Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Pale Blue Dot

The title of the talk refers, of course, to Earth as seen from space, as described by Carl Sagan back when men were walking on the Moon.
The speaker was the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, who was introduced as one of the great science communicators of the present day, and as someone who had been supportive of Hay Festival and had encouraged the science part of the programming, which is now 30% of the total.
I saw him at LonCon, the World SF Convention for 2014 - he held a large hall spellbound then.
The Good Energy Stage was packed full - I got a pretty good seat off to the side, quite by accident. Martin Rees started off with the Pale Blue Dot of Earth, and took us out through the solar system, showing pictures from the Curiosity Rover on Mars, and a picture of storms around the pole of Jupiter which had only been released two days before - so right up to date! Beyond our solar system, he talked about the other solar systems in our galaxy discovered by the Kepler space telescope, including the seven planets of Trappist-1 - the inner planets of that system have a "year" of only a few of our days.
And out we went again, to the millions of galaxies beyond our own - that we can see. He described it as like being on a ship at sea - you can see ocean out to the horizon, but you know it goes on beyond that - but not how far. We can also see back in time for billions of years, as far as the first nanosecond after the Big Bang- which he also said was quite remarkable, since when he was a student, the accepted theory was the Steady State Theory, and the Big Bang was just a wild idea.
And then he went out even further, speculating about the multiverse, within which all those millions of galaxies we can see are just one tiny part, and different universes within the multiverse may have completely different laws of physics, depending on how they evolved over the first few seconds of existence.
He also talked about space exploration, and how it made much more sense to send robots than people - at the moment we are getting those amazing pictures of Jupiter and Saturn with 1990s technology, and the technology is improving all the time. He suggested that people going into space would be like Arctic explorers or extreme sports enthusiasts now - more Ranulph Fiennes than Neil Armstrong, and that these would be the people with the incentive to experiment on themselves to adapt to the extremely hostile environments they would be going to, with genetic adaptations and so on. When he's not being the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees is a member of the House of Lords, and sits on committees looking at the regulation of this sort of cutting edge science.
And then he brought it all back in again, back to the Pale Blue Dot - which should be cherished, because it's the only place in all that immensity that we are sure that life exists, and we should be doing our best to preserve what we have. "There is no Planet B," he said at one point, to some laughter from the audience.

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