A cosmologist’s thoughts on the challenges humanity faces

In 2004, the year before he became president of Britain’s Royal Society, Martin Rees memorably remarked that “we are no wiser than Aristotle was more than 2000 years ago.” The reason that humankind has made such extraordinary scientific progress since Aristotle’s time, Rees argued, is primarily because of technological advances, such as telescopes and space probes in the case of astronomy—his own field of expertise.

Rees’s latest book, On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, written “as a scientist, as a citizen, and as a worried member of the human species,” is really a meditation on this earlier thought, short in extent but wide in range: from redesigning genes, through the likelihood of human-induced climate change, to the possibility of encounters with alien intelligence in the universe. Its overall theme is that Earth’s growing population will flourish only if science and technology are deployed with “wisdom.”

Inevitably, much of the interest in this topic derives from the author’s predictions about the coming decades, although Rees is mindful of the fact that scientists are “rotten forecasters—almost as bad as economists.” As he notes, one of his predecessors as astronomer royal famously announced in 1956 that newspaper predictions of imminent manned space travel were “utter bilge.”

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