From our British and International Correspondent, Colin Hannaford

Jun 13, 2015 by

Professor Lord Martin Rees

Professor Lord Martin Rees

Professor Lord Martin Rees is a year older than me.

He was born, like me, in June. He is also a Gemini.

And from this point his career leaves mine looking as unimportant as the trail of a snail creeping alone on a garden wall.

He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Master (that is, the boss) of Trinity College, Cambridge, is the Astronomer Royal, has been the President of the Royal Society, and is now Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics of the University of Cambridge, and has collected countless more honours.

He is, finally, a most courteous, kindly, and gentle man, and this, I find, is actually more impressive than any of his many other achievements.

Most recently he has helped found a centre for research in Cambridge into what are now called Existential Risks: to attempt to assess, quite literally, how likely it is that the existence of human life, and even all life, may be brought an abrupt, or perhaps a long and even more painful, end.

You can read his predictions here: .

The list is long and very sobering. Please read it.

And back, now, to the snail.

A few days ago I wrote to Lord Rees to point out that one existential risk is missing; and, since it is missing, so is its treatment.

He actually refers to this risk twice, but tangentially. Once in describing it as the cause of his ‘worst nightmare’; and again where he observes that ‘young people are more engaged and anxious about long-term and global issues [and] we should respond to their concerns.’

What most young people are most concerned about, I told him, is not so much the risk of civilisation being reduced to chaos, but by the chaos that is already seething inside some people’s heads.

He responded the same day, even offering the possibility that that we might meet.

This could be more of his unfailing courtesy; but I responded with the following story, related here almost exactly as it happened.

‘The other day a young lady, working in my local print shop, told me ‘the future doesn’t look good for my generation’, and asked me to explain a short text I had created for some of my ex-pupils, the two Dobson sisters, and which one of her colleagues was printing as we watched.

We agreed that the world has become much more dangerous to everyone since she was born: not only because of the risks you describe: and of which, I would guess, she would know only little. But, as she put it, “There are so many really, I mean really, really crazy people out there. Even all around us. What are you doing about them?”

In reply I didn’t mention a quotation on my study wall, although I find it always encouraging, especially when I feel so small. It is by William James, and says: ‘Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.’

“First: you must understand that what I am doing,” I explained, “has no scientific credence whatsoever. It doesn’t really need to. It just needs to make sense to people.”

“Okay,” she nodded, scientific credence dismissed. “What is it?”

“Most of us – well, all of us – are known scientifically as homo sapiens, which is roughly supposed to mean ‘wise and judicious man’. But I discovered, when I was teaching mathematics, that most of the time most of my pupils were perfectly happy to learn maths just as a series of habits. They didn’t need to know why they worked, only that they do work. Only a very few would want to know why.”

“I never wondered,” she laughed.

“Since then I have realised that, of course, we homo sapiens learn almost everything as a habit. We learn our language, our culture, the way we behave, even our religion as habit. In fact, you could say, homo sapiens is neither very evidently wise or very judicious. Homo sapiens is just pretty addicted to habits.”


“Exactly. And the problem with habits is that they are almost impossible to argue against. If you try, people are puzzled at first, then irritated, then angry. And then violent. Even prepared to destroy everyone who may question their habit.”

“Like now.”


“So, what can you do?”

“I can make a difference. Or, I can POINT to a difference. About two millions years ago some of our ancestors began to show that they were different. The first began to turn rocks into tools. Later to explore and invent.”

“And fight.’”

“Sure. But also to begin to learn medicine and science, music and art, to see the stars, to wonder about many things.

“So who were they?”

“They were very much like us. But in them the potential emerged: instead of just following old habits, to think actively.”

“Actively. Oh. How did that happen?”

“We may never know. A galactic thunderstorm, perhaps; a burst of cosmic rays that put another twist in our DNA. And the kids in my class who asked why show that it’s still there.”

“That IS interesting. But how will it change things? How will you change things?”

“By pointing out that no-one is so very different. After all this time, that same twist must be in everyone. Everyone now has the potential to ask ‘why?”

“But what if they can’t find out?”

“They don’t need to do more that to know that a habit, any habit, can be questioned. It can be changed. Especially, if it’s dangerous.

“Like smoking.”

“Okay, like smoking. But all over the world there a millions, actually billions, of young people like you who know that their future doesn’t look good, but they feel alone, worried but alone. Some are so worried that they say they prefer death to living. We love death, they say.”

“And what can you do for them?”

“I can give them a new identity.”

“But won’t you turn them against everyone else?”

“They are ‘everyone else’. We are no longer homo sapiens. We are homo sapiens/aeternens. We can think: not just for now. That only needs habits. We can think as well of the future. So can they. So do you.”

“I like that,” she said.

And we parted on terms of mutual admiration and esteem.

Not everyone can learn this fast!’

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