Stephen Emmott is a professor of computing at Oxford University and head of Microsoft’s Computational Science Laboratory in Cambridge. His lab is devoted to finding new techniques and ideas for solving key scientific problems. One of his research groups works on small-scale issues including the make-up of living cells and includes immunologists and neuroscientists. Another group is focused on global problems including the carbon cycle and is made up of plant biologists and marine ecologists.
Emmott, who is 52, is also the star of the forthcoming solo theatrical production Ten Billion, a co-operation between himself and distinguished director Katie Mitchell, whose past works have included A Woman Killed with Kindness at the National Theatre. The show opens at the Royal Court in London this week and focuses on the state our planet will be in when its population reaches 10 billion.
So what exactly is the play about?
It’s not really a play. I don’t know how to describe it. I have been calling it The Thing so far. In effect, the set – at the Upstairs theatre at the Royal Court – is a recreation of my office, which is a dump full of papers and piles of old journals. And there is a whiteboard, I will be drawing a lot on that. You could call it a discourse on the biggest experiment ever carried out by humans.
We made a great deal of fuss about the discovery of the Higgs boson. It has been described as the greatest scientific experiment of all time. But it is nothing compared with the experiment humanity is now carrying out on our own planet. Our numbers are set to reach 10 billion – at a very conservative estimate – by the end of the century. Those swelling numbers are destroying ecosystems, polluting the atmosphere and the sea, raising temperatures and melting ice caps and we have no idea what the outcome will be. That is some experiment. …
Human numbers have risen from one billion to our current population of seven billion in 200 years. That is pretty short order, and we have got to that state through our cleverness and inventiveness. But that cleverness and inventiveness are now the sources of all the global problems we face today – and those problems are only going to intensify as our numbers continue to grow. It is really important to talk about overpopulation. Far too many scientists still refuse to discuss the issue. Yet it lies at the heart of all our environmental problems today. …
I agree, which is why I’ve been doing my part by not having any children.