Sir Martin Rees: Six ways to infinity... and beyond

The Astronomer Royal believes humanity's future lies in the stars. But, as he tells Paul Bignell, we will first have to change our ways

Interstellar travel, hypercomputers, space mining – they all sound like the stuff of Star Trek and Buck Rogers, but they're among the latest predictions from one of Britain's most eminent scientists. And the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, is better qualified than most to gaze into the future. The astrophysicist and cosmologist offers glimpses of a "post-human" universe in an essay, "To the Ends of the Universe", written for an forthcoming book.

He says subjects that were once in the realm of science fiction are now subject to serious scientific debate. And he warns that humanity is not the "terminal branch of an evolutionary tree" and could yet evolve into organisms capable of travelling to other galaxies. Rather than taking millions of years, he says, post-human evolution will happen much faster due to technological advances and genetic modification. He suggests that during the coming century the entire Solar System will be explored and mapped by flotillas of "tiny robotic craft".

"What we've traditionally called 'the universe' – the aftermath of 'our' Big Bang – may be just one island, just one patch of space... There may have been an infinity of Big Bangs, not just one. Just as Earth is a very special planet among zillions, so – on a far grander scale – our Big Bang was also a very special one. In this hugely expanded cosmic perspective, the laws of Einstein and the quantum could be mere parochial bylaws governing our cosmic patch. Our current concept of physical reality could be as constricted, in relation to the whole, as the perspective of the Earth available to a plankton whose 'universe' is a spoonful of water."

Professor Rees is to deliver the Cambridge University lecture at next month's Hay Festival on this subject, but he admits futurology is a far from precise science. But he is certain that human beings will shape their own "far future".

This modern era, he says, is the first "when we've had the technological power to affect the whole species – starting perhaps with the H-bomb. One worries about... how new technologies could have a catastrophic effect if used unwisely."

Sir Martin predictions

1. Spotting distant planets that may sustain life will require a telescope larger than anything currently available. When it starts operation in the early 2020s, the European "Extremely Large Telescope", with a mosaic mirror more than 39m across, will target for observation planets of similar size to Earth that are orbiting stars much like our Sun.

2. Because of the obvious dangers, Professor Rees says spaceflight should not be billed as "tourism" in the style of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. However, he believes five-day trips taking paying customers around the Moon are likely within a decade. Round trips to Mars, taking about 500 days, are the next step, as recently proposed by the US tycoon Dennis Tito.

3. By the end of the 21st century tiny flotillas of robotic space exploration craft, aided and abetted by the successors to the Hubble Telescope, will map the entire Solar System – planets, moons and asteroids – initially with a view to the possible exploitation of minerals.

4. Don't expect mass emigration any time soon – our universe is too inhospitable. However, in a century or more, colonies of adventurous humans are likely to be living independently from the Earth – either on asteroids or on Mars.

5. The time needed to travel to nearby stars will far exceed a human lifespan. Interstellar travel, therefore, will only be an option for what Prof Rees calls "post-humans", who evolve (not by natural selection, but by design) to cope with hibernation or suspended animation.

6. Hypercomputers will have the power to simulate living organisms – perhaps even entire worlds or "virtual universes", incorporating artificial life. This would then allow for a new kind of "virtual time-travel".

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