Astronomer Royal Martin Rees: We're in a race between science education and catastrophe

The renowned scientist weighs in on what the public misunderstands about science

Published November 20, 2022 2:00PM (EST)


The word "scientist" still conjures up an image of an Albert Einstein lookalike — an unkempt figure (usually male and elderly) — or else a youthful geek. There's now of course far more racial and gender diversity among scientists, though still not enough.

But even in earlier centuries, scientists weren't all in the same mould. Consider, for instance two of the greatest: Newton and Darwin. Newton's mental powers were really "off the scale": when asked how he cracked such deep problems, he said "by thinking on them continually." He was solitary and reclusive when young; vain and vindictive in his later years. Darwin, by contrast, was an agreeable and sympathetic personality, and modest in his self-assessment. "I have a fair share of invention," he wrote in his autobiography," and of common sense or judgment, such as every fairly successful lawyer or doctor must have, but not, I believe, in any higher degree."

Scientists have collectively, transformed our world. Without their insights, we'd be denied the everyday benefits whereby our lives differ from those of our forebears – electricity, health care, transport, computers and the internet. But continuing advances raise profound concerns. Who should access the "readout" of our personal genetic code? How might lengthening lifespans affect society? Should we build nuclear power stations, or wind farms, if we want to keep the lights on? Should we use more insecticides, or plant genetically modified crops? Should the law allow "designer babies?" Will we accept a machine's decisions on issues that matter to us?

Through its response to COVID-19, the scientific community has been our salvation— through urgent worldwide efforts to develop and deploy vaccines, combined with honest attempts to keep the public informed and acknowledge uncertainties.

This globe-spanning plague offered scientists unprecedented public prominence. But there's a scientific component to most policies on health, energy, climate and the environment. Yet if democratic debate is to rise above mere sloganeering, everyone needs a greater "feel" for science to avoid becoming bamboozled by propaganda and bad statistics.

Science's findings are of sufficient intrinsic interest that they should be part of our culture. More than that, science is the one culture that's truly global: protons, proteins, and Pythagoras are the same from China to Peru. Science should transcend all barriers of nationality. And it should straddle all faiths too. It's a real cultural deprivation not to be mindful of the intricate web of life on which we all depend – the chain of emergent complexity leading from a "big bang" to stars, planets, biospheres and human brains able to ponder the wonder and the mystery of it all.

Of course, science certainly doesn't have to be "relevant" to be interesting. It's hard to think of anything less relevant than space and dinosaurs — but nothing in science fascinates young children more. 

To discover new "laws of nature" requires dedicated talent, even genius. But – importantly – grasping their essence isn't too challenging. Most of us appreciate music even if we can't compose it, or even perform it. Likewise, the key ideas of science can be accessed and enjoyed by almost everyone – if conveyed using nontechnical words and simple images.

Indeed, I feel fortunate that my special subject, astronomy, has a positive and non-threatening public image and attracts wide interest. I have long enjoyed speaking and writing for a general audience. Indeed, I'd enjoy my research less if I could only discuss it with fellow specialists. Moreover, I feel my research benefits from this public engagement: the occupational risk of scientists is that they focus so obsessively on the minutiae and technicalities that they forget that it's clarifying the "big picture" that makes their efforts worthwhile. 

Of course, science certainly doesn't have to be "relevant" to be interesting. It's hard to think of anything less relevant than space and dinosaurs — but nothing in science fascinates young children more. We need to sustain and broaden this enthusiasm — which is so often lost in high school.

Some familiar issues are more baffling than phenomena far away in the cosmos.

What about the battalions of micro-Newtons and micro-Darwins who are professional scientists today? Scientists are widely believed to think in a special way – to follow what's called the "scientific method." This belief should be downplayed. It would be truer to say that scientists follow the same rational style of reasoning as (for instance) lawyers or detectives in categorizing phenomena, forming hypotheses, and testing evidence. 

(A related [and indeed damaging] misperception is the mind-set that there is something especially "elite" about the quality of their thought. "Academic ability" is one facet of the far wider concept of intellectual ability – possessed in equal measure by the best journalists, lawyers, engineers, and politicians. Indeed, the great ecologist E. O. Wilson avers that to be effective in some scientific fields, it's actually best not to be too bright. He's not underestimating the insights and eureka moments that punctuate [albeit rarely] scientists' working lives. But, as the world expert on tens of thousands of species of ants, Wilson's research has involved decades of hard slog: armchair theorizing is not enough. So, there is a risk of boredom. And he is indeed right that those with short attention spans – with "grasshopper minds" – may find happier (albeit less worthwhile) employment as "millisecond traders" on Wall Street, or the like.)

And there's no justification for snobbery of "pure" over "applied" work. Harnessing a scientific concept for practical goals can be a greater challenge than the initial discovery. A favorite cartoon of my engineering friends shows two beavers looking up at a vast hydroelectric dam. One beaver says to the other: "I didn't actually build it, but it's based on my idea."

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

Odd though it may seem, some familiar issues are more baffling than phenomena far away in the cosmos. Astronomers have detected ripples in space from two black holes crashing together a billion light years away – they can describe that amazingly exotic and remote event in some detail. In contrast, experts are still befuddled about everyday things that we all care about – diet and child care for instance. When I was young, milk and eggs were good; a decade later we were warned off them because of cholesterol – but today they're OK again (consumed in moderation).

These examples alone show that science has an open frontier. And also that the "glamorous" frontiers of science – the very small – particle physics – and the very large – the cosmos – are less challenging than the very complex. Human beings are the most complicated known things in the universe – the smallest insect is more complex than an atom or a star, and presents deeper mysteries.

The typical field advances through surges, interspersed by periods of relative stagnation. And those who shift their focus mid-career often bring a new perspective. 

Finally, some advice for students pondering a scientific career. The frontiers of our understanding have advanced so far that it's not feasible to be a polymath like Benjamin Franklin: those embarking on research need to specialize. You should pick projects to suit your skills and tastes (for fieldwork? For computation? For high-precision experiments? For handling huge data sets? And so forth). And also decide whether you prefer the team-work intrinsic to projects involving spacecraft or particle accelerators – or whether you prefer to be a loner (like the two UK-based Russians, Andrei Geim and Konstatin Novoselov, whose discovery of the wonder material "graphine" crucially required a roll of Scotch Tape!) Moreover, it's especially gratifying to enter a field where things are advancing fast – where you have access to novel techniques, more powerful computers, or bigger data sets. The experience of older colleagues is then at a deep discount.

And another thing: only geniuses (or cranks) head straight for the grandest and most fundamental problems. You should multiply the importance of the problem by the probability that you'll solve it, and maximize that product. Aspiring scientists shouldn't all swarm into, for instance, the unification of cosmos and quantum, even though it's plainly one of the intellectual peaks we aspire to reach; they should realize that the great challenges in cancer research and in brain science need to be tackled in a piecemeal fashion, rather than head-on.

But of course, there is no need to stick "for life" with the same field of science – nor indeed to spend all your career as a researcher. The typical field advances through surges, interspersed by periods of relative stagnation. And those who shift their focus mid-career often bring a new perspective. 

Moreover, scientists have special obligations outside the lab. They shouldn't be indifferent to the fruits of their ideas. They should try to foster benign spin-offs – commercial or otherwise. They should resist unethical or threatening applications of their work, and alert politicians when appropriate. They should engage with the media and campaigning groups – aiming to catalyze a better-informed debate.

Fine exemplars from the past were the atomic scientists who developed nuclear weapons during World War II. Fate had assigned them a pivotal role in history. Though many returned with relief to peacetime academic pursuits, the ivory tower wasn't, for them, a sanctuary. They continued as engaged citizens, promoting efforts to control the power they had helped unleash.

When rival theories fight it out, only one winner is left standing (or maybe none). A crucial piece of evidence can sometimes clinch the issue; in other cases, an idea gains only a gradual ascendancy: alternative views get marginalized until their leading proponents die off. In general, the more remarkable a claim is, the more skeptical it's appropriate to be. As Carl Sagan said, "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."

Occasionally a maverick is vindicated. We all enjoy seeing this happen – such instances are, however rarer than the popular press would have us believe. But it would be a welcome antidote to institutional "groupthink" if there were more independent scientists with professional expertise – who have, for instance accumulated enough wealth through high-tech start-ups to be self-supporting.

A special obligation lies on those in academia, and self-employed entrepreneurs, to engage with the ethical and prudential dilemmas that science confronts us with; they have more freedom than those employed in government service or in industry (genetics and robotics, in particular, are advancing apace, rightly prompting public unease). Academics, moreover, have the special opportunity to influence students.

It's encouraging to witness more activists among the young – unsurprising, as they can expect to live to the end of the century. Their commitment gives grounds for optimism. Let's hope that many of them become scientists – and true global citizens.

By Martin Rees

Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal, former President of the Royal Society, Fellow (and former Master) of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He sits as a member of the UK House of Lords. His new book, "If Science Is to Save Us," is out now from Polity Books.

MORE FROM Martin Rees

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Analysis Astronomy Civics Covid-19 Education Science