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    -ARTICLE: British Scientist Puts Odds for Apocalypse at 50-50 (Deena Beasley Jun 9,2003, Reuters)
This is the way the world might end: A genetically engineered pathogen is released, debris from an erupting "supervolcano" blocks the sun or scientists in the biggest "bioerror" of them all accidentally trigger a matter-squeezing "big bang."

The demise of civilization has been predicted since it began, but the odds of keeping Planet Earth alive and well are getting worse amid a breakneck pace of scientific advances, according to Martin Rees, Britain's honorary astronomer royal.

Rees calculates that the odds of an apocalyptic disaster striking Earth have risen to about 50 percent from 20 percent a hundred years ago.

The 60-year-old scientist, author of the recently published "Our Final Hour," says science is advancing in a far more unpredictable and potentially dangerous pattern than ever before.

He lists as mankind's biggest threats: nuclear terrorism, deadly engineered viruses, rogue machines and genetic engineering that could alter human character. All of those could result from innocent error or the action of a single malevolent individual.

By 2020, an instance of bioterror or bioerror will have killed a million people, Rees contends.
One of the best lines in Bull Durham has Susan Sarandon speculating about which hero she was in her past lives. Kevin Costner asks why no one who believes in reincranation ever thinks they were a peasant in their past life. Similarly, there seems to be an overwhelming urge in many people to believe that they are living at the end of time. This is an affliction which entirely predictably hits at the two great faiths especially hard, claiming the scientific and the religious in about equal numbers. Thus, for every Biblical prophet and Rapturian you've got a Malthus, an Ehrlich, a Sagan, a global warmer or now a Martin Rees.

Several years ago though there was an amusing profile in The New Yorker of the physicist John Gott by excellent popular science writer Timothy Ferris. As I recall, which is generally unreliable, Mr. Gott made the point that it's extremely unlikely that you live in exceptional times, no matter how fiercely you desire to and that it's rather unlikely that you just happen to alive for the End of Days of the human species. Here's a bit about the profile which unfortunately doesn't appear to be online, Point, Counterpoint and the Duration of Everything (James Glanz, 8 February 2000, The New York Times)
In our last issue we considered the article "How to Predict Everything" (Timothy Ferris, 7/12/99, The New Yorker), which describes how physicist John Gott proposes to compute prediction intervals for the future duration of any observed phenomenon. Gott's method hinges on the "Copernican assumption" that there is nothing special about the particular time of your observation, so with 95% confidence it occurs in the middle 95% of the lifetime. If the phenomenon is observed to have started A years ago, Gott infers that A represents between 1/40 (2.5%) and 39/40 (97.5%) of the total life. He therefore predicts that the remaining life will extend between A/39 and 39A years into the future. (Given Gott's assumptions, this is simple algebra: if A = (1/40)L where L is the total life, then the future life is L - A = 39A.) Gott has used the method to predict everything from the run of Broadway plays to the survival of the human species!
At any rate, every few years some scientist or some cleric is predicting that we're at the brink of doom and, you'll have noticed, so far they've all proved wrong. One would expect this trend to continue for several millions of years, no matter how wearisome it grows.


Grade: (B)



See also:

Martin Rees Links:

    -Martin Rees (Institute of Astronomy)
    -BIO: Martin Rees (
    - Professor Sir Martin Rees (1942-), Fifteenth Astronomer Royal from (1995-) (National Maritime Museum)
    -BIO: Martin Rees (
    -AWARD: Martin John Rees: 1993 Bruce Medalist -AWARD: Martin Rees wins cosmology prize (PhysicsWeb, 13 September 2001)
    -ESSAY: A Field Guide to the Invisible Universe: At least 96 percent of the cosmos cannot be seen through any telescope, but what we cannot detect may hold the secret of our fate (Martin Rees and Priyamvada Natarajan, December 2003, DISCOVER)
    -ESSAY: Mars Needs Millionaires: Why future space exploration should be left to rich thrill seekers (Martin Rees, Foreign Policy)
    -INTERVIEW: Our Cosmic Self-Esteem: Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees describes how for the first time, humans as a species may start to change in observable ways within single lifetimes and under some loose control of our own influence. If this future plays out, the future itself becomes more difficult to forecast. ( Helen Matsos, Jan 10, 2005, AstroBiology)
    -PROFILE: Doom and Gloom by 2100: Unleashed viruses, environmental disaster, gray goo--astronomer Sir Martin Rees calculates that civilization has only a 50-50 chance of making it to the 22nd century (Julie Wakefield , 6/21/04, Scientific American)
    -INTERVIEW: The end of the world as we know it (maybe): Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, believes our civilisation will be lucky to survive the century. (Simon Hattenstone, April 24, 2003, The Guardian)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Sir Martin Rees: A conversation with Great Britain's Astronomer Royal about the universe - or universes. (Science Friday, September 19, 1997, NPR)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview with Sir Martin Rees (Simon Sing, Dec 1999, The Times Educational Supplement)
    -INTERVIEW: An Interview with Sir Martin Rees (The Chandra Chronicles, June 25, 2001)
    -INTERVIEW: with Martin Rees (The Space Library)
    -INTERVIEW: Galaxy quest: Martin Rees has been Britain's Astronomer Royal since 1995. He has contributed to the theories of galaxy formation and clustering, and the origin of the cosmic background radiation. He was an early proponent of the idea that enormous black holes power quasars, and his study of their distribution helped discredit the steady state cosmological theory. (Ian Simmons, nth position)
    -INTERVIEW: with Martin Rees (Science Watch)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter 15: "An Ensemble of Universes": The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution by John Brockman (MARTIN REES,
    -INTERVIEW: Apocalypse Now (Or Later) (Martin Rees, Popular Science)
    -ESSAY: Doomsday Trippers (Kenneth Silber, 5/19/03, Tech Central Station)
    -ESSAY: Is There a Meaning Behind Existence? (Paul Davies)
    -PROFILE: Sir Martin Rees: Prophet of doom? (Andrew Walker, 4/25/03, BBC News)
    -PROFILE: No place like home for Martin Rees ( Plus)
    -ESSAY: The End Is at Hand: I'm convinced! (John Derbyshire, June 20, 2003, National Review)
    -ESSAY: We're All Gonna Die!: But it won't be from germ warfare, runaway nanobots, or shifting magnetic poles. A skeptical guide to Doomsday. (Gregg Easterbrook, July 2003, Wired)
    -ARCHIVES: "martin rees" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of 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 Rees (DENNIS OVERBYE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Our Final Hour (Joel Garreau, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Our Final Hour (Joel Garreau, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Our Final Hour (Kenneth Silber, Tech Central Station)
    -REVIEW: of Our Final Hour (Oliver Morton, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Our Final Hour (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe by Martin Rees (Jon Turney, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Just Six Numbers (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Our Cosmic Habitat by Martin Rees (Heinz Oberhummer, PhysicsWeb)

Book-related and General Links:

    --ESSAY: Implications of the Copernican principle for our future prospects (J. Richard Gott III, Nature, 27 May 1993.)
    --ESSAY: Predicting Future Duration from Present Age: A Critical Assessment (Carlton M. Caves, 2000, Contemp.Phys.)
    -ESSAY: Life, longevity, and a $6000 bet (Richard Gott, 11 February 2000)
    -ESSAY: Investigations into the Doomsday Argument (Nick Bostrom, 1996, Department of Philosophy, Yale University)


>Rees calculates that the odds of an apocalyptic disaster >striking Earth have risen to about 50 percent from 20 >percent a hundred years ago.

Funny... 40-50 years ago during the height of the Cold War (with all the nuclear arsenals), weren't the odds calculated at close to 100 percent by the year 2000?

- Ken

- Jun-25-2004, 17:26