Martin Rees in Vancouver – the Ouroboros, Size and Scale, and Good Sci-Fi

Martin Rees—the British cosmologist, astrophysicist, author, Baron of Ludlow, present Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom and former president of the Royal Society—recently spoke in Vancouver at the Vogue Theater. In a 45 minute talk followed by a 45 minute Q&A period hosted by CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald, Rees delighted the audience with a broad discussion of our current understanding of the cosmos, highlighted by some thought-provoking musings and extrapolations into the future.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this talk was free (the tickets actually said $0.00 on them!), that Rees had visuals on a large screen to illustrate his points, and that he was not simply there to promote his new book, From Here to Infinity: A Vision for the Future of Science. He did mention his most recent books (with some humorous anecdotes about how his publisher had changed the titles for American audiences to make them more dramatic) in the final thirty seconds of the talk and flashed their covers on the big screen, but that was it. I appreciated the humble approach, especially in comparison to some other talks I’ve been to where you end up feeling obligated to purchase the book in the foyer of the venue.

The first twenty to thirty minutes was nothing that anyone interested in astronomy, the cosmos, or science didn’t already know: we live on a rocky planet covered in water, orbiting an ordinary star that’s about halfway through its life, there are other planets in our solar system that we’ve explored, and our solar system is just one tiny blip in the giant galaxy called the Milky Way, which itself is just one ordinary spiral galaxy in a sea of billions upon billions of galaxies, and so on. Like Carl Sagan before him (who was referenced a couple of times) Rees gave a nice, concise overview of where we’re at in our understanding of the cosmos, and then turned to where we might be heading in the 21st century. He contends that of the 45 million centuries that Earth has been around, this is the first one in which one species has the ability to change the long-term future of the planet. That’s both a scary and exciting thought. Rees seems mostly optimistic about the future, but thinks this century will be a bumpy ride with many challenges.

The Ouroboros and the Scale of the Universe

One image Rees showed which caught my attention was that of the Ouroboros, with the orders of magnitude of size observed thus far listed in circular order around the snake’s body:



Humans, standing somewhere between 1 and 2 meters tall, sit somewhere in the middle of this scale, larger than ants but smaller than mountains

Rees pointed out the symmetry between corresponding small and large scales, heading in opposite directions from our ‘starting point’ of human-size in the middle. I’ve always thought it was interesting that humans fall right in the middle, between the smallest things we know and the largest things we know, but after thinking about it for a bit, can it really be any other way? The technology we use to peer deep into the micro world grows roughly at the same rate as the technology we use to look far out to the macro world of the cosmos. So perhaps there’s not anything special about us humans being somewhere in the middle, but rather it’s just a product of the limitations of our technology.

As we create better microscopes and more powerful particle accelerators, we are able to dive deeper into the subatomic world, discovering increasingly small particles which comprise all of our matter and energy. And as we create better telescopes and faster methods of travel through space, we can explore our galactic neighbors more fully, expanding our cosmic horizons. In other words, as our technology improves, our reach in both directions expands.

Good Science-Fiction vs. Bad Non-Fiction

One last point that Martin Rees made got plenty of laughter from the audience. He said that it was far better to read good science fiction than it was to read bad science, and that we can actually learn a lot more from the former. Good sci-fi works within the parameters of science, following a system of rules and logic, while offering us imaginative looks to the future and plenty of speculative what-if scenarios. These fictional stories suggest new possibilities, inspire us to wonder and ask questions, and in some cases, lead to inventions and designs in the real (non-fictional) world. We can look to Isaac Asimov’s use of robots in his fictional stories of the mid-20th century and compare them to the real-world robots of the early 21st as one example, and more recently, look to the hybrid (in that they have sci-fi and non-fictional elements) works of Ray Kurzweil for speculations on our future. Kurzweil’s theorized singularity came up at the end of the Q&A, and I got the impression that, while he is a huge advocate for the advancement of robotics, Martin Rees is not much of a believer in the technological singularity, and perhaps thinks that Kurzweil should be placed in the ‘bad science’ category.


Overall, I greatly enjoyed the one-and-a-half hour session with Martin Rees, and was thoroughly impressed with his eloquence and his captivating way of simplifying a great deal of subject matter into a concise lecture.

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