The eminent astronomer who says there is no plan B for the world
Professor Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, is best known for his research in astrophysics. His work has changed our understanding of the early universe. He’s also interested in the social and political challenges facing the world. As technology opens up new possibilities, he advises that we need to make wise decisions.
If I’m on a plane and don’t want to chat to my neighbour, I say I’m a mathematician. It’s a certain conversation stopper. If I’m feeling sociable, I admit to being an astronomer. The number one question I’m asked is: “Do you believe in aliens or are we alone?” This topic fascinates me and I’m always happy to discuss it.
The question of the existence of life elsewhere in the universe dates from antiquity. Because there’s no answer yet, there’s less of a barrier between the expert and the general inquirer. Most planets are too blisteringly hot or icy cold to sustain life as we know it. Earth is the Goldilocks planet — not too hot and not too cold.
Possibilities once confined to science fiction are now up for serious debate. The Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago and it’s got another 6 billion years or so before its fuel runs out. The expanding universe will continue, perhaps forever, becoming ever colder and emptier. Any creatures witnessing the Sun’s demise won’t be human.
The long-term future probably lies with electronic rather than ‘natural’ life. Future evolution can happen via ‘intelligent design’ on a technological timescale, operating far faster than the Darwinian natural selection that led to us, and driven by advances in genetics and artificial intelligence (AI).
Post-humans will be as different from us as we are from a bug. Organic creatures like us need a planetary surface environment. But if post-humans make the transition to fully inorganic intelligences, they won’t need an atmosphere. And they may prefer zero-gravity, especially for constructing extensive but lightweight habitats. In deep space, non-biological ‘brains’ might develop powers that humans can’t even imagine.