I’ve just come across a fasinating article by Lord Martin Rees. Just in case you don’t know who he is, here is a link to his Wikipedia page. Our specific interest here is that he is not only an English cosmologist and astrophysicist, but has also been Astronomer Royal since 1995, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge since 2004, and President of the Royal Society since 2005. In other words, he is a smart well-respected chap in the scientific community, so its usually worth paying attention to anything he says.
As an aside, he is the author of more than 500 research papers, and he has made important contributions to the origin of cosmic microwave background radiation, as well as to galaxy clustering and formation. His studies of the distribution of quasars led to final disproof of Steady State theory. He was also one of the first to propose that enormous black holes power quasars, and that superluminal astronomical observations can be explained as an optical illusion caused by an object moving partly in the direction of the observer
In this instance, he addressed the Long Now Foundation. Thats a group set up in 01996 [Note the extra zero in the date :-) ] to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.
OK, so what did he say to them? Well, with a hat tip to Thomas Mccabe for the actual words … here are the details …
Because of our unique position in the history of the lightcone as the first (or one of the first) intelligent species, we tend to get a distorted view of history as a long, boring past during which nothing much happened, and then a very short period of rapidly accelerating change leading up to the present. In reality, however, the future of the Hubble volume is a lot longer than its past — the Sun isn’t yet even halfway through its life cycle, he pointed out.
Despite that, people who predict things “a million years from now” are considered to be talking about the unimaginably distant future, but a million years is only a few dozen clock ticks of cosmological time. We as humanity are responsible for the future of not just the next few thousand years (the timescale on which civilization has so far existed) but for “spans of time six or more orders of magnitude greater than that” — and since, in space, time and distance are equivalent, volumes of space six orders of magnitude greater than that containing the stars we see at night, he said.
Rees also pointed out:
OK, I’m a science geek, I love this stuff … but then thats me. I don’t just embrace the idea of being rooted in reality and poo-pooing silly beliefs, I also relish the idea of expanding the horizon of our understanding, and speculating about the future.