Romanes Lecture - The Limits of Science

This lecture took place in The Sheldonian Theatre, Broad Street, Oxford on Wednesday 2 November 2011.



Telescopes reveal the remote universe; accelerators probe the subatomic world. Thanks to such instruments, astronomers have established, in outline, how our cosmos has evolved from a still-mysterious beginning more than 13 billion years. Billions more years - and perhaps even an infinite time - lie ahead of it. But 99 percent of scientists focus neither on the very small nor the very large, but on the even greater complexities of our everyday world. Materials science, biology and the environmental sciences proceed apace, revealing remarkable insights, and opening up an ever-widening range of applications - both opportunities and threats.
We live on an ever more interconnected and crowded planet, where each person is empowered by transformative technology but is making increasing demands on the world's resources. There is a widening gulf between what science enables us to do, and what it's prudent or ethical actually to do. The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries but this is the first when one species, ours, can determine the long-range planetary future. The stakes are high; optimum policies require a longer-term and less parochial perspective than normally prevails in political debate, the deployment of the best scientific advice, and engagement of a wider public.

In science itself, the most dramatic conceptual advances are the least predictable. But, in scanning these intellectual horizons, we must be mindful that there may be fundamental limits to our understanding - concepts about key aspects of reality that human brains (even computer-aided) can't grasp.

Speaker: Professor the Lord Rees of Ludlow OM FRS

Lord (Martin) Rees was the President of the Royal Society from December 2005 to December 2010. He is Master of Trinity College and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He is also Visiting Professor at Leicester University and Imperial College London. He was appointed Astronomer Royal in 1995, and was nominated to the House of Lords in 2005 as a cross-bench peer. He was appointed a member of the Order of Merit in 2007.

Lord Rees studied at Cambridge University and then held post-doctoral positions at Cambridge, California and Princeton before becoming a Professor at Sussex University. In 1973, he became a fellow of King's College and Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge, a post he held for eighteen years. For ten years, he was director of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy.

Lord Rees has worked and travelled extensively overseas. He has been a Visiting Professor at many universities including Harvard, Caltech, Berkeley, Kyoto and the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton where he is now a trustee. He was Regents Fellow of the Smithsonian Institute, Washington between 1984 and 1988 and is a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He is a member of the Academia Europaea, and honorary member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Academy, and a number of other foreign academies.

Lord Rees' current research deals with cosmology and astrophysics, especially gamma ray bursts, galactic nuclei, black hole formation and radiative processes (including gravitational waves) and also cosmic structure formation, especially the early generation of stars and galaxies that formed at the end of the cosmic dark ages' more than 12 billion years ago relatively shortly after the "Big Bang". He has authored or co-authored about five hundred research papers. He has lectured, broadcast and written widely on science and policy, and is the author of seven books for a general readership.

His recent awards include the Royal Society's Michael Faraday Prize and lecture for science communication (2004), and the Royal Swedish Academy's Crafoord Prize (2005). Other notable awards include the Heinemann Prize (1984), the Balzan Prize (1989), the Bower Award of the Franklin Institute (1998), the Einstein Award from the World Cultural Council (2003) and the UNESCO Neils Bohr Medal (2005).

Lord Rees was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1979 and served as a member of its Council between 1983-85 and 1993-95.  He held a Royal Society Research Professorship between 1992 and 2004.