The Astronomer Royal interview: ‘The best discoveries will be made via symbiosis of people and machines’

Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, spoke to Country Life's Roderick Easdale about life, religion and the hope of finding life on other planets.

‘I could carry on doing the job posthumously so exiguous are the duties,’ laughs Martin Rees on whether he’ll be Astronomer Royal for life.

‘It involves some obligation to bang the drum for science and astronomy, but that’s it.’

The incumbent used to be director of the Royal Observatory, but now all the modern telescopes are in the Canary Islands, Hawaii or Chile, where viewing conditions are better. The post was created by Charles II in 1675 when he founded the Royal Observatory at Greenwich; our maritime nation needed astronomy for navigation and the Admiralty ran it.

‘The Astronomer Royal was the first government-appointed scientist and astronomy the first professionalised science,’ Lord Rees explains, ‘apart, perhaps, from medicine, but I like to say that astronomy is the first that did more good than harm.’

From the late 1950s, Greenwich became a museum and the post became an honorary title given to a university-based astronomer. It was around this time that Lord Rees became involved in the field.

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“No robot will be able to plan and maintain a fine herbaceous border”

‘There was the first evidence of the Big Bang, black holes and so on,’ he says, clearly still brimming with enthusiasm at the age of 75.

‘It was a good subject to get into as almost everything was new and so the old guys had no advantage. It still is exciting.

‘It’s advancing at such a rate due to technology. In most science, new instruments are as important as anything else, so engineers deserve as much credit as scientists.’

He wasn’t starry-eyed as a child – his interests growing up in a village outside Ludlow, Shropshire, were ‘Nature and numbers’ and he read mathematics at Cambridge, moving to astronomy for his PhD.

The role may bring neither income, nor even meeting The Queen, but the Templeton Prize he won in 2011 was presented by The Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace and is worth £1 million. This annual prize is for ‘an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works’.

Lord Rees doesn’t believe in God, however: ‘I don’t understand the difference between an atheist and an agnostic, but I would be an atheist I suppose.’ What was his reaction to the award? ‘Surprised, but also very proud.’

He does support the Church of England: ‘The Church and the aesthetic creations of the architecture and music are a part of our culture that I would hate to see weakened.’

Martin Rees (Photo: John Millar / Country Life)

When he was Master of Trinity College Cambridge, weekly attendance at college chapel was a ‘happy’ duty. He would have loved to have been a composer – ‘I wish I had the musical talent’ – yet life as a Cambridge astronomer has its musical compensations: ‘The amount of music performed routinely every day in Cambridge is hugely impressive and important.’

He’s ‘never been very religious’, so it isn’t science that turned him to atheism, but he does say that he knows how hard it is, as a scientist, to understand and explain often relatively simple things so is ‘reluctant to accept dogma that claims to have found all the answers’.

Lord Rees is often asked whether we’re alone in the universe and is prepared to believe that we are not; he is involved in a project searching for life on other planets by looking for evidence of machines there, as only other life could have created them. He reckons there is a 1%–2% chance of finding machines, although the chances of there being life elsewhere are higher. ‘We don’t understand the origin of life yet, so we can’t tell whether it was a fluke or something that was inevitable and so would have happened elsewhere.’

He’s reassured by how science is taken ‘pretty seriously’ in the UK. ‘We have a good record of supporting science. Also, we link it to policy – for example, in the regulation of embryo research – which we do better than in mainland Europe or the USA, as parliamentarians have engaged with scientists.’

“A previous Astronomer Royal described the notion of space travel as ‘utter bilge'”

He is himself now a parliamentarian, having become a ‘People’s Peer’ in 2005 as Baron Rees of Ludlow: ‘It has everything that a small town should have – a wonderful church, a river and very fine Elizabethan and Georgian architecture.’

He’s a member of the Labour Party, but stresses that People’s Peers were picked to be free of party affiliation, so he sits on the crossbenches. ‘The last election in which I campaigned was in 1992. Post-1997, I have described myself as disenfranchised Old Labour, but, as a crossbencher, I can’t campaign, even though Old Labour is now resurgent.’

He predicts that robots will take over many jobs and not just blue-collar ones. ‘They could do conveyancing, accountancy and medical diagnosis, but some things they will not be able to do well – plumbing will be too intricate and no robot will be able to plan and maintain a fine herbaceous border.’

He sees human jobs being increasingly confined to the caring industries: ‘My scenario is to have a massive redistribution of wealth from the robot owners to fund literally millions of jobs, for carers in particular.’

However, he cheerfully points out, ‘scientists are the worst at predictions. A previous Astronomer Royal described the notion of space travel as “utter bilge”’.

If he’s wrong, he can at least fall back on his advice to students that they will ‘get more out of first-rate science fiction than second-rate science’, although he doesn’t actually read or watch it himself and has never even seen an episode of Star Trek: ‘The only television I watch is politics programmes and nature documentaries.’

Could a robot be Astronomer Royal? He ducks the question: ‘The best discoveries will be made via symbiosis of people and machines. As [chess grandmaster] Gary Kasparov says in his new book, human plus computer can beat either a human alone or a computer alone. As outer space is a hostile environment for humans, it’s where robots and artificial fabricators will have the greatest long-term scope.’