Big Bangs, Biospheres and the Limits of Science

Professor Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

Co-presented with the Faculty of Science

81:04 minutes Download video (mp4, 222 Mb)

9 November

Astronomers have made astonishing progress in probing our cosmic environment. We can trace cosmic history from some mysterious 'beginning' nearly 14 billion years ago, and understand in outline the emergence of atoms, galaxies, stars and planets – and how, on at least one planet, life emerged and developed a complex biosphere of which we are part. We have recently learnt, moreover, that many other stars are orbited by retinues of planets – some resembling our Earth, and perhaps harbouring alien life. Telescopes have revealed billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars. But there are intimations that physical reality is hugely more extensive than the domain our telescopes can probe. Indeed we may inhabit a 'multiverse' – living in the aftermath of one among an infinity of 'big bangs'.

But these advances pose new questions: How 'special' is our Earth, and the time in which we are living? Are there aspect of science that human brains will never grasp? What does the long-range future hold, for our cosmos and for 'post-human' evolution? This illustrated lecture will attempt to address such issues.

Professor Martin Rees

Martin Rees is the UK's Astronomer Royal, and was until recently Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He is a member of the House of Lords, and was President of the Royal Society for the period 2005-10. After studying at the University of Cambridge, he held various post-doctoral positions in the UK and the USA, before becoming a professor at Sussex University. He then moved back to Cambridge, where he held a number of positions and was for ten years Director of the Institute of Astronomy.

He is a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Academy, and several other foreign academies. His international awards include the Balzan Prize, the Bower Award of the Franklin Institute, the Cosmology Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation, the Einstein Award of the World Cultural Council, the Crafoord Prize (Royal Swedish Academy) and the Templeton Prize. He has been president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1994-95) and the Royal Astronomical Society (1992-94) and a trustee of the British Museum, the Science Museum, the Kennedy Memorial Trust, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, the Cambridge Gates Trust, and has served on many bodies connected with education, space research, arms control and international collaboration in science. He is the author of many research papers, mainly on astrophysics and cosmology, as well as numerous general articles and eight books, including Just Six Numbers,Our Final Century? and most recently, From Here to Infinity: Scientific Horizons, an expanded version of his 2010 BBC Reith Lectures.