Colliding Worlds 5: Unrealised science

29 July 2014

Wellcome Collection recently hosted Colliding Worlds, an event exploring the extraordinary research of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, in the thought-provoking context of a conversation with curator and art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist. From astronomy and ecological disaster to science fiction and advice to young scientists, watch the exchange below. 

We’re also publishing excerpts of the conversations that led to this event in a seven-part series. In our fifth Colliding Worlds post, Martin tells Hans Ulrich about the unrealised projects of science and the importance of scientific citizens.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

You’ve mentioned that there are two big unrealised projects, not only in your work but in contemporary science in general. Could you tell me about them and how you see them unfolding in the 21st Century?

Martin Rees

The first is an attempt to unify the physics of the very small, the quantum world, with the physics of the very large — the domain where Einstein’s theory of gravity holds sway.

Normally we get on very well without this unification because if you’re a chemist you have to apply quantum theory but you don’t need to worry about the gravitational force between two atoms in a molecule because it’s very small. On the other hand if you are an astronomer you need to consider gravity but you don’t need to worry about the quantum fuzziness in the orbits of stars and planets because that effect is tiny because the masses are so large. But to really understand the beginning of the universe, a time when the entire universe was squeezed to microscopic size, clearly we need a theory that can relate gravity to quantum effects, a so-called unified theory. Until we have such a theory we won’t really be able to understand why the universe is expanding the way it is and why it’s got the properties and ‘mix’of ingredients that it has.

But there’s one very important point that some ‘popular’ writers overlook. Even if we some day discover this unified theory, it won’t be any direct help at all to 99% of scientists because they’re are engaged with studying very complicated things — things that are neither very small nor very large but which have layer upon layer of structure, in particular living organisms. Of course we humans are the most complicated things we know about in the universe, and it’s an unending challenge to understand that complexity. So it really is the biologists who face the toughest challenge – not particle physicists, not astronomers.

A familiar analogy I’d like to give is with a game of chess. Suppose you’d never seen a game of chess being played before. By watching people play you could figure out what the rules are – that the knight moves in a jagged way, bishops move diagonally and so on. But learning how the pieces move in chess is just a trivial preliminary to the absorbing progression from being a novice to being a grand master. By analogy, learning the basic laws of physics is like knowing the rules by which matter and forces interact. But even when you understand those rules fully, even when we have a unified theory, that’s still just the beginning of understanding how those rules play out in the complex world of living things and the environment that we humans inhabit. So the biggest challenge of all is to understand complexity.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

In your book From Here To Infinity, you talk about the scientific citizen and about the necessity of collaboration between lay people and scientists. It’s interesting, at the moment we are working on a solar airplane project with the artists Sehgal and Eliasson and the Danish solar technology by Ottesen and only this one problem needs a combination of aerodynamics, of design, of solar technology; of inventors, of artists. I suppose for all big questions of the 21st Century, it needs a bringing together or a pooling of disciplines, a pooling of knowledge.

Martin Rees

To address many of the challenges, both intellectual challenges and practical challenges, we need to combine the expertise of different branches of science. One of the occupational risks of scientists is that they become so sharply focused on one particular topic that they don’t realise it is part of some bigger picture. We often need broad interdisciplinary attitudes and collaboration.

Something that ‘s extremely encouraging is a consequence of the computer revolution. It has done two things. First, it has allowed us to do simulations, virtual experiments in the virtual world of a computer, which can supplement real experiments. Aeronautical engineers can now compute the flow of air over an aerofoil without necessarily having to do an actual experiment in a wind tunnel. Astronomers of course can’t do experiments on stars and galaxies in the real universe, and therefore benefit hugely from doing ‘experiments’ in the virtual world of computer simulations.

Another by-product of the information technology age is the internet, which has allowed far more people to participate in science. Before the internet there were a few sciences, like botany, where amateurs could make a contribution. But now anyone with a computer and access to the internet can download huge data sets in astronomy, in environmental science or in microbiology; they can analyse the data and look for patterns themselves. This mass effort by amateurs will surely speed up the development of science, and that’s necessary because the rate at which the information is being gathered is getting so large that the few professionals can’t handle it all.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.