30 April 2003
Leading scientist warns GE could wipe out life on earth
"Bioterrorists are the most widely publicized threat at the moment, but well-intentioned scientists, Rees says, are capable of accidentally wiping out mankind via genetically engineered superpathogens that create unprecedented pandemics, or even through something as weird as high-energy particle experiments that backfire and cause the universe to implode. Rees poses some hard questions about scientists' responsibility to forsake research that might lead to a malevolent genie being let out of its bottle and even to restrict the sharing of scientific information to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands."
"For many technological debacles, Rees places much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the scientists who participate in perfecting environmental destruction, biological menaces, and ever-more powerful weapons."
Sir Martin Rees: Prophet of doom?
BBC News Profiles Unit
BBC NEWS ONLINE, Friday, 25 April, 2003
The human race has only a 50/50 chance of surviving another century, says Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, in his latest book - a work as thoughtful as the man who wrote it.
The Book of Revelations presents its own, hair-raising, account of the end of the world: "And, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth."
Today, no less a figure than Sir Martin Rees, the Royal Society Research Professor at Cambridge University, presents his own vision of the Apocalypse.
In an eloquent and tightly argued book, Our Final Century, Sir Martin ponders the threats which face, or could face, humankind during the 21st Century.
Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future In This Century--On Earth and Beyond
by Martin J. Rees
Hardcover: 228 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.88 x 8.58 x 5.82
Publisher: Basic Books; (March 18, 2003) ISBN: 0465068626
Just when you've stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb, along comes Sir Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal, with teeming armies of deadly viruses, nanobots, and armed fanatics. Beyond the hazards most of us know about--smallpox, terrorists, global warming--Rees introduces the new threats of the 21st century and the unholy political and scientific alliances that have made them possible. Our Final Hour spells out doomsday scenarios for cosmic collisions, high-energy experiments gone wrong, and self-replicating machines that steadily devour the biosphere. If we can avoid driving ourselves to extinction, he writes, a glorious future awaits; if not, our devices may very well destroy the universe.
What happens here on Earth, in this century, could conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life and one filled with nothing but base matter.
For many technological debacles, Rees places much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the scientists who participate in perfecting environmental destruction, biological menaces, and ever-more powerful weapons. So is there any hope for humanity? Rees is vaguely optimistic on this point, offering solutions that would require a level of worldwide cooperation humans have yet to exhibit. If the daily news isn't enough to make you want to crawl under a rock, this book will do the trick. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
Nano-machines stand poised to revolutionize technology and medicine, but what happens if these minuscule beasties break their leash and run amok? Rees, the U.K.'s Astronomer Royal and prolific author (Just Six Numbers; Our Cosmic Habitat), warns that the 21st century may well witness the extinction of mankind, a doomsday more likely to be caused by human error than by a natural catastrophe. Bioterrorists are the most widely publicized threat at the moment, but well-intentioned scientists, Rees says, are capable of accidentally wiping out mankind via genetically engineered superpathogens that create unprecedented pandemics, or even through something as weird as high-energy particle experiments that backfire and cause the universe to implode. Rees poses some hard questions about scientists' responsibility to forsake research that might lead to a malevolent genie being let out of its bottle and even to restrict the sharing of scientific information to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands.
A world-renowned astrophysicist advances an astonishing and alarmingthesis: the odds are no better than 50/50 that our species will survive to the end of the twenty-first century. A scientist known for unraveling the complexities of the universe over millions of years, Sir Martin Rees now warns that humankind is potentially the maker of its own demise--and that of the cosmos. Though the twenty-first century could be the critical era in which life on Earth spreads beyond our solar system, it is just as likely that we have endangered the future of the entire universe. With clarity and precision, Rees maps out the ways technology could destroy our species and thereby foreclose the potential of a living universe whose evolution has just begun.
Rees boldly forecasts the startling risks that stem from our accelerating rate of technological advances. We could be wiped out by lethal "engineered" airborne viruses, or by rogue nano-machines that replicate catastrophically.
Experiments that crash together atomic nuclei could start a chain reaction that erodes all atoms of Earth, or could even tear the fabric of space itself.
Through malign intent or by mistake, a single event could trigger global disaster. Though we can never completely safeguard our future, increased regulation and inspection can help us to prevent catastrophe.
Rees's vision of the infinite future that we have put at risk--a cosmos more vast and diverse than any of us has ever imagined--is both a work of stunning scientific originality and a humanistic clarion call on behalf of the future of life.
About the Author
Sir Martin Rees is Royal Society Professor at Cambridge University, a Fellow of Kings College, and the U.K.'s Astronomer Royal. The winner of the 2001 Cosmology Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation, he has published numerous academic papers and books and is the author of four titles for a general readership: Our Cosmic Habitat, Gravity's Fatal Attraction, Before the Beginning, and Just Six Numbers. He lives in Cambridge, England.