discovery or paper you wrote where you felt that it was your breakthrough, that you had found your language?
Well, when new objects are discovered, normally they often display some mysterious aspects that pose a puzzle. When a subject is new, the experience of older people is at a heavy discount and young scientists can immediately make an impact. I was able to think about these objects when they were first discovered when I was young, and I did some early work on some puzzling phenomena on quasars which are very powerful distant objects.
Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.