Martin Rees —
Cosmic Origami and What We Don't Know

Parallel realities and the deep structure of space-time sound like science fiction. These are matters of real scientific inquiry. Lord Martin Rees is an astrophysicist and self-professed atheist who paints a fascinating picture of how we might be changed by what we do not yet know.

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is Master of Trinity College and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge.

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2010 Reith Lectures: Scientific Horizons

Listen to Martin Rees present his "Scientific Horizons" Reith Lectures in 2010 on the BBC, exploring the challenges facing science in the 21st century. The series was presented as four lectures:

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The Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA) in Big Pine, California is an astronomical instrument comprising 23 radio telescopes. All the signals collected are combined, correlated, and "folded" by a computer to produce high-resolution astronomical images.

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Really puts things in perspective to re-affirm the fact that Human beings are not the end all be all of the universe/planet earth, yet at the same time are the most complex organization of atoms we know of.

I am Mormon. What I take away from this conversation is the awesomeness of the universe and its creator. Mr. Rees' discussion reminded me of the Mormon doctrine of Eternal Progression. A famous Mormon maxim from President Lorenzo Snow says, “As man now is, God once was; as God is now man may be.” No official Mormon Church teaching attempts to specify all the ways in which God progresses in his exalted spheres; "there is no end to [His] works, neither to [His] words" (Moses 1:38). God's glory and power are enhanced as his children progress in glory and power (see Moses 1:39). The concept of eternal progression is a salient feature of the gospel of Jesus Christ that distinguishes it from traditional Christian theology. Latter-day Saints not only seek personal and righteous improvement in this world but anticipate the continuation of progression eternally. While this concept is surely not part of Lord Martin Rees' views, his discussion reminded me of this doctrine from my religious tradition. One of our traditional hymns includes these lines, "...... No man has found 'pure space,' Nor seen the outside curtains, Where nothing has a place. The works of God continue, And worlds and lives abound; Improvement and progression Have one eternal round....."

The host's comment that the majority of her regular listener's are atheists or agnostics was a surprise to me because I am a regular listener and am neither. I have a strong belief in a higher spiritual power and find great comfort in my Christain faith and in ceremonial practices that defy rational explanation. I am curious about the foundations for our shared values and find most aspects of the host's interviews enlightening in this respect.

Best regards,


check the transcript. She says "We have a lot of listeners who are atheists and agnostic.." pointing out that "they have ethical lives and they have spiritual lives."

First of all, I must confess that I have not heard the entire conversation. But as soon as I heard the subject matter and the fact that it included something called "parallel universes", I was intrigued and excited. Since 1995 I have been having occasional visual hallucinations which I have kept a record of. They most always occur up to about an hour after I've turned out the light to go to sleep. The first time happened after I had recently moved into a different place (I was living alone and had been divorced for about 12 yrs at that point). I woke to see a face looking at me and when I quickly turned on the light, it disappeared. This was very frightening at the time. Since that time, there have been many other occurrences. Always different. Most often, people - men, women, children - some in silhouette - some with more detail. Once, I saw a cute dog staring at me from my bed. I got up to shoo him away before I remembered I didn't have a dog and no way for one to get in! These images always disappear as soon as the light is turned on. I have also had these when visiting overnight in other places. At times, I have been very frightened as the first time, but most often now I am usually startled and slightly annoyed to have my sleep interrupted. Over the years I have wondered what it could all mean. It didn't feel like a "haunting" (several years ago I saw a psychic who was no help). Nor does it feel like a dream - there is never a narrative and I do dream occasionally. The idea of a parallel universe was a thought I had - but it seemed very "far out"! I finally decided it was a brain thing and told my doctor who suggested I see a neurologist. I did, but after answering many of his questions in the negative, his only suggestions were to have an MRI or to take certain medications. He did feel that if they were dangerous, I would have had some indication by now. They haven't killed me! Having an MRI was an expense I didn't want to accept with so little expectation of any meaningful result. (well, I didn't really know what it could be) So now as a long shot, I'm sharing my story - wondering if it will mean anything to some one who thinks about these things. I should tell you I am a 75 yr old female, divorced mother of 4 grown children, active in community and church activities. I never hear "On Being" at the regular time as I'm on my way to church! Now, I think I will listen to the entire program from today...

Here is a loose transcription of a Q and A from the end of the show:
Q: "You note that among cosmologists...the polls are [divided between the idea] that it's so unlikely that everything came together to create this hospitable biosphere that there must be some purpose behind it, whether they call it God or not; and then there's another poll that says it' incredible, exquisite, random accident."
A: "I regard this as a...scientific question, not a metaphysical question... We do want to know how much is there in physical reality beyond the part of Universe we can see with our telescopes...could it be that there are different physical laws [for some areas of existence]...I think when we have the Unified Theory of the very large and the very small and the nature of space it will help to settle that question...whether there is as it were only one form of space or many different forms of space."

Q: "Do you rule out the possibility of purpose or Creative Intelligence...?"
A: "If there was a purpose I wouldn't expect human brains to understand it. I just think it's far too anthropomorphic to actually use the word 'purpose'...It seems to me that we are part of this world, many aspects of which are mysterious...I regard the rest as a mystery."

To say that the question of whether or not there is Purpose in Creation is a scientific question is quite unusual for a man with the education and intelligence of Lord Martin Rees. At first I was repulsed, thinking that he was as absolute and rigid in his views as the most die-hard religious fundamentalist. To re-frame one of the key philosophical questions of man as scientific...can he be serious? Karl Popper argued that a hypothesis, proposition, or theory is "scientific" only if it is, among other things, falsifiable. Without going into a discussion of 100 pages and quoting many philosophers, any educated person can immediately see that "Purpose" cannot possibly be proven or disproven. What Martin Rees essentially did is sidestep Krista's question and reframe it as a question he's comfortable with: whether or not the Laws of Physics are constant throughout the Universe or not. Like a good politician.

Lord Rees goes on to say that "if there was a purpose I wouldn't expect human brains to understand it." It is interesting that he thinks the human brain quite capable of thinking about Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, but not about Purpose! Are we that metaphysically-challenged as a species? Why are we brilliant and amazing creatures at the cutting edge of evolution when we tackle scientific questions, but we are complete dunces and nitwits when tackling ethical and philosophical questions?

If you look closer at this last quote of his, it's actually a paraphrase of Darwin who said regarding the question of there being Design in Creation, in a letter to Asa Gray, an American botanist and devout Christian:
"I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do... evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us... I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance... I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can."

Rees, again twisting the facts to fit his view of reality, re-frames Darwin's quote this way in the lecture "The Runaway World":
"And when asked about religion, Darwin diffidently responded 'The whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe as he can'. A glaringly different stance from some of his present-day disciples!" (LAUGHTER)
- from

If you look at the context, Darwin was NOT talking about religion (from what we know, he was actually a very religious man). He was talking about a specific religious viewpoint as it applied to biology. The way Lord Rees ignores the context and turns it into a blanket statement about "religion" makes me feel like I'm watching someone trying to drive a square peg into a round hole.

To sum up, it seems to me that either Lord Rees is a die-hard fundamentalist in believing that all of reality is physical (or physical pretending to be other than physical), or he really thinks any viewpoint other than his narrow scientific one is really a bunch of nonsense, and he is changing the subject to be politically correct and polite. From my point of view, it's either irrationally stubborn narrowness or deception, and I am not impressed by either.

PS: for a fuller discussion of what Darwin actually said,

What a great conversation! It was full of common sense applied to complex and important issues. When logic is applied to such things as ethics, evolution, and religion they take on a much more meaningful place in our lives. The science of string theory is daunting to understand but Dr. Rees did a very good job of outlining how they can be viewed by non-scientists. He is a lovely person with a great intellect.

I have no diplomas in higher education. I have learned more than one thing in my 63 years. In nature one can find the answer to many things. The example of " Cosmic Origami" is one of many clues left to us in nature. Jim Kelley

I am a zen meditator, and was fascinated by the use of the word origami, to describe the hidden structure of what we at we call space-time. It must be how the creatures, more highly evolved than us in dimensional status,
our "gods", so to speak, must see things.

Surely, we are not the ultimate of evolution.

As Alan Watts puts it, we as humans, are not just some accident of the universe. We are more than
random flashes of conciousness, between 2 eternal darknesses. We are being given the opportunity to evolve.
There is an old Taoist concept, which I discovered thru macrobiotics. It goes something like this: In your previous
existence, you had a 9 month life inside your mother, so you could develope the organs needed to survive on the
next level. During this time, you were sustained by the placenta, and after 9 months, you died, and were thrust
into this world, where your human body is now the placenta for the inner energy development, and our collective
mother is Mother Earth.
Our job is to develope the spiritual organs needed to survive on the next level, when our earth placenta dies,
and we are thrust out into the cosmic ocean.

I highly recommend the old book, Space, Time and Beyond, to understand how magical our human lives are. We cr
create our future event sequences, in a set of parallel universes, but we are confined to a linear time flow.
All done in our subconcious minds.

The Krishna founder Prabupada says that each human life, is a 1 in a gazillion chance, that the soul gets, to move
up higher, into the worlds of pure mass-free energy.
And think, most of us just waste it pursuing material pleasures. That is not to say the pleasures of earth are to be shunned, but don't stay here for them.... there are much better worlds. Worlds without the death and decay
that is part of our mortal existences.

COMMENT/OBSERVATION: I so relished Lord Martin Rees' remark, "It may seem ironic that I could talk with some confidence about a galaxy a billion light years away." (o; because we don't often acknowledge that a great part of modern cosmology is more "new-age mythology" than science--because it is not based upon hard evidence, nor can it yet be confirmed by validated observations.
However, cosmology does and must provide my imagination, and capacity for wonder, generous doses of mystery and awe. As a specific foil to Lord Rees' gentle irony, NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday (5 June 2011) highlighted an aphorism by Belfast Maine family Doctor David Loxterkamp: "Patients cannot see outside their pain; we cannot see in. Relationship is the only bridge between."
Actually, for a couple of decades now, I've thought about the living red corpuscles coursing through my arteries and veins: for any awareness these cells might possess, I would say that they cannot imagine the existence of the spiral Andromeda galaxy. Even so, and to cut to the chase, I continue to hold a private axiom--that AWARENESS must be a universal property of all Matter and Energy comprising and engaging my consciousness of the cosmos. (It's a reciprocal thing between myself and You All: from the unimaginably Immense to the inscrutably Small. It's a professed "common ground" which also helps me to celebrate "the kingdom of heaven." Amen.)

Would like to research more about the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies that are made in the interiors of collapsing stars.

Does anyone have a link to the Lindon Eaves interview?

Religion can imped science; but, it is the ultimate defennse against science gone totally mad such as the descion to even have a neuclear bomb. Ethics is only te begining of undderstanding that we must practice humility and respect that the universe is not ours. We are tresspassers. Our goal is to pray for fogivenss for the tresspasses of men when they go mad in their egomaiacal search.

Thanks for another great conversation. Thanks to Krista for posing brilliant questions that gave Lord Rees plenty to work with. She seems most interested in the overlap or interface between science and faith. two most powerful forces, and she brings love and joy, two other powerful items. to the discussion. Great job, thank you! One point of correction to a previous comment - she said that some, not that a majority, of her listeners are atheist or agnostic. It's great that she respects all sides of this debate.

Dear Krista,

I very much enjoyed your interview with Martin Rees and I appreciate his stance on the right relationship between science and religion. If I could, in all respect, correct an assumption that Mr. Rees echoed during the interview regarding the nature of religion. In the interview he states:

“And that makes me skeptical of anyone who claims to have the last word or complete understanding of any deep aspect of reality.”

I find it distressing whenever I hear a scientist give as a reason for their non-observance the idea of religious ‘certainty’. There may be many reasons for not wanting to participate in religious life, but it seems to me that can’t be one of them.

Religion is NOT about certainty.

Religion is in fact about the the very opposite of certainty. Religion is based in humility and has at its root the very uncertain nature of the entire enterprise we call existence. At its best, it keeps us rooted in that humility by reminding us that no matter how much knowledge we as a species accumulate, as individuals, we are exceedingly limited in our capacity for understanding. That is not to say that religion opposes the accumulation of new knowledge. Knowledge informs religious observance. I admit that religious institutions are slow at processing new knowledge and bringing it into the focus of its communal life. It is debatable, however, whether this is a virtue or a vice.

When Rees later states that “I think the most we can hope for is some incomplete and metaphorical understanding and to share the mystery and wonder” he is in fact ironically giving us the very definition of the purpose and practice of religion.

When two people get married, we call that a ‘leap of faith’, not because we know how things will turn out, but because we have only limited knowledge and capacity to guide how things might turn out. There is no certainty to it. That’s why we call it faith.

I wish that people in the scientific community would get that straight in their minds. If they did, they might begin to understand that religion and science are not only foreign to each other, they are in many ways kindred spirits.

Rich Walser

Among the greatest joys of "On Being" is the admixture of spirituality and science. Those parts of me that revel in spirit and in scientific thought are enlivened by turns each week as I tend to my Sunday morning breakfast rituals.

This week's interview added another layer to my understanding of the nature of the Universe through a blend of science and metaphysical thought. With each new revelation from astro- or sub-atomic physics, the correlations between science and the cosmology of the Western Mystery Tradition come into sharper focus. Martin Reeses description of "bugs on sheets of paper" separated by a dimensional distance that we currently have no language to express comes very close to the ancient description of the Planes of Existence.

This week's program brought up another topic of importance to me: the tension between "religion" and science. The reason for the quotes here is to emphasize the fact that most or all of this disagreement arises between proponents of a "spirit-free" view of science and the exoteric forms of religion. Those of us in the esoteric religious community heartily cheer the advances in scientific thought because they help to clarify things that our ancient masters taught. Learning new ways to think about the world doesn't shatter my beliefs. Quite the opposite; it broadens and deepens my wonder at this ingenious Universe and I am forever grateful to live now, during an age of enlightenment!

I thought that this was a very interesting podcast. I was interested the religious views of Lord Martin Rees because of the struggles that can sometimes come between religion and science. I was not surprised to find out that he was an atheist. As he was talking about what we don’t know about space, it’s hard to fathom something that goes on forever and what can be out there. I found his analogy with the bugs on a piece of paper very helpful in understanding his thinking. We go about life without thinking that there could be other life elsewhere. There is a lot to space that we don’t know and it’s hard to wrap our minds around the fact that there may be other life out there.
To me this podcast included a lot of science, which I think Rees has a hard time separating this from religion. He goes on to talk about how he is worried about the future of humans on earth. I personally view technology as a great thing that helps mankind. I have never put much thought about the bad that can come from it as well. I kept waiting for the connection to religion, and just under 30 minutes into the show he finally tells why he is atheist. With all the unknowns in the world and those he has found through science, he seems to struggle with religion because religion claims to have a deep understanding of reality. I can understand where he is coming from in that religion cannot explain every aspect of the universe. He seems to be the type that things need to be proved through science and experimenting. Obviously religion cannot be tested in this way.

I enjoyed the conversation and appreciate Lord Martin Reese’ desire for a smarter more thoughtful public dialogue and peaceful coexistence of the religion vs. science discourse. One thing that I often find perplexing in these types of philosophical or religious discussions is why it is so hard for some people to consider that others may indeed believe in the importance and findings that science brings to humanity, and disagree with the dogmas that come with today’s mainstream religions, yet at the same time not be atheists.
To me, the possible complex origami that Lord Martin describes might lie within a single small point in space, is further reason to believe that humans do not and cannot have an understanding of what may lay beyond in the spiritual realm. It is possible to believe in the importance of science, and the conclusions it draws, and yet still be spiritual and have a faith in a God.

As long as we are human there are many things we cannot and will not ever understand. That does mean that the "claims" to understand many ultimate things are only guesses, maybe good guesses, or worse useless dogma dreamed up on starry nights in the desert of our ignorance.