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Astronomer Royal says Obama is right about space

By Matin Durrani, Editor, Physics World

The Royal Society — perhaps the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific society — is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year. It was founded in 1650 by a group of 12 natural philosophers, including Robert Boyle, best known for his law describing how the pressure of a gas rises as it is compressed at constant temperature.

Over the years, the society has had plenty of links with physics — past presidents include Isaac Newton, J J Thomson, Lord Kelvin and Ernest Rutherford and the current president is the Cambridge University astrophysicist and cosmologist Martin Rees.

Speaking in an exclusive video interview with, Rees explains why he thinks the Royal Society still has an essential role to play in the modern world. After all, if scientists can communicate quickly and easily via online discussion groups, Facebook and Twitter, a society with a limited and admittedly elite membership might not be totally in tune with today’s world. For Rees, however, the society’s strengths lie in its ability to promote and disseminate science — and in the increasing amount of scientific advice it offers to politicians on topics like energy and climate change.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Rees also welcomes President Obama’s decision not to return astronauts to the Moon.

“Given the financial constraints, if I were an American taxpayer I would entirely support it,” he says. “I think it is very important we pursue science in space [but] the case for sending people into space is getting weaker all the time with every advance in robotics and miniaturization. I still believe in the long run that there is a role for people in space, but that’s just for an adventure – not for any practical purpose.”

As for what are the mostexciting developments in astronomy, Rees cites the search for Earth-like extrasolar planets, the study of the cosmic microwave background by the Planck satellite and the ability of the Herschel infrared telsecope to understand how the earliest galaxies formed.

The interview with Rees took place at the Royal Society’s “presidential flat” — a kind of up-market crash-pad at the society’s headquarters at Carlton House Terrace in central London. The flat has great views out onto the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, where Rees — as a member of the House of Lords — had spent the morning giving evidence to a scientific committee. That was followed by a radio interview and then us.

Add in his duties as master of Trinity College Cambridge, and it’s not surprising that Rees only has time for research at weekends. But, as he explains, he is “in a style of life that is fascinating”.

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  1. John Duffield

    Of what use is a child? One could assert that in the long run that there is a role for people on Earth, but it’s just for an adventure, and not for any practical purpose.
    I wasn’t clear on why another class of threat comes from the greater empowerment of individuals, or why “we” does not include NASA.

  2. The sad thing is that, despite the great advances of science, little progress has been made in the dessimnation of science to the public – indeed it could be argued that the public know as little science now as in the time of Newton. I have a guest essay on this in the blogosphere at

  3. Dileep Sathe

    It is heartening that Lord Martin Rees agrees with Mr. Barack Obama’s decision on astronauts, it seems that the danger of low gravity has made an effect on that decision, which I raised in a comment “manned missions on moon, mars” on 2nd February.

  4. Again, can someone remind me why this is the “change” president we’ve been waiting for?

  5. Ender

    I sympathise with those who advocate manned spaceflight, since it attracts the imagination of people and is in the best tradition of exploration. Not only Columbus and the rest of the 15th and 16th century explorers pushed the frontier of Western civilisation, but they started a path of development which has led to our present state (for good or for worse). Exploration as a sport and as a means of scientific research, have gone hand in hand throughout the latter centuries, and it’s often hard to discriminate where one ends and the other starts, like in the cases of Darwin and von Humboldt. However, it’s sometimes clear when that happens, such as in the cases of Shackleton and Amundsen. The multiple assaults to the Everest, K2, and other mountains, ever trying to break some kind of record, are valid sport endeavours, but with little or none scientific value.
    When it comes to modern science, it’s important to determine the best way to do so. In the case of science exploration, as Rees correctly states, robotics and miniaturisation have advanced to a point where they offer far more adequate avenues of research. Take the case of the Mars Rover. While it was sent back in 2004 for a two month assignment, aged and stuck in a sand trap, it’s still sending information. Something a manned mission would have found impossible.
    I think people haven’t understood the potential reach of this. Just imagine what we could learn, not only about the Moon and Mars, but of other planets and satellites by sending patrols of robots throughout the Solar System, at a fraction of the cost of the ISS. Add to that the possibility of being able to broadcast their findings, so that people can see them in real time through their laptops. Now, that would be a boost to scientific knowledge, and why not? It could also stimulate private spending for manned missions with a sports and adventure purpose.


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