SOMETIMES it pays to take the long view. Look at the past half-century of cosmology, as UK Astronomer Royal Martin Rees does in our interview, and it is plain how far we have come.
The story of the universe’s origin in a big bang – an idea not especially favoured when Rees started as a researcher in the 1960s – is now as close to an established fact as science permits. We have also elucidated the properties and phenomena of an unimaginably vast cosmos with ever more acuity. It is a privilege to live in an age when, for the first time, we have a convincing story of most of the grand sweep of cosmic evolution.
“If so many planets are out there, how come intelligent life hasn’t come our way?”
These are truly thrilling developments, albeit ones that have, in the nature of science, thrown up more holes in our understanding – holes that instruments such as the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope are designed to plug.
Yet this progress also gives reason for introspection. Many researchers like Rees find themselves drawn to questions of humanity’s future. The discovery of thousands of exoplanets circling other stars, and the realisation that even icy moons in the outer solar system might harbour warm and wet environments, boosts the belief that if life exists on one tiny blue dot, it might exist elsewhere, too.
So why hasn’t intelligent life elsewhere made itself known to us? Perhaps because hubristic missteps give technological civilisations a limited lifespan – and perhaps also because, as we have learned, space is an unforgiving environment. It is a half-century now since the last person walked on the moon and, as Rees warns, while billionaires such as Elon Musk battle it out to return there, it is folly to think “space tourism” will ever be the norm for our species. Any vestiges of humanity that leave our solar system will probably be very different to us, and most likely the progeny of the pioneers who establish a future beyond Earth, on Mars for example.
For the rest of us, our planet is all there is. The problems we face, not least the tragedy currently unfolding in Ukraine, are a reminder that progress can just as easily be undone. All the more reason to apply our common humanity to solving the problems of the here and now.