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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important, but less focused than the title implies, November 12, 2003
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This review is from: Our Final Hour (Hardcover)
"The theme of this book," Martin Rees writes, "is that humanity is more at risk than at any earlier phase in its history." Natural risks such as colliding with an asteroid have not changed; they are the baseline. What is new is the power that science has given small numbers of people - possibly as few as one - to endanger the entire species. Our destiny depends increasingly on choices that we make ourselves. These are important themes that should have been developed in more detail. Unfortunately, some of this relatively short book is taken up with futurist padding separated from the main point.
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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Initial post: Sep 20, 2010, 6:57:29 AM PDT
Jim Roberts says:
I've never wished to buy this book, having my own distinct pessimistic views of the future, but if it helps people think, that's all to the good. Besides basic physics and the basics of biology, there is no reason to think that interstellar travel or time travel are possible, as they are refuted in practice by Fermi's question, "Where are they?" Nevertheless, both are fun to think about as they raise many philosophical questions that might not otherwise occupy us.
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