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Lord Rees of Ludlow: oration

Read Professor Jeff Thompson CBE's oration on Lord Rees of Ludlow for the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in June 2015.


Martin Rees was born in York, and his early education was at Bedstone College in Ludlow, a school founded by his parents who were both teachers. At the age of 13 he moved to Shrewsbury School from which he progressed to gain a first in the Mathematical Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge – an institution of which he later became Master. He attributes the awakening of his abiding interest in nature and numbers to his education in those early years. Throughout his academic life he has consistently stressed the importance of providing relevant and high-quality science education in schools, as an important foundation for the establishment of an appropriate level of science and technology expertise in universities, research institutes and in industry, to serve future needs.

Lord Rees is regarded nationally and internationally as an outstanding scientist of our time, contributing not only to our understanding of cosmology and astrophysics – his major areas of research, teaching and publication – but also to the wider field of science as a whole. His reputation has been established as a result of an academic career that is dazzling by any definition. Following post-doctoral positions at Cambridge, California and Princeton, and Professorships at Sussex and King’s College London, he was appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge – a post he held for eighteen years, during which time he was also appointed Director of the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy. His research deals with cosmology and astrophysics, especially gamma ray bursts, galactic nuclei and black hole formation, including the early generation of stars and galaxies that formed the end of the cosmic dark ages some 12 billion years ago, relatively shortly after the so-called Big Bang. He has authored or co-authored over 500 research papers – his study of the distribution of quasars leading to the final disproof of the Steady State Theory. Passion and rigour are two characteristics mentioned by those who follow his work closely.

His university research has been complemented by a wide range of impressive and influential appointments. These include his appointment as Astronomer Royal in 1995, President of the Royal Society, President of The Royal Astronomical Society, President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and other leadership roles in a wide range of scientific and educational institutions worldwide. It is therefore little wonder that he has received acknowledgement of the massive contribution that he has made, and continues to make, to his field in the form of numerous awards and honours. Having already received a Knighthood, he was elevated to a life peerage in 2005, sitting on the crossbenches as Baron Rees of Ludlow, and in 2007 was appointed a member the Order of Merit, which is a personal gift of the Queen.

For a man who is reported as saying that each night as he heads up to bed he most often looks up to the sky, knowing that it is something that the human race has been trying to understand since the beginning of time, he is remarkably down to earth. This is manifested in a number of ways. Most significantly he commands respect and admiration for the gift that he possesses of being an excellent communicator, not only among his scientific peer group but also across a much wider community of those who have been inspired by what he has to say through conference presentations and media outlets of many kinds, and by reading his views expressed in the books and articles which have been published in the popular press. He does not shy away from expressing his opinion (for example, he is widely quoted as advising his students that it is better to read first-rate science fiction than second-rate science, as it is more stimulating and no more likely to be wrong). He is also no stranger to controversy and he has written and spoken extensively about the problems and challenges of the 21st Century and of the interfaces between science, ethics and politics.

Lord Rees is an excellent role model for all those who are graduating with him today, and an inspiration to all who have an interest in our place in the universe and a concern for our future well-being.

Professor Jeff Thompson CBE

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