After 4.5 billion years of existence, Earth’s fate may be determined this century by one species alone – ours. The unintended consequences of powerful technologies like nuclear, biotech and artificial intelligence have created high cosmic stakes for our world.
The United Kingdom’s Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, will explore our vulnerabilities and possibilities in the first Carl Sagan Distinguished Lecture at Cornell Monday, May 8, at 7 p.m. in Kennedy Hall’s Call Auditorium. His talk, “Surviving the Century,” is free and open to the public. Rees will be introduced by Ann Druyan, Emmy and Peabody award-winning writer/producer of the PBS documentary series “Cosmos” and board member of Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute, sponsor of the lecture.
“We need to deploy more expertise to address which long-term threats are credible versus which will stay science fiction – and to achieve a balance between precautionary policies and the benign exploitation of new technologies,” says Rees. “During this century our creative intelligence could trigger transitions from an Earth-based to a space-faring species and from biological to artificial intelligence – transitions that could inaugurate billions of years of post-human evolution even more marvelous than what has led to us.” Or, he points out, humans could trigger bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes instead.
Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, says Rees is a compelling speaker with an important message: “There’s a reason that his TED talk garnered more than 2 million views. As he said, he speaks both as an astronomer and as a ‘worried member of the human race.’ His profound scientific understanding combined with his deep caring for Earth and humanity make him a speaker not to miss.”
Rees is a cosmologist and space scientist whose research interests include galaxy formation, active galactic nuclei, black holes, gamma-ray bursts, as well as speculative aspects of cosmology such as the multiverse. Based at the University of Cambridge, he has been director of the Institute of Astronomy, a research professor and master of Trinity College. He served as president of the Royal Society (the U.K.’s science academy) from 2005 to 2010, and in 2006 he was nominated to the House of Lords.
His awards and honors include the Gruber Prize in Cosmology, the Templeton Prize, and membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy and the Pontifical Academy. He has served on many bodies connected with education, space research, arms control and international collaboration in science.
Among Rees’ books are “Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in This Century – On Earth and Beyond,” “Before the Beginning – Our Universe and Others” and “Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe.” After writing “Our Final Hour,” Rees became concerned, as he puts it, “with the threats stemming from humanity’s ever-heavier ‘footprint’ on the global environment and with the runaway consequences of ever more powerful technologies.” These concerns led him to co-found the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks at Cambridge.
The Carl Sagan Institute was founded in 2015 at Cornell to explore other worlds – how they form, evolve and if they could harbor life inside and outside of our solar system. The interdisciplinary institute brings together astrophysicists, engineers, geologists, biologists and Earth scientists to find the fingerprints of life in the cosmos.
Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.