The Limits Of Science

Sometimes you just have to take the opportunities that are offered to you. Thus, I found myself escorting TLC and MadamWDW to the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, to hear Lord Rees of Ludlow deliver the annual Romanes Lecture. I am, apparently, cultured.


The Romanes Lectures are a big deal, attracting the greatest thinkers on the planet, and giving them the chance to quietly blow an audience’s mind. So it was here. Martin Rees has been the Astronomer Royal since 1995, and a cosmologist of note for most of his life. When he chooses to deliver a lecture on The Limits Of Science, you know that you’re in for a trip to the frontiers, the wildlands of what’s knowable, the edge of our capability to understand the vast and extraordinary universe around us.

One of the most remarkable things, Lord Rees was quick to point out, was how adaptable we are to giant leaps in knowledge and understanding. He cited Einstein, saying:

‘Einstein averred that “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”.  He was right to be astonished. Our minds, evolved to cope with the life of our remote ancestors on the African savannah. It’s amazing these minds can comprehend so much of the counterintuitive microworld of atoms, and phenomena billions of lightyears away.’

The very fact that I’m sitting in a coffee shop typing up notes that will within the hour be distributed to a global audience would have been fiction thirty years ago. Now, it’s just one of those things. This is a definite factor to bear in mind when we talk about the limits of science, and one that has led to hilarious statements over the years. The president of IBM stating with confidence in 1950 that the world would probably need five computers in total. Or, as Rees wryly pointed out, that his predecessor as Astronomer Royal was on record as declaring space travel to be bunk.

Lord Rees of Ludlow, dropping science. Photo by John Cairns.

The sheer pace of change that we’ve gone through in the last 200 years is another factor to be taken into consideration when we consider the limits of science. We’re making massive strides in all sorts of scientific areas, and we’re making them at a sprint. An alien culture with the patience to look at our planet over the length of it’s history would see it suddenly blast out radio signals across the spectra as if from nowhere. In cosmological, even in planetary terms, the hundred or so years that we’ve had the ability to transmit is so tiny as to be effectively non-existent. Thirty years ago the Internet was barely proof of concept, let alone the backbone of modern society that it is now. In another thirty years, who can say where we’ll be?

Of course, this frantic pace of change has bad points too, and Lord Rees was careful to point out that global warming and pollution are also very recent human innovations. We need to be selfish in our stewardship of the planet – I get the feeling that just because Ma Earth can no longer sustain us is no reason to believe that she can no longer sustain life (look at Chernobyl, for example) – and consider that what’s best for the land is also best for us. As a species we have proven ourselves adept at thinking our way out of all kinds of apparently unsolvable fixes, and we are also survivors. However, it’s never polite to hand on damaged goods as an heirloom. Technologically, Rees is an optimist, but he was also clear that it would take a radical shift in the current political mind-set to enable the science to do the job it needs to do.

Lord Rees was pleasingly open to new ideas, citing post-human thinking on more than one point in his lectures. It was interesting to note that he didn’t refer to the role of mind-altering substances as a way to spark new ways of thinking. It’s used and works often enough in the arts, and it’s fair to say that transhumanist thinkers like Terrence McKenna used all kinds of tools to explore the hinterlands of the mind. Not that sort of a lecture, I guess, but something of an omission. I was more cheered to hear that he recommended to his students that good science-fiction was a more useful read than second-rate science, and significantly more entertaining. That’s a stance with which I fully agree.

I was struck again and again at how passionate and excited Rees was about science and it’s possibilities. The common misconception about the scientific community is that they are cold, dispassionate beings, interested only in bald evidence, the blunt truth. This is light years from the truth, of course. Scientists have the same capacity to dream and imagine as the rest of us. The difference is that they often have the skill-set to actually make those dreams come true, or if not to be able to hand on the job to a new generation. Rees cited Ely Cathedral, an extraordinary building envisaged and started by people who had no chance of ever seeing it complete. And yet they were certain that some day it’s spires would indeed reach towards heaven. Faith and belief in an unknown and unseeable future – hardly the cold, precise image of the scientist that some would have us see. Of course, Lord Rees put it better, concluding his lecture with these words:

‘To survive this century, we’ll need the idealistic and effective efforts of natural scientists, environmentalists, social scientists and humanists. They must be guided by the best evidence, but inspired by values from beyond the limits of science.’

Lord Rees’ Romanes Lecture was a proper head-spinner, taking a rapt and filled-to-the-gunwales Sheldonian from the instant before the Big Bang to a future filled with new challenges and opportunities. It was thrilling, mind-boggling stuff, and I count myself lucky to have been there.

You can read a bit more on the Romanes Lecture “The Limits Of Science” at the University of Oxford newsfeed.


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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