Colliding Worlds 7: The future

1 August 2014

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 final Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich speaks to Martin about the future and asks him what advice he’d give to a young astrophysicist.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

We know a lot about architects’ unrealised projects but we know very little about scientists unrealised projects. Do you have unrealised projects, dreams, projects which have been too big to be realised, unwritten books you want to read, to write?

Martin Rees

Obviously the most exciting things to happen in the next 25 years will be new concepts that no one’s thought of yet. It’s the unpredictable part that will be most exciting, but nonetheless there are many areas of science and technology where there is a big gap between what we would like to be able to do and what we can afford to do.

One can see this in any science where we’d like to have much bigger and more sensitive experiments than we can afford. And in technology we would like to proceed faster with new transport systems, with space exploration and so forth – but the gap between what can be done and what actually happens is going to get wider.

Manned spaceflight is one example of this. Between 1957 when the first Sputnik went up and 1969 when Neil Armstrong made his ‘one small step’ on the moon, developments was extremely rapid. Had that pace been sustained there’d be footprints on Mars long before today. But the impetus was lost because the original motive had been politics – superpower rivalry — not science. Another example is supersonic flight, We once had Concorde. But there was no social need and no economic demand, so it went the way of the dinosaurs. Of course, if you are an architect then there are certainly many buildings you would like to design, many cities which your’s like to improve or build anew. But you have to accept that there’s no realistic prospect of that happening in one’s lifetime. There’s always a big gap between aspirations and achievements – between reach and grasp. And of course that’s a good thing because otherwise we wouldn’t be driven onwards.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Maybe very last question would be Rainer Rilke wrote this wonderful little book which is an advice to a young poet, what will in 2014 be your advice to a young scientist or to a young astrophysicist.

Martin Rees

I think it’s important in science to enter a field where new things are happening — either new observations or new experiments or new techniques or instruments — because if that’s not happening then you will be trying to solve the problems that the previous generation failed to solve. And if you’re not cleverer than them you won’t succeed. So it’s best to pick on a subject where you will get a chance to apply techniques or analyse data that the older guys never had a chance to. So you don’t have to be cleverer than them to make an impact. Also, you must pick a topic matched to your talents – not trivial, but not too hard either. Obviously there’s a temptation to work on one of the most important problems — the origin of life or a unified theory of physics, for instance. As the great Peter Medawar reminded us, scientists who fail to solve problems beyond their competence earn, at best, ‘the kindly contempt reserved for utopian politicians’ — and they won’t get much satisfaction. But what you should do multiply the importance of a problem by the probability that you will solve it and maximize that product.

Be sure to read the rest of the series.