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Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning Paperback – April 13, 2004
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. Ultimately, though, Rees sounds more alarmist than precautionary. Some may find him overly optimistic on what science will be capable of doing in the next quarter century. Rees makes some provocative points, but the book falls short of what readers expect from a scientist of his stature.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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An ongoing theme of the book is that a single event caused by one person or a small group may cause irreversible havoc, the kind which could make the 21st century a narrow bottleneck for future civilization. The author is particularly concerned about biotech and its misuse. One could say that humanity's vulnerability to current or synthetic infectious disease is our "weak point." Our culture and technology has advanced but we still have Stone Age bodies. In this way, it could be that a 21st century of "eugenics wars" may occur -- not on purpose as has long been contemplated in archaic science and speculative fiction but instead by accident. If a small group of people has immunity to a virulent airborne disease this group could have more "Darwinian finess." The search for greater immunity, not brawn or brains as previously envisioned, may be a desperate and high-stakes endeavor, and one which is damaging to the less wealthy masses of people around the world. Margaret Atwood also explores this topic in her MaddAddam trilogy.
In response to this issue, Prof. Rees argues for a meta-science that would demarcate "no go" areas for biological research (p. 187 "putting the brakes on some research" and Ch. 6, "Slowing Science Down?").
Finally, it's interesting that Prof. Rees says in his Reith Lectures on Kindle that the original title had a question mark "Our Final Century?" He is an optimist, according to his writings in the Reith Lectures, and I also thought the title should have a question mark. If this optimism is well-grounded, a new meta-science as envisioned by Prof. Rees to guide future R&D may come into existence through the work of academics, the G-20, and the UN.
Rees begins with familiar threats from nuclear and biological weapons, noting Fred Ikle's view that only an oppressive police state could assure total government control over novel tools of mass destruction. Rees then turns to the implications of genetic engineering, including the creation of new forms of life that could feed off other materials in our environment. Thanks to genetic engineering, the nature of humans could begin to change within this century; human character and physique will soon be malleable. The potential threats may remind some readers of Frank Herbert's novel The White Plague, in which a lone scientist creates a spectacular method of revenge.
Rees is most effective when he describes the potential implications of scientific experiments, particularly in particle physics. He notes that some experiments are designed to generate conditions more extreme than ever occur naturally. Here readers will learn about the possible human creation of black holes and strangelets. Errors and unpredictable outcomes are a growing cause for worry; calculations of risk are based on probability rather than certainty. Rees tells us that one person's act of irrationality, or even one person's error, could do us all in. That should motivate a circumspect attitude toward technical innovations that pose even a small threat of catastrophic failure, though putting effective brakes on a field of research would require international consensus. Rees speculates that the abandonment of privacy may be the minimal price for maintaining security.
Rees is particularly critical of American attitudes toward science and technology. Commenting that there are some who have a tenuous hold on rationality, he states that "their numbers may grow in the US." Later in the book, he writes that in the US "bizarre beliefs seem almost part of the mainstream." The United States is hardly the only source of irrational people.
Rees then turns to more conventional futurism, discussing the search for extraterrestrial life and human expansion into the solar system. He implicitly advocates that humans should establish colonies beyond the Earth to assure that the species will survive a disaster on its home planet.
There are some errors. Rees writes that the Challenger explosion took place in 1987; it actually was a year earlier. He describes Gerard O'Neill as an engineering professor; O'Neill actually was a professor of physics. Rees links the SETI at Home computer network with the SETI Institute; in fact, that program is associated with Serendip IV, a project invented by professors at the University of California at Berkeley.
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Martin Rees is one of the most distinguished theoretical astrophysicists in the world.Read more