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Reith Lectures 2010 - lecture four: The Runaway World

Tuesday 22 June 2010, 09:20

Steve Bowbrick Steve Bowbrick Head of Interactive, Radio 3

Reith Mosaic

The 2010 Reith Lectures are now at an end. Four lectures with a science theme by Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society Professor Martin Rees. And for each lecture we organised a live chat here on the Radio 4 blog. Across the four lectures, thousands of people joined in - contributing to the discussion or reading it after transmission.

If you joined in or if you read the discussion while listening to the programmes, we'd be thrilled if you'd take a minute to leave a comment here on the blog: would you like to see more live interaction like this around Radio 4 programmes? Does live conversation of this kind enhance the experience for you? Or does it make it harder to enjoy the programme? And, if you think it works, which programmes should we try it with next? Live discussion, documentaries, drama? Please leave a comment below. Your feedback will help us design more interactive activity for future programmes.

Steve Bowbrick is editor of the Radio 4 blogs

  • Visit the Reith web site to listen to all of the previous lectures and to many from the archive.
  • Get the Reith lectures podcast here - you can download the lectures to listen to on your computer or MP3 player. It's free and you can keep them forever.
  • The picture shows a mosaic of pics from the recording of the third lecture, in the Royal Society's lecture theatre.

Comments

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    Martin Rees doesn't appear to have been paying attention to climate change. His idea seems to be that we will continue to 'progress' through science, finding out all manner of wonderful discoveries, ignoring the overpopulation and resources depletion we have caused. We may have just about figured out what we did by the time we become extinct.
    Scientists, as well as others, can suffer from tunnel vision, not seeing the whole picture, focused on their particular specialism, and perhaps being aware of a few other specialism. So the message is more of the same, forever progress to ever more technological fixes, and ever more scientific toys to keep us amused and feeling special.
    As an after-dinner speaker I'm sure he's entertaining, but I fnd this kind of thing utterly irrelevent to the problems we face today, and more importantly, the problems the planet and all its myriad species have with the arrogant, self-obsessed naked ape.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    Over the last 15 years, Information Technology and computer technology in general has led to millions of well paid job losses, jobs that now pay 2/3rds of what they paid even 5 years ago and allows the rich to concentrate more of the money into an ever smaller group of people.

    But we are not allowed to hear any of this. We have to read between the lines and eek it out of the media, politicons and business. For example, we are told that the top 20% of the richest have had 400-800% increases in income in the last decade, and yet the average wage of around £25,000 has stayed exactly the same. Statistically, this is not possible, and I believe the average wage to now be closer to £18,000 and will continue to go down.

    Technology has also allowed, in less than 20 years, for a 'global market' to be created. This technology has allowed China and India to to moving from second world to first world status. At the same time, with so much UK money moving into a smaller and smaller group of super rich and the rest moving out to China India and other Far East countries. Within 20 years I.T will turn the UK into a country with the wealth of a Portugal or Mexico. There may be social unrest due to this.

    Don't believe technology destroys jobs? Just go into your local supermarket and see the growth in 'automatic checkouts'. Due to the internet, supermarkets are also able to offer home ordering and home delivery. There is a lot of marketing behind this service as home delivery is much more profitable for the supermarkets. Within 10 years half of all supermarket shopping will be home internet shopping, yet for every 10 staff required in a retail store, only 3 are needed for an only business. Should supermarkets succeed in getting us all do get our grocery shopping through the internet, the businesses will be able to get rid of over 800,000 jobs!

    Due to the internet and computer/I.T. technology, we will have a permanent 20% unemployed, and over 80% of the workforce will be earning less than £20,000 a year. This is going to affect the housing market, the car industry, the holiday industry and much more, causing more layoffs.

    Mark my words, I have worked in I.T for over 20 years. When I started as a trainee computer operator in the 80's my first wage was £18,000 a year. Today, a university graduate, starting as a trainee computer operator will start on £16,000. A secretary 25 years ago, with a typewriter earned the equivalent of £20,000 in today's money, today in her place, we have an 'administrator' working at a PC, on £14-16,000 a year. Across the board I.T technology and the internet have drove down wages and destroyed good paying jobs. This trend will speed up as new technologies come along.

    This high-minded lecturer is living in cloud cookoo land!

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    Comment number 3.

    The Reith lectures remind me of the film 'Longitude'. Science is still about power, control and manipulation of the truth. I went into science because I enjoy solving problems and finding out the truth. But the science that the public gets to hear is what a few in authority wish the public to hear. A lot of published science is either denied or ignored and not communicated to the public. I hope the next 50 years in science move away from Lord Reith's and the BBC's control over information and opens up into a free discussion where the public are fully informed and thus can engage in discussions about whether what is possible, is desirable.

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    Comment number 4.

    Quote 'In the second half of this century the intellectual base is going to be in SE Asia'... good grief, by 2050 the main preoccupation will be survival. Why are so many willfully ignoring the writing on the wall? The assumption is that climate change is a little problem we have to fix 'for our children's children' and then it's onwards to the stars. Utter fantasising nonsense, small, vulnerable apes will never get to the stars, we will perish in a ruined landscape incapable of sustaining our exploding numbers. Billions will starve or drown depending on where they live. We will watch it and chatter about it as it all comes apart, with this degree of myopia still prevalent.
    The human world population in so interlinked now that when it starts to come apart all will be affected. This has been demonstrated by the global economy and will be more so with food and water supply. These middle-class, comfortable, self satisfied non-thinkers have inflated ideas of their intelligence and awareness and no understanding that the environmental threats are beyond our actions to reverse or even cope with. Irrelevent.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    3. Isn't this a free discussion? ;-)

  • rate this
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    Comment number 6.

    If we carry on developing new technologies without fully investigating their impact on human health or the environment, then the human population is likely to decline significantly. This is great news for climate change. It just isn't so good if the ones affected are your family or friends. Mobile phones alone are likely to kill off a significant proportion of the population. I know this isn't the view of the BBC or anyone with an interest in the communications industry, but it is the view supported by a large chunk of the published science. If the public really knew the science, they would be making different lifestyle choices (maybe not everyone, but a large proportion would). Personally I don't use a moblie phone, and I'm getting my carbon footprint down as low as I can :-)

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    Comment number 7.

    6. How would this mobile phone apocalypse come about? :D
    Might make good Sci-Fi comedy!

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    Comment number 8.

    Technology doesn't steal jobs, it changes them.
    Whenever technology is introduced that makes some jobs redundant, it also opens up a slew of other jobs involved in maintaining that technology.

    Seriously, worried about losing your job to a computer? Learn a programming language. Then your job can be to instruct all of these computers what to do. If you can't be bothered, then that's why you don't deserve employment.

    Web Developer has been one of the most "in-demand" jobs around the world of the past decade. Database Administrator is closely related.



    As for Population vs. Resources, I don't understand the "over population" argument. We need better solutions, and not more restrictions. There is only two things we really need for the future: "Free" Energy, and mastery of Energy/Matter conversion.

    We should seek colonisation of other worlds, rather than curb population growth.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 9.

    #2. Name one thing that China or India has invented since WW2 ?

    Kind of defeats your argument doesn't it.

    This is precisely why science is so important to the UK. We need to invent and patent the discoveries and make our money licencing the tech because we'll never be able to compete with the lower labour costs and poorer working conditions of china and india etc to actually build the stuff.

    What is not helpful is stuff from people who probably wear tin foil helmets like poster #6 "Mobile phones alone are likely to kill off a significant proportion of the population." who is typing this nonsense on a PC who's processor chip is probably running at around 2.4Ghz (which is microwave frequency) and almost certainly using a wireless link that will be broadcasting easily as much electromagnetic radiation as a mobile.

    Because rather than "If we carry on developing new technologies without fully investigating their impact on human health or the environment, then the human population is likely to decline significantly" its only technology that will save us. Its because of BRITISH scientists pioneering antibiotics, antiseptics, vaccination and proving the link between dirty water and disease that we live so long (the geniuses of the industrial then green revolution massively increasing our food supply did rather a nice job too) I'm working on a cure for advanced skin cancer.... if it works it'll bring a lot of money to the UK (sadly I won't get any of it) and save life, not cause 'armageddon'. Its precisely because luddites get to oppose anything new that we're running out of drinking water and will be suffering power cuts in ten years time.

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    Comment number 10.

    "1. At 09:24am on 22 Jun 2010, DoctorDolots wrote:

    Martin Rees doesn't appear to have been paying attention to climate change. His idea seems to be that we will continue to 'progress' through science, finding out all manner of wonderful discoveries, ignoring the overpopulation and resources depletion we have caused. We may have just about figured out what we did by the time we become extinct.
    Scientists, as well as others, can suffer from tunnel vision, not seeing the whole picture, focused on their particular specialism, and perhaps being aware of a few other specialism. So the message is more of the same, forever progress to ever more technological fixes, and ever more scientific toys to keep us amused and feeling special.
    As an after-dinner speaker I'm sure he's entertaining, but I fnd this kind of thing utterly irrelevent to the problems we face today, and more importantly, the problems the planet and all its myriad species have with the arrogant, self-obsessed naked ape. "

    This is yet another example of the complete and utter misunderstanding of scientific research that has plagued British scientists in the last few years, particularly when dogmatic scientific laymen like government ministers have got their hands on funding.

    (1) I am a doctor of biochemistry. Just the field that I work is is unimaginably huge and complex, and there are hundreds of different fields in Biochemistry alone. Questions have become more intricate and more complex, this is no longer an issue of "what is inside that blob we call the cell nucleus and what does it do". Of course people have to focus down into selective fields, as this is the ONLY way we can progress.

    (2) The vast majority of world changing discoveries have been the "accidental" products of blue-sky research. I can cite the cell cycle and therefore an understanding of what cancer actually is (cyclins - Found accidently by Tim Hunt's project student. He saw a band appearing and disappearing on his gel when investigating sea urchin development), Penicillin, of course we all know the story etc etc I can go on all day.

    (3) Ring-fenced research is an idiocy, if you set out to find something, chances are you won't in a hurry, and you are missing out by not investigating all of the other blue sky discoveries on the way. Moreover, scientists themselves become blinkered and lack training and understanding of other processes. To be plain and simple, science tends to discover itself, you just have to have people like us looking, if you try to force the issue, the result is disasterous and detrimental to science.

    Scientific research is something the British really excel it. However funding has diminished hugely in the last few years (including those preceding the credit crunch) I have seen hundreds of my colleagues forced out by huge funding cuts by the dogmatic anti-science Labour government, as well as disasterously clumsy attempts to ringfence research to specific institutes (which also has the effect of taking training of students in research away from universities - the traditional seats of progress for centuries, that are now being stripped of funding in an ill advised and terribly thought out process).

    This is all disasterous for our heritage, the training of future students, our scientific standing in the World, and retaining the great scientific minds that this country produces, given the chance.

    Sadly, and with respect, it is outspoken and ill-advised opinions like yours that get heeded these days, and this is a terrible shame.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 11.

    7. They cause brain tumours. Haven't you heard either? Think microwave ovens, same technology, only you're holding it to your head. Ever noticed your ear getting hot? It's being microwaved as is your brain. Already heavy users have been dieing from brain tumours, but the effects take years, so the present population of teens who've had then since childhood and are totally addicted to them ... ? Some comedy huh?
    9. We aren't running out of drinking water in the UK, are you Australian? The reason Australia is running out of water is that they have been draining the massive underground aquefer and IT is running out. It'll be back to the bush or emigrate one day soon. Have you considered where all these saved human lives are going to find food, where they will live, will they all drive cars too? Yes, all those discoveries helped lift hominids out of the survival of the fittest race of evolution, and now our species is dependent on science, drugs and mechanised farming for our very existance. And still we i8ncrease as other species decline. What you gonna do when the planet is covered with humans but there's nothing else? Ah, right, we embark en masse for the stars, of course! Find another green planet like Earth and trash that too. Deja vu.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 12.

    Today ir is reported that pollinating insects, bess, bumble bees etc are in dangerous decline. If this is not rectified there will be catastrophic effects on the production of food.

    A case for the scientists I think.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 13.

    #11. The North West of England has reservoirs at 40% of capacity. They just opened a desalination plant in London last week. Our drinking water supplies are not looking good and its because of a total failure to invest in new infastructure. We could easily build more desalination plants, pipelines to take water from one part of the country to another and make new reservoirs but you can barely put up a garden shed any more without someone delaying the build by 20 years for 'enviromental' reasons.

    As to your objections about science prolonging life do you practice what you preach? I bet you've had a full set of vaccinations, take antibiotics when you have infections and would expect chemo, radiotherapy and surgery if you were ever unlucky enough to develop a tumour.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 14.

    10. I'm not anti-science. Because I criticise short-sighted people like Rees pratting on about the stars doesn't mean I am anti-science. Science has discovered much, and part of it is that we have blown it. My argument is with those who, immersed in their select discipline, have no understanding of the big picture to the point where they can lecture us on the future where all they see is a long line of 'progress'; without pain of course.
    The arrogant assumption that 'our civilisation' is so much superior to all previous ones that it will never, can never, end, that we will go on and on forever discovering more and inventing more, is a myth. Our culture will fail just like all the others did; many of them from environmental degradation. The forests eventually grow back over the ruined temples given time. Our problems now are much more than any others have faced, they are global, there's nowhere left to discover and move to, the whole planet is affected. To think that we can continue on this techno path forever is unimaginative to say the least. It defies reason. And I'm ill-advised? Excuse me? You appear to have a little-Englander view. Perhaps youshould get out more from your lab and study the world.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 15.

    #12 Easy. GM crops that a engineered pest resistant and don't need soaking in insecticide will be far kinder to polinating insects that current mechanised farming.

    Just convince the enviromentalists of that.

    Regarding one way in which tech will keep us feed check out 'Thanet Earth'
    http://www.thanetearth.com/

  • rate this
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    Comment number 16.

    #14. I'm Scottish, not 'little Englander' . My job is designing therapies to skin cancer. I'm pretty good at it. I am not paid to design hydrogen fuel cells or save trees. The idea that attempting to find solutions to our problems is 'unimaginative' is irony beyond belief. Whats you solution? Do nothing? Return to living in caves? How is that 'imaginative'?

    I presume you DO use antibiotics, vaccines etc as you didn't respond to that point too.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 17.

    13. Peter_Sym
    London is unsustainable as are all mega cities, they suck resources from the rest of the country to create 'wealth' so some can amass it and feel superior for having more coconuts than all the other apes.

    As for your question; I had vaccinations when a child of course as did everyone, though fewer than children nowadays as many diseases were accepted as part of life and our immune systems coped with them and we got better. Now we appear to be even more fearful of disease, while sheltering children from coming into contact with 'germs' and their immune systems are barely working as a result. No I don't take antibiotics as I don't get infections since I have a robust immune system kept at peak performace by daily echinacea capsules, and echinacea is a plant, whose medicinal properties have been known for thousands of years, not discovered by science. I would certainly not expect chemo, radiotherapy and surgery, have never and will never. If I get a tumour I will deal with it myself, or die trying. Not being afraid of death - it's part of life, there would be no life without death - I have no intention of making myself a guinea pig for doctor-gods to practice on and try out their latest chemcal wonders. When my natural time comes, that will be the end of this one insignificant life. And I won't be praying to some imaginary god father figure either. It's fear of death that fuels both religion's fake reassurances and science's searching for 'cures'. One day the Earth will discover a cure for hominids and rid itself of us.

    By the way, you don't have to quote the whole of someone's post, just refer to it, we can all scroll back if need be ;-)

  • rate this
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    Comment number 18.

    12. Lynn from Sussex
    Yes, this has been known about for some years and beekeepers are very worried both from a personal point of view, but also because they, unlike the majority of people who think food just comes in bags in a shop, know that much of our food has to be fertilised by bees. That bees are under threat at all should be a wake up call that something is seriously wrong, but you won't find the media paying much attention to it when they have self-promoting political animals and their ludicrous promises to obsess over.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 19.

    Science and the quest for truth has been a passion that has transfigured life on planet earth in more ways than one. While a sauna bath could be an example of the contribution of science, the most significant contribution of science has been to the conduct of war and conquest. Every civilization that has dominated the world through the centuries has done so because of some breakthrough in science that allowed it to pulverize the enemy fighting with earlier technology. The dominance of man over man, abetted by science, suggests that if science has to be anything but a tool in the hands of power hungry people, driven by primordial instincts that are as old as the origins of mankind, then the option of using science to serve alternative ends boils down to a revamp on how our society is organized and how people view success and achievement.

    Easier said than done, a revamp of the social order and the basic psychology of human beings can happen only in a progressive manner, primarily through education and equal opportunity that discriminates against none. We have seen attempts to achieve this, particularly in the modern era, but we have also learnt that it is an impossible goal to achieve in a world driven by greed and consumerism where, in fact, all scientific research is funded by governments and institutions, solely for profit and furthering world dominance.

    The question we need to ask is can we turn the tables on the way science has traditionally been used and break the institutional shackles in which it currently finds itself?

    Can science, for example, be a "weapon", not in the hands of state power, but something that actually achieves the transformation of society to a more equitable world, free of the mechanisms of state and politics? To start with it appears difficult to countenance such a thought. What about particle accelerators, supercomputers and the like, which all cost money and are controlled by the state? Can the science that promotes equity and freedom do without these contraptions; can it circumvent the need for them?

    The answer, of course, is we can! Nature is the only lab we need. The greatest scientific breakthroughs were achieved by people working in candle light in the isolation of a monastery. There is strong evidence that the institutionalisation of science has stifled it. Nobel Prizes are now a ritual that rewards mediocrity and reflects the dilemma of institutional scientific research.

    The people who in earlier days looked at the heavens with naked eyes and charted the movements of the planets were more innovative than research workers of today struggling to understand the same planetary movements using precision equipment only to find that our forefathers had done their work so well that it cannot be bettered!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 20.

    15. Peter_Sym
    With that one post you have typified the ignorance about GM that has been spread by the GM companies and swallowed whole by the naive.

    GM crops are not aimed at being pest resistant but pesticide and herbicide resistant, so the companies that develop them, who also sell pesticides and herbicides, can sell even more pesticide and herbicides and make MORE PROFITS. They are tailored for specific pesticides and herbicides, and farmers can't even grow and save their own seed but must continue to buy it from the GM companies who have waged a campaign of lies for decades. You have swallowed it.

    Why is it that people arguing for more and more unsustainable technologies to keep us alive always put as the alternative living in caves? Pretty unimaginative since there have been many cultures in history which were sustainable, planet and environment friendly and which were in many case wiped out by the white man with his 'superior' ways and weapons.

    Little Englander is just an expression of narrow viewpoint, of what's happening in a small country, nothing ethnic you understand. Though not a Scot, I live in Scotland, but I think globally. And I think you were presumptuous to assume I hadn't answered your accusation, you are obviously an impatient person.


 

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