A Reith Lecture

I’m a bit late getting around to blogging today, primarily because I spent the evening at a lecture by Martin Rees. Not just any lecture, but one of the annual series of Reith Lectures that he has been chosen to present this year. This event took place in the splendid Reardon Smith Theatre in the National Museum in Cardiff, and was preceded by a wine reception where we mingled amongst the relics of Welsh prehistory. The audience for the lecture  included academics, politicians, journalists and students and there was a lively question-and-answer session afterwards.

The Reith Lectures were inaugurated in 1948 by the BBC to mark the historic contribution made to public service broadcasting by Sir John (later Lord) Reith, the corporation’s first director-general. John Reith maintained that broadcasting should be a public service which enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. It is in this spirit that the BBC each year invites a leading figure to deliver a series of lectures on radio. The aim is to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.

The very first Reith lecturer was the philosopher, Bertrand Russell who spoke on “Authority and the Individual”. Among his successors were Arnold Toynbee (The World and the West, 1952), Robert Oppenheimer (Science and the Common Understanding, 1953) and J.K. Galbraith (The New Industrial State, 1966). More recently, the Reith lectures have been delivered by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks (The Persistence of Faith, 1990) and Dr Steve Jones (The Language of the Genes, 1991). Since 2002, the Reith Lectures have been presented as was tonight’s,  by Sue Lawley.

I think this is the first time any of these lectures have been delivered in Cardiff. Martin Rees is, in fact, almost a Welshman himself ,  being born in Ludlow in Shropshire only about a mile the wrong side of the border; since being elevated to the peerage a few years ago, he is now known as Baron Rees of Ludlow. He is, of course, an immensely distinguished astrophysicist (he has been Astronomer Royal since 1995) but now has a broader portfolio of responsibility in the higher echelons of British science as President of the Royal Society.

As well as being an eminent scientist, Martin Rees is also a very fine public speaker, possessing an effortless gravitas that  any politician would die for.  He speaks with great clarity, thoughtfully and to the point, but with an economical use of language. He comes across as not only highly intelligent , which he undoubtedly is, but also deeply humane, another rare combination. Martin Rees was therefore an excellent choice to give the Reith Lectures. I had been looking forward to the evening for months after I got a phone call from Auntie Beeb asking me if I’d like to attend.

His lecture this evening wasn’t about astrophysics, and neither are the others in the series which has the pretty vague overall title Scientific Horizons. This lecture, the second of the series of four, was entitled Surviving the Century,and it concerned the role of science in identifying and possibly counteracting the threats facing humanity over the next few decades. He touched on climate change, renewable energy, and the possibility of nuclear or bio-terrorism. Although he spelled out the dangers in pretty stark terms he nevertheless claimed to be an optimist to the extent that he believed science could find solutions to the most pressing problems facing our planet, but I also sensed he was more of a pessimist as to whether the necessary measures could be implemented owing to socio-economic and political constraints. Science is vital to safeguarding the future of the planet, but it isn’t sufficient. People need to change the way they live their lives.

I won’t say any more about the lecture – or the interesting audience discussion that followed it – because you’ll be able to hear it yourselves on BBC Radio 4. The Lectures will be broadcast at 9am on Radio 4 starting on Tuesday 1st June (Lecture 1, called The Scientific Citizen). The lecture I attended tonight will be broadcast at the same time the following week (8th June). Lectures 3 and 4 will follow on 15th and 22nd June. Of course they will also be available as podcasts from the BBC website. If you want to be informed, enriched and challenged then I recommend you check them out.

7 Responses to “A Reith Lecture”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Ludlow is about 10 miles from the nearest part of Wales, although about one mile from the county border with Herefordshire.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Really? I’m sure he said a mile. In fact, I vaguely remembered that he referred to a small village near Ludlow rather than Ludlow itself. However, his wikipedia page says he was born in York which I’m sure is not what he said last night!

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: I’d guessed – wrongly – that you glanced at a map, saw that Ludlow was one mile NE of a border, knew that Shropshire bordered Wales, and assumed that this was the Welsh border (rather than the Herefordshire border). I measured the figure of 10 miles on a map immediately before my post of 7:54am; presumably Martin Rees was brought up a little to the west of Ludlow, which would be the nearest market town. Perhaps it was in one of the four places around that part of Shropshire of which AE Housman wrote

    Clunton and Clunbury,
    Clungunford and Clun,
    Are the quietest places
    Under the sun.

    I remember Steve Jones’ 1991 lectures on genetics very well. It was immediately obvious that he had a gift for explaining science to the layman. He went on to make a TV series, In The Blood, about the relations between human genetics and human living. The book of the series is superb.

    Didn’t Martin Rees publish a book about the subject of his lecture but with a much more pessimistic conclusion, that we were likely to wipe ourselves out?


  4. Rhodri Evans Says:

    I asked Martin Rees about his Welsh heritage a few years ago as Rees is a Welsh name (an anglisisation of Rhys). He told me that his father was Welsh (or was it his grandfather? I can’t remember 🙂 ). Either way, by the standards used by The Western Mail, this is very much Welsh so we can claim him as one of the greatest Welsh astronomers.

  5. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Bryn – if you’re reading this thread do you know any more on Lord Ludlow’s Welshness?

  6. […] thinking about sustainable energy and so on, and was reminded of a comment Martin Rees made in his Reith Lecture not long ago. Wanting to sound positive about renewable energy he referred to the prospect of […]

  7. […] by private companies. This also goes for energy research. As Martin Rees pointed out in a recent Reith Lecture, the UK’s energy companies spend a pathetically small proportion of their huge profits on […]

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