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On the Future - Martin Rees ***

When I was at school we had a great young history teacher who got everyone in the class to go out and buy a copy of Mao's Little Red Book. Some parents were decidedly unhappy, but it was a fascinating exercise, and though I found most of the contents impenetrable drivel, it was something I was really glad he did.  The Little Red Book was more formally The Thoughts of Chairman Mao and this little black book is not Martin Rees's social contacts list, but rather The Thoughts of Astronomer Royal Rees

What we get is a fairly loose collection of Rees's thoughts on life, the universe and everything, from climate change to religion - though (not surprisingly) it concentrates on scientific matters more than anything else. As the subtitle Prospects for Humanity indicates, Rees indulges a little in that most speculative of ventures, futurology, but not to an extent that the book becomes one of those interminable collections of thoughts that are either bright and bushy-tailed 'The future will be wonderful!' or dark and dismal 'The future is dystopian, haven't you seen Blade Runner?' 

There's nothing particularly new here, but it is interesting to see what one of the grand old persons of British science (and, by all accounts, a jolly nice chap), Rees has to say on the matter. Oddly, the parts I found more interesting were those more removed from his fields of expertise. So, I felt quite engaged with the lengthy section on climate change and where Rees discusses his view on religion. This is very refreshing when compared with the that of the fundamentalist atheists. Rees tells us that he does not believe in God but does sometimes go to church, as he likes being involved in the ritual of his cultural heritage. This seems to me a far better attitude than berating anyone with religious beliefs or practices for their stupidity.

The part I thought least effective was where Rees dived into cyber futurology. While it was good to see that he was sensibly sceptical of the widespread acceptance of self-driving cars and the idea that everyone will abandon car ownership, his consideration of AI and machine learning seemed overly optimistic, compared with the more realistic approach, say, in Gary Smith's The AI Delusion.

There was also a useful analysis of the nature of science, on the whole de-stressing the 'scientific method' and emphasising the more ad-hoc approach that really happens. Rees also makes it clear how important it is for the general public to be more aware of science, as decisions about the future direction of science and technology influence us all and should be made by us all, not just as scientific technarchy.

All in all, On the Future proved genuinely interesting. I can't give it more than three stars as it feels rather bitty and is perhaps too personal if you don't happen to be interested in Martin Rees - but I am interested and am really glad I read it.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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