July 29, 2011 10:01 pm

The Inventory: Martin Rees

‘The fortunate in this unequal world should be motivated by guilt and shame’

Martin Rees, 69, is master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former president of the Royal Society. He has held the honorary title of Astronomer Royal since 1995 and was appointed to the House of Lords in 2005. In April this year he was the recipient of the £1m Templeton prize.

What was your earliest ambition?

To get out of the pram.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

My parents were teachers and until the age of 13 I attended Bedstone, the school which they founded in Shropshire. Despite their progressive stance, they sent me to a traditional public school, where I did well enough to gain entry to Cambridge.

Who was, or still is, your mentor?

I had several inspiring teachers at both schools I attended. Dennis Sciama, a charismatic professor, launched my research career in cosmology. I’ve also admired some politically engaged scientists.

How physically fit are you?

Fit enough to walk and talk.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Persistence and choosing the kind of work you’re suited to matters more. If you’re an academic it’s crucial not to be such a perfectionist that you finish nothing.

Have you ever taken an IQ test?

Not since the age of 10. I was adept at patterns and numbers, less so at verbal tests. It’s appalling that the life chances of so many of my generation were blighted by doing badly on such tests at 11-plus.

How politically committed are you?

I’ve become more engaged – and more depressed by the widening gap between what optimally applied science could offer the world and what actually happens.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

Yes, but I still do a lot of air miles.

Do you have more than one home?

I am the custodian of Trinity’s Master’s Lodge, a “tied cottage”, and my wife and I have a more modest home in Cambridge.

Would like to own: more books

Would like to own: more books

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

Even more books and papers.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

Taking taxis.

In what place are you happiest?

In Cambridge. I’ve visited most of the world’s leading universities, but I’ve never felt tempted to defect.

What ambitions do you still have?

To keep going as long as I can, with research, writing and campaigning.

What drives you on?

Those of us who are fortunate in this unequal world should be motivated by guilt and shame – for me, that’s a major driver.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

Participating in the quest to understand the cosmos.

If you had a coat of arms, what would be on it?

Illustration of Martin Rees's coat of arms

I’d choose the classic image of the uroboros: a snake eating its tail. This symbolises the unity of the cosmos and is a fitting logo for the science I try to do.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

It’s depressing that long-term global issues of energy, food, health and climate get trumped on the political agenda by the short-term and parochial. And in my personal research, it’s sad when one’s theories turn out to be wrong – but that’s how science advances.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?

My youthful expectations were very low. I’d have been greatly cheered if a crystal ball could have revealed the opportunities I’d have.

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

Catch up with my piled-up books.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

It should be an acceptable choice for us all, with the obvious safeguards.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

I don’t believe my personality will survive death. My main hope is that it won’t decay long before my body dies.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

It’s been a mixture, ranging up to nine but never falling below five.

‘From Here to Infinity: Scientific Horizons’ by Martin Rees is published by Profile Books

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