Colliding Worlds 7: The future

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.

Colliding Worlds 6: A fair inheritance

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 sixth Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich asks Martin how science can help to provide a fair inheritance to future generations.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

You conclude your book From Here to Infinity by saying “In today’s runaway world, we can’t aspire to leave a monument lasting a thousand years, but it would surely be shameful if we persisted in policies that denied future generations a fair inheritance.” You were President of The Royal Society until a few years ago, what do you think is that institution’s role in providing future generations “a fair inheritance”.

Martin Rees

I think science is clearly going to be an important part of the solution to most social problems. To address must of this century’s challenges, we need to think internationally and also to think long-term. But that is a problem for most politicians, for whom the urgent always trumps the long-term and the parochial always trumps the global. Politicians want to please their own electors — and please them before the next election.

This is a structural problem with all attempts to address the most serious problems —providing food and energy for the world and controlling technology. I think scientists make special contribution because science and technology are crucial to meeting these challenges, and they are more far-sighted than the average person in forseeing the implications of their work. Their crystal ball is still, however, very cloudy!

Also science is the one truly global culture. As I say in my book, protons and proteins are the same all over the world and everyone looks up at the same sky wherever they are in the world, it’s universal. Scientists have a tradition of transcending political barriers – even in the depths of the Cold War there was strong and often benign contact between the physicists in the Soviet Union and in the West – so scientists are a special international community, and this perhaps gives them a special opportunity and a special commitment to doing what they can to address these problems.

It’s crucially important that we are prepared to think in a longer-term because issues like transforming to a low-carbon economy, and feeding nine billion people sustainably will depend on science. But it will take more than 50 years to achieve these goals – to transform our infrastructure — and we need to think that far ahead. And we need to care about the long-term future. We’ve got to avoid any discrimination on grounds of date of birth: we should surely value the welfare of someone born today just as much as the welfare of someone who’s now aged 50. That means we need to take precautions to ensure that lifestyles in the later part of this century will be sustainable. We are not doing this enough. It’s sad that even though we have much broader horizons in both space and time than our ancestors did, and we don’t have such immediate hazards to face, we are reluctant to plan very far ahead.

There’s, somewhat ironically, only one context where people think a long way ahead and that’s in deciding how to dispose safely of radioactive waste, when they talk seriously about whether it will be in a repository that is safe for ten thousand years. But they won’t think seriously about how we are going to keep the lights on fifty years from now or whether we will avoid causing dangerous climate change. Scientists can perhaps be more activist in campaigning to ensure that these long-term global issues don’t fall too low on the agenda.

However, scientists have to be modest. They’ve got to realise that all these political questions have a scientific dimension but they are not just scientific. They have to discuss these questions in terms of economics and ethics and politics as well, and in those arenas scientists have no special expertise. So what we need is socially engaged scientists who are prepared to raise public consciousness of long-term issues and who are prepared to engage with the public and the politicians. We all want to ensure that we navigate the century safely – but it’s going to be a bumpy ride because of the unpredictability of new technology.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.

A cat among the collection

In honour of #MuseumCats (head over to Culture Themes to find out more), we’re taking a look through Wellcome Collection’s clowder of cat-related material: from scientific accounts to historical satire; from safe sex posters to Henry Wellcome’s very own felines. Follow us on Twitter for a cornucopia of kitty caboodle. Meanwhile, Russell Dornan tells us about some of the ways cats are represented in our collection.

A cat running. Photogravure after Eadweard Muybridge, 1887.

Henry’s Cats

It seems fitting to start this post with the very cats owned by Sir Henry Wellcome, especially as they had a mansion all to themselves next to Regent’s Park in London. Although he didn’t live with them all the time (preferring to stay in a hotel in Portland Place) he was an attentive owner who recognised his cat’s very particular needs.

Henry Wellcome's cat, Pip, with one of her kittens.

Henry Wellcome’s cat, Pip, with one of her kittens.

As an “archetypal cat owner, with the eccentricities to match”, Wellcome made sure Pip and his other cats were well looked after whether he was there or not. He left detailed instructions and all the relevant phone numbers or addresses their caretaker might need. Read more about Wellcome’s pampered pets in the Wellcome Library’s post.

An example of Henry Wellcome’s holiday care instructions for those looking after his cats.

An example of Henry Wellcome’s holiday care instructions for those looking after his cats.

In the wider collection, cats are represented in many guises and for many different reasons. This post aims to give you a taste of these and to illustrate the variety of ways cats have been portrayed across our collections. We’ll be sharing more of these on Twitter.

Black Cats

Depending on where you are in the world, a black cat may still inspire a superstitious reaction (both good and bad). In Japan black cats are considered lucky; this is the case in Scotland, where they also symobolise prosperity. In the rest of the UK and some parts of Europe, black cats are deemed lucky if they cross your path from left to right; however, beware if they pass from right to left as this is a terrible omen. Others took it even further, saying that a black cat walking towards or away from you, or entering and then leaving a ship all carried their own meanings.

Some British soldiers used black cat amulets as good luck charms during the First World War as they were considered by some to provide good luck and protection against illness and danger. Many soldiers were based on the Western Front, where conditions in the trenches could seem hopeless. The men had seen friends killed in action, been close to death themselves and felt they had little control over their survival. Spanish soldiers in the late 1800s wore more literal amulets with the inscription ‘Détente, bala!’ – ‘Stop, bullet!’

This black cat amulet was carried for protection and good luck by a British soldier during the First World War.

This black cat amulet was said to have been carried for protection and good luck by a British soldier fighting during the First World War.

Paper amulet in the shape of a black cat. England, 1914-1918.

Paper amulet in the shape of a black cat. England, 1914-1918.

Witchcraft

For USA Today, the aptly named feline geneticist, Dr Leslie Lyons, says “I think most superstitions about cats came from people’s fear of them. They’re uncanny animals. They’re aloof, but then they suddenly appear and startle people. They’re also great climbers and can jump three or four or five times their own heights. It’s surprising and maybe frightening for people to see them on the ground and then suddenly up on the wall. Also their eyeshine is interesting and strange – their eyes have a reflective layer that is dramatic in darkness.”

Is their sometimes unsettling presence to blame for cats being seen as or linked to unholy creatures? One theory for the strong historical dislike towards black cats and, subsequently, cats in general is their association with witches and witchcraft. Black cats were thought to be the familiars of witches or cunning-folk, assisting them in their practice of magic and were often killed as a result. It has been said that simply owning a black cat was an offence punishable by assault or even death.

Big black cats howl as naked witches ascend into the night, by T.A. Steinlen.

Big black cats howl as naked witches ascend into the night, by T.A. Steinlen.

In around 1232, Pope Gregory IX supposedly issued the Vox in Rama condemning a form of devil worshipping. Part of the ritual described included the worship of a diabolical black cat known as the “master”, leading to the vilification of black cats across Western Europe for centuries. Although the Pope may not have directly condemned black cats nor ordered their extermination, claiming they were used in devil-worshipping rituals may have led some people to fear and kill them.

Whatever the reason for their persecution, some argue that the massacre of cats across Europe in the Middle Ages played a big part in the Black Death: with a dramatically reduced population of mousers, rats carrying the infected fleas were able to spread further and faster, rendering the plague even more catastrophic. It is still unclear whether or not the Black Death was spread by fleas via rats or whether it was spread from person to person (or a combination of both). Either way, it’s an interesting thought.

Science

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is a book by Charles Darwin, published in 1872. In this book, Darwin looks at the animal origins of physical human characteristics when displaying emotions. It is also an important landmark in book illustration. Several of the plates in the book feature cats exhibiting various behavioural responses, such as “terror” or “affection”:

“We will now turn to the cat. When this animal is threatened by a dog, it arches its back in a surprising manner, erects its hair, opens its mouth and spits. But we are not here concerned with this well-known attitude, expressive of terror combined with anger…”

Illustration of cat terrified at a dog from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.

Illustration  from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.

“Let us now look at a cat in a directly opposite frame of mind, whilst feeling affectionate and caressing her master; and mark how opposite is her attitude in every respect. She now stands upright with her back slightly arched, which makes the hair appear rather rough, but it does not bristle; her tail, instead of being extended and lashed from side to side, is held quite stiff and perpendicularly upwards; her ears are erect and pointed; her mouth is closed; and she rubs against her master with a purr instead of a growl.”

Illustration from The Expression of the  Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.

Illustration from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.

Cats also featured in the studies of Eadweard James Muybridge (1830 – 1904). Muybridge was an English photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion and early work in motion-picture projection. His work contributed substantially to developments in biomechanics and is still used as a reference by artists, animators and students of animal and human movement.

A cat running by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887.

A cat running by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887.

An animated version f Muybridge's cat photographs.

An animated version of Muybridge’s cat photographs.

The extensively illustrated and rather large book of osteology, Osteographia, by William Cheselden (1688 – 1752) was published in London in 1733 and features life-like skeletal poses of  animals alongside the illustrations of human bones and skeletons. A landmark in anatomical illustration, Cheselden chose the poses of the skeletons himself and was involved in every stage of its production. Read more about this extraordinary work and the man responsible for it over at The Public Domain Review.

The skeletal structure of a cat shown in fright and a dog in attack mode. Osteographia by William Cheselden, 1733.

The skeletal structure of a cat shown in fright and a dog in attack mode. Osteographia by William Cheselden, 1733.

For more awesome cats from museum collections all over the world, follow the conversation on Twitter where we’ll be sharing more from our collection too. And for suggestions of the best cats in art history check out this list and see if you agree.

Russell Dornan is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection and has a black cat called Kubrick (below).

Colliding Worlds 5: Unrealised science

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 fifth Colliding Worlds post, Martin tells Hans Ulrich about the unrealised projects of science and the importance of scientific citizens.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

You’ve mentioned that there are two big unrealised projects, not only in your work but in contemporary science in general. Could you tell me about them and how you see them unfolding in the 21st Century?

Martin Rees

The first is an attempt to unify the physics of the very small, the quantum world, with the physics of the very large — the domain where Einstein’s theory of gravity holds sway.

Normally we get on very well without this unification because if you’re a chemist you have to apply quantum theory but you don’t need to worry about the gravitational force between two atoms in a molecule because it’s very small. On the other hand if you are an astronomer you need to consider gravity but you don’t need to worry about the quantum fuzziness in the orbits of stars and planets because that effect is tiny because the masses are so large. But to really understand the beginning of the universe, a time when the entire universe was squeezed to microscopic size, clearly we need a theory that can relate gravity to quantum effects, a so-called unified theory. Until we have such a theory we won’t really be able to understand why the universe is expanding the way it is and why it’s got the properties and ‘mix’of ingredients that it has.

But there’s one very important point that some ‘popular’ writers overlook. Even if we some day discover this unified theory, it won’t be any direct help at all to 99% of scientists because they’re are engaged with studying very complicated things — things that are neither very small nor very large but which have layer upon layer of structure, in particular living organisms. Of course we humans are the most complicated things we know about in the universe, and it’s an unending challenge to understand that complexity. So it really is the biologists who face the toughest challenge – not particle physicists, not astronomers.

A familiar analogy I’d like to give is with a game of chess. Suppose you’d never seen a game of chess being played before. By watching people play you could figure out what the rules are – that the knight moves in a jagged way, bishops move diagonally and so on. But learning how the pieces move in chess is just a trivial preliminary to the absorbing progression from being a novice to being a grand master. By analogy, learning the basic laws of physics is like knowing the rules by which matter and forces interact. But even when you understand those rules fully, even when we have a unified theory, that’s still just the beginning of understanding how those rules play out in the complex world of living things and the environment that we humans inhabit. So the biggest challenge of all is to understand complexity.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

In your book From Here To Infinity, you talk about the scientific citizen and about the necessity of collaboration between lay people and scientists. It’s interesting, at the moment we are working on a solar airplane project with the artists Sehgal and Eliasson and the Danish solar technology by Ottesen and only this one problem needs a combination of aerodynamics, of design, of solar technology; of inventors, of artists. I suppose for all big questions of the 21st Century, it needs a bringing together or a pooling of disciplines, a pooling of knowledge.

Martin Rees

To address many of the challenges, both intellectual challenges and practical challenges, we need to combine the expertise of different branches of science. One of the occupational risks of scientists is that they become so sharply focused on one particular topic that they don’t realise it is part of some bigger picture. We often need broad interdisciplinary attitudes and collaboration.

Something that ‘s extremely encouraging is a consequence of the computer revolution. It has done two things. First, it has allowed us to do simulations, virtual experiments in the virtual world of a computer, which can supplement real experiments. Aeronautical engineers can now compute the flow of air over an aerofoil without necessarily having to do an actual experiment in a wind tunnel. Astronomers of course can’t do experiments on stars and galaxies in the real universe, and therefore benefit hugely from doing ‘experiments’ in the virtual world of computer simulations.

Another by-product of the information technology age is the internet, which has allowed far more people to participate in science. Before the internet there were a few sciences, like botany, where amateurs could make a contribution. But now anyone with a computer and access to the internet can download huge data sets in astronomy, in environmental science or in microbiology; they can analyse the data and look for patterns themselves. This mass effort by amateurs will surely speed up the development of science, and that’s necessary because the rate at which the information is being gathered is getting so large that the few professionals can’t handle it all.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.

Colliding Worlds 4: Science fiction

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 fourth Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich finds out how Martin feels about science fiction and the visual arts.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

I was kind of wondering if you could talk a little bit about your relationship to science fiction, if you’ve had dialogues or friendships or collaborations with science fiction writers over the years or your interest in it.

Martin Rees

I certainly encourage people to read science fiction. Indeed I tell my students it’s better to read first-rate science fiction than second-rate science. It’s much more interesting and no more likely to be wrong!

I think imagination can be nourished by the best science fiction. I hugely admire the classics like HG Wells. But a special favourite is Olaf Stapledon who wrote in the 1930s two classic books, one called Star Maker which was a pioneer’s speculation about how universes might be created, and another, Last and First Men, which was one of the first books to actually explore the very very distant future.

These works exemplify how science fiction writers offer an imaginative vision that can inspire all readers, even those who are professional scientists. As regards more recent science fiction, I am not an avid reader of it but I would strongly recommend a wonderful book called Aliens by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart where they in fact condense the plots of a lot of science fiction books. I wish there were more books like this one, because science fiction books are rarely fine works of literature, but are interesting for their ideas. So if you can actually absorb the ideas in a condensed form you don’t lose as much as you would lose in getting a condensed version of a serious work of literature. So I am excited by the concept of science fiction even though I’m not a voracious reader of science fiction.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Wonderful, and what about the visual arts?

Martin Rees

My colleague in Cambridge, John Barrow, has collaborated with Martin Kemp on quite a few activities linking science and arts. I am interested in the visual arts, and particularly admire the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld (a friend who seems to me to get far too little critical acclamation compared to others with far less talent and persistence), but I wouldn’t say that art has as much impact on my thoughts in the way that literature and music do.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.

Colliding Worlds 3: Sixth extinction

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 third Colliding Worlds post, Martin answers questions from Hans Ulrich about the risk of a ‘sixth extinction’.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Now I’ve just been reading over the weekend a new book by Elizabeth Kolbert called The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. She says that over the last half a billion years there have been five mass extinctions on earth when the diversity of life suddenly contracted and she says that what could happen now is actually the sixth extinction, and maybe the most devastating extinction since the asteroid impact that destroyed and wiped out the dinosaurs, so it’s kind of interesting because we talk a lot about climate change and we talk a lot about ecology but maybe the most urgent notion which really makes us more aware of this imminent danger is that notion of extinction so I just wanted to see if you would agree with that and what is your view on extinction.

Martin Rees

Yes indeed. As I said earlier, one class of threats for this century are those stemming from the pressures we as humans are collectively imposing on the planet. There are more of us, and each of us is more demanding in terms of energy and resources; already about 40% of the biomass of the earth is being used directly or indirectly by humans. So humans are very much the dominant species in the biosphere, and we are of course changing the biosphere by causing extinctions. And of course climate change could happen too fast for species to adjust to it and that will be an aggravating factor for extinctions, so certainly the extinctions are a consequence of the impact that we are collectively having on the environment.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Would you agree with Elizabeth Kolbert that that threat of the sixth extinction, that it could lead to the biggest extinction since the dinosaurs? Martin Well how big it is depends on how humanity controls its development in the coming century. Obviously if global warming became very acute, or if we destroyed entire ecosystems then this may indeed be serious, so certainly this could happen. I wouldn’t want to comment on how likely it is –nor be too alarmist — because the outcome depends on many uncertainties: how humanity’s technology will develop, how the population will evolve after mid-century and many other inponderables.

Martin Rees

Of course one ‘doomsday’ scenario is runaway ecological catastrophe which would lead to mass extinctions — but which scenario actually turns into reality will depend on choices which we and the next one or two generations make.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.

Colliding Worlds 2: Ecological disaster

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 second Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich speaks to Martin about his views on the fragility of our global situation, looming ecological disaster and the role of the concerned scientist.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

In the last couple of years there has been ever growing interest among many artists in your books, such as Our Final Century, and From Here To Infinity, where you address the fragility of our current condition. As early as the 60s there was an awareness about the looming ecological disaster, but when did this enter your work?

Martin Rees

I think I first became concerned with the fragility of our global situation through concern about nuclear weapons during the later part of the cold war – especially in the 1980s. I involved myself in the Pugwash Conferences and other activities of that kind. This led, later on, to a concern about how the advance in technology is generating new threats to the planet. These threats are of two kinds: our collective actions are depleting resources, disrupting ecosystems and affecting the climate; and also novel risks stemming from the misuse (by error or terror) of ever more powerful technology by a few individuals. Ten years ago I wrote Our Final Century, which was really an attempt to highlight the risks that may confront us later in this century. This is a theme I’ve continued to engage with in the subsequent years.

I am sometimes asked whether my being an astronomer brings anything special to this subject. I think there’s indeed one special perspective that astronomers offer, which is an awareness of the huge future lying ahead.

Most people who are familiar with Darwinism know that we are the outcome of about four billion years of evolution on Earth, starting from simple organisms and evolving towards our present biosphere, and of course human beings. However, most people, I think, see us humans as the culmination of evolution. No astronomer could think that way. That’s because we’ve learnt that the sun has five or six billion years to go before it flares up and dies: it’s less than halfway through its life! So we should think of humans as just some intermediate stage in evolution. Much more wonderful creatures will emerge in the future here on earth and far beyond. Indeed that claim is strengthened because future evolution may be much faster – intelligently directed rather than natural selection, and perhaps eventually silicon-based rather than organic.

The reason that we should be so concerned about what happens this century is that if we snuff out human life, it’s not just us and our immediate descendants who would be destroyed, but we would destroy the potential for post-human life which could extend for billions of years. So the stakes seem even higher to an astronomer than to most people because we are aware that a disaster here on earth this century could foreclose millennia or even millions of years of future evolution.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Yes and also it would extinguish the possibility of life on other planets?

Martin Rees

That’s right. But of course if humans can eventually escape from the earth and produce self-sustaining colonies, our species would thereafter be less vulnerable to the kinds of disaster that could affect most of the earth. I think that within a few centuries there will indeed be small communities living away from the earth. They will of course be empowered by huge computer power, and an understanding of genetics and they will use the knowledge of those fields to modify their progeny to adapt to that alien environment. At that stage the post-human era will begin, because they will adapt to a different environment to the extent that they would within only a few centuries become a different species.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

I was also interested in the idea that very often, as the artist Orion Pernosky says, we invest in a future made out of fragments from the past. You’ve mentioned Joe Rablat, in relation to the Pugwash Movement as a kind of the model of the concerned scientist, and I was wondering if you could tell me what inspired you from Joe’s work and if there are any other scientists from the past whom you consider influences or inspirations.

[editors note: The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs are an international organization that brings together scholars and public figures to work toward reducing the danger of armed conflict and to seek solutions to global security threats. It was founded by Joseph Rotblat in 1957 and Rotblat and the Pugwash Conference won jointly the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995].

Martin Rees

I became interested in the Pugwash Movement because I got to know people like Joe Roblat, Hans Bethe and Rudolf Peierls, who had all been involved in creating the first nuclear weapons at Los Alamos in World War II. These man, all great scientists, felt an obligation to do all they could in civilian life to control the power that they had helped to unleash. I was very impressed by their commitment and their sense of responsibility. They are all sadly now dead, but I feel it is important that younger scientists should learn from their attitudes – their conscience and their commitment.

We now need ‘concerned scientists’ not just in the context of nuclear weapons but also in other areas. We need them to ensure that all the other areas of science which are of social relevance, in biomedicine and in computers and robotics, are exploited in ways that benefit us but that we strive to avoid their serious downsides. One of my current activities,incidentally, is helping to set up a Cambridge-based group to study the extreme risks that may confront humanity if we don’t control advancing technology in the bio, cyber and robotics spheres.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.