Reflections on key books, by Martin Rees.
The Stuff of the Universe (with John Gribbin). Heineman (UK); Bantam (USA) under the title “Cosmic Coincidences,” 1989; various languages; revised by Penguin, 1995
A survey of cosmology emphasizing the explanations of “dark matter” and the apparent tuning of the constants of physics, co-written with Rees’ friend John Gribbin, a prolific science writer (before he realized he was capable of writing a book by himself).
Gravity’s Fatal Attraction: Black Holes in the Universe (with Mitchell Begelman). W.H. Freeman, 1995; completely updated 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2010; translated into 10 languages
Co-authored with former student Mitchell Begelman (now Professor at University of Colorado), this book described the astrophysical role of Einstein’s theory and the properties of its most remarkable prediction: black holes. It discusses many of the topics on which Rees has worked – quasars, radio sources, and gamma ray bursts – in a level accessible to non-specialist students and general readers.
New Perspectives in Astrophysical Cosmology. Cambridge University Press, 1995; expanded edition, 2000; 2nd edition, 2002
This was a straightforward text on cosmology, at a level appropriate to physics majors or those beginning graduate study in astrophysics. The fact that it is now drastically out of date testifies to the extraordinary progress and vibrancy of cosmology in the last decade – which is owed to advances in instrumentation and computer power rather than to newer and deeper insights.
Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others. Simon & Schuster (UK); Perseus (USA), 1997; various languages
This was Rees’ first single-authored book. It ranged widely and included historical reflections and personal reminiscences. It described the then-current understanding of cosmology, quasars and dark matter. But its most distinctive theme was the speculation that what we traditionally call ‘the universe’ could be just one ‘island’ in a (possibly infinite) archipelago. This book was one of the earliest popular expositions of the ‘multiverse’ concept. Critics generally praised it for the way it covered both standard and speculative topics while always distinguishing clearly which were which.
Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe. Wiedenfeld & Nicolson (UK); Basic Books (USA), 1999; translation into approximately 20 languages
This book, in the ‘Science Masters’ series created by John Brockman, highlights six numbers whose values determine the nature of the cosmos and the micro-world and describes how the potentialities for emergent complexity (including life) require these numbers to lie within a range that is in some cases very narrow. The apparent tuning has been interpreted by various authors as coincidence, ‘happenstance’ or ‘design.’ Rees argues that we need to address two questions: “Was there one big bang or many?” and “If there were many, are they governed by different laws so that what we call ‘fundamental laws’ may be just bylaws prevailing in our cosmic patch?” If the answers to both these questions were ‘yes’ the apparent fine tuning of the six numbers could be merely ‘anthropic selection.’ Rees emphasizes that these questions are scientific ones – albeit still highly speculative and far from being answered.
Our Cosmic Habitat. Princeton University Press (USA), 2001; Wiedenfeld & Nicolson (UK), 2002; translated into 10 languages
Most of Rees’ books were prepared by meshing together general articles or lecture notes he had already prepared. This book was in some respects more coherent, as it was an expanded version of the inaugural series of Scribner Lectures given at Princeton University in March/April 2000.
Our Final Century. Random House (UK); Basic Books (USA) under the title “Our Final Hour,” 2003
Ever since the 1980s, Rees has frequently written and spoken on general issues impinging on politics, policy global threats and the social and ethical responsibilities of scientists. He came to appreciate that, though our Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, the coming century is a special one: it’s the first when one species (ours) has the power and impact to determine the future of the entire biosphere. The book received highly favorable notices in the UK; in the US (where the title was changed to “Our Final Hour” !) it earned the ‘lead’ review in the New York Times Book Review. The book argued that humans are threatened by their collective environmental impact, and also by the greater vulnerability of our inter-connected world to high-tech disruptions (‘error’ or ‘terror’) that could be caused by very few. These themes have risen even higher on the agenda in 2011.
DK Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Universe (general editor). Dorling Kindersley, 2005; updated 2007, 2008
This is a comprehensively illustrated and information-packed volume. Rees’ role was general editor, and though it is about the best single-volume book of its kind, he can claim little personal credit for its quality.
From Here to Infinity: Scientific Horizons. Profile Books, 2011
Rees was invited to give the BBC’s prestigious Reith Lectures in 2010. He was chosen primarily because, in recognition of the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary, the BBC had made 2010 a ‘year of science’ and had made genuine efforts to increase their serious output on scientific themes. This book is an expanded version of the lectures (about double the length). The four lectures were entitled ‘The Scientific Citizen,’ ‘Surviving the Century,’ ‘What We May Never Know’ and ‘A Runaway World’.
What We Still Don’t Know. Penguin (UK); Pantheon (USA); to be published in 2012
This long-gestating book is very loosely based on a TV series presented by Rees on Channel 4 in 2004. It deals with several scientific ‘grand challenges,’ addresses whether there are intrinsic limits to scientific knowledge set by human brains, and explores the possibility of ‘posthuman’ evolution (organic or inorganic), extraterrestrial life, and the multiverse.