Martin Rees: Science could change our world - and our brains

From a speech to the Foundation for Science and Technology, in London, by the Astronomer Royal

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International physics Year, 2005, is focused on Einstein, because it marks the centenary of the annus mirabilis when he wrote his first four classic papers. In one respect the Einstein cult sends the wrong signal. It unduly exalts "armchair theory". In reality, 95 per cent of scientific progress stems from new technology and instruments. We need high-profile role models in those other fields.

International physics Year, 2005, is focused on Einstein, because it marks the centenary of the annus mirabilis when he wrote his first four classic papers. In one respect the Einstein cult sends the wrong signal. It unduly exalts "armchair theory". In reality, 95 per cent of scientific progress stems from new technology and instruments. We need high-profile role models in those other fields.

The bomb loomed over 20th century scientists. The science of the 21st century will bring far greater potential benefits than nuclear science--but equally grave ethical challenges and global threats. Science is changing the world faster than ever. Moreover, it is engendering extra dimensions of change. Within this century, targeted drugs, genetic modification, artificial intelligence, and perhaps silicon implants into the brain may change human beings themselves - that's something qualitatively new in our history.

We are all aware of the failures of scientists to predict the course of 20th-century technology. But I am deeply worried that, in our ever-more interconnected world, we're vulnerable to new kinds of risks - events of seemingly low probability, but of such catastrophic consequences that their avoidance should be high on the agenda.

Those discussing nuclear waste disposal talk with a straight face about what might happen in thousands of years. But the political planning horizon is seldom longer than 20 years . Even a millennium, however, is a mere instant in our planet's history. Cosmologists worry as much as anyone about tomorrow, next week and next year. But this enlarged perspective gives an extra motive to cherish our "pale blue dot" in the cosmos.

What happens in this uniquely decisive century will depend on new science, and on how wisely its use is channelled.

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