Prof. Martin Rees


Albert Einstein World Award of Science 2003
Field of Research: Astrophysics
Date: 17 November 2003
Place of Ceremony: National Archives of Finland
Host Institution:
University of Helsinki
Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters
National Archives of Finland
Host Country: Helsinki, Finland

Cosmologists have now grasped at least the outlines of our entire cosmos, and learnt what it is made of. We can trace the evolutionary story back before our Solar System formed — indeed back to an epoch, long before there were any stars, when everything sprouted from an intensely hot ‘genesis event’, the so called Big Bang, nearly 14 billion years ago.

The first microsecond is shrouded in mystery but everything that happened since then — the emergence of our complex cosmos from simple beginnings — is the outcome of laws that we can understand, even though the details still elude us. Quasars, black holes, neutron stars and the ‘big bang’ have entered the general vocabulary, if not the common understanding. A challenge for the 21st century is to refine our present picture, filling in ever more detail, just as generations of surveyors did for the Earth — and, especially, to probe the mysterious domains where earlier cartographers wrote “here be dragons”.

We are discovering new planets around distant stars, and probing the underlying laws that allowed their emergence. We are starting to address Einstein’s famous question: ‘Did God have any choice in the creation of the universe?’

Cosmic exploration has never been as rapid and dramatic as it is today; the conceptual excitement of the subject has never been more intense.

But science is an unending quest, and cosmologists have brought into sharper focus a new set of questions. What happened before the big bang? Is there life elsewhere? What causes gravity and mass? Is the universe infinite? How did atoms assemble into brains able to ponder these mysteries? How did an immensely complex biosphere emerge on at least one planet around at least one star?

These fundamental questions fascinate a wide public. Cosmology is becoming a part of common culture in the 21st century, just as Darwinism was in the 20th.

The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture. But most people still perceive humanity as some kind of culmination of evolution: cosmologists, in contrast, are mindful that still vaster timespans lie ahead and can offer a distinctive perspective on our fragile Earth. The unfolding of intelligence and complexity could still be near its cosmic beginnings: in far-future aeons even more marvellous biodiversity could emerge.

Our Earth, a tiny ‘pale blue dot’ in the cosmos, may be of galactic –even cosmic — significance. It could be one of the rare locations where advanced life has merged and with the potential to develop further.

From this perspective, the present century seems the most crucial in Earth’s history — it is a century when human choices and actions could ensure the perpetual future of life (which may lie not just on the Earth, but far beyond it); in contrast, through malign intent, or through misadventure, 21st-century technology could jeopardise life’s potential, foreclosing its human and posthuman future.

The wider cosmos has a potential future that could even be infinite. But will this eternity be filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life, or as empty as the Earth’s first sterile seas? The choice may depend on us, this century.

By research, writing and persuasion, I hope to raise consciousness and spread awareness of the intellectual fascination, the potentialities and the potential hazards of 21st century science. Science is a global culture, and the challenges are global too.