I heard about Our Final Hour when I watched Martin Rees Ted talk on the mounting risks that the Earth now faces, here I thought that I would be getting a in depth treatment of the topics he covered in the video, but for the most part, I had already learned his most interesting ideas Also, since the immediacy of the issues is a main thrust of the book, it has gone a bit stale already, as inSome innovations just don t attract enough economic or social demand just as supersonic flight and manned space flight stagnated after the 1970s, today in 2002 the potentialities of broadband G3 technology are being taken up slowly because few people want to surf the Internet or watch movies from their mobile phones Wasn t 2002 such a simpler time I did enjoy some of the philosophical parts ie., the Mediocrity Principle , but was put off by Rees constant use of ironic quotation marks, as inBut there is a difference when those exposed to the risk are given no choice, and don t stand to gain any compensating benefit, when the worst case could be disastrous, or when the risk can t be quantified Some scientists seem fatalistic about the risk or else optimistic, even complacent, that the scarifying downsides can be averted This optimism may be misplaced, and we should therefore ask, can the intractable risks be staved off by going slow in some areas, or by sacrificing some of science s traditional openness Those are on every page and drove me bonkers In the end, if there is truly a 50 50 chance that humanity won t survive the 21st century, do yourself a favour and just watch the video. A sobering assessmentAn important thing to realize when reading this book is that we will indeed have a final hour Whether it comes through extinction or self destruction or through our becoming posthuman is entirely uncertain, but come it will.I have read several other doomsday books, including A Guide to the End of the World Everything You Never Wanted to Know 2002 by Bill McGuire, and Extinction Evolution and the End of Man 2002 by Michael Boulter I have also read some books by futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Pierre Baldi The Age of Spiritual Machines When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence 1999 and The Shattered Self The End of Natural Evolution 2001 , respectively additionally I have read some of the books that Rees relied upon while writing this book, including, Our Posthuman Future Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution 2002 by Francis Fukuyama, and so most of the things that Martin Rees is worried about are familiar to me But this book nonetheless broadened my perspective because Sir Martin Rees the Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, and a distinguished astrophysicist is persuasive in his argument that there may actually be scientific experiments that should not be tried He warns against some kinds of genetic engineering, especially those attempting to change the DNA of dangerous pathogens, and even rates some experiments in physics as of dubious value This is a somewhat surprising stance for a reputable scientists to take since most scientists do not relish the prospect of political restraints on their work, and usually afford the same courtesy to practitioners in other disciplines.His call for taking a close look at experiments with a chance of a doomsday downside, however remote, is well taken His sense that some biological experiments have such an unsavory yuck factor e.g., Brainless hominoids whose organs could be harvested as spare parts, p 78 that scientists themselves should not be alone in deciding whether such experiments should continue, is also an excellent point.Rees is characteristically not dogmatic about any of this He presents the dangers and the objections typically with the proviso that a wider public than an individual scientist, or an oligarchy of scientists, should participate in the decisions made Indeed Rees is an eminently reasonable man who tries to have as few prejudices or yuck factors about things as possible.He emphasizes the unpredictability of future developments, noting that straightforward projections of present trends will miss the most revolutionary innovations the qualitatively new things that really change the world p 12 Nobody before modern physics could have predicted the power of the atomic bomb, nor could the earliest experimenters with electricity have foreseen how electrical power would transform the world.Like the futurists named above, Rees sees a posthuman future for our kind, a future in which cultural evolution transforms humans into something beyond human He recalls Darwin, who wrote, not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity and notes that Earth itself may endure, but it will not be humans who cope with the scorching of our planet by the dying sun p 186 What both Darwin and Rees are acknowledging is that all species eventually become extinct, and so too will humans The central point of this book I believe however is to be found further down the page where Rees writes, Nuclear weapons give an attacking nation a devastating advantage over any feasible defense New sciences will soon empower small groups, even individuals, with similar leverage over society Our increasingly interconnected world is vulnerable to new risks bio or cyber, terror or error These risks cannot be eliminated indeed it will be hard to stop them from growing without encroaching on some cherished personal freedoms Indeed, this is perhaps the central conundrum of our time made emphatic by the events of September 11th One of the most interesting ideas in this book is this from page 154 Perhaps complex aggregates of atoms, whether brains or machine, can never understand everything about themselves I am reminded here of Godel s incompleteness theorem in which he demonstrated that mathematics cannot have a truly rigorous logical foundation I am also reminded of Russell s discovery that the logic of self referential systems can lead to paradox Rees s point here is that we may never really know ourselves.Rees also makes the point on the same page that our machines will accelerate science, perhaps to the point where only machines can understand the new discoveries.Clearly we are finite creatures in a world that we can never hope to fully understand Further there will always be dangers that we cannot predict or avoid These are sobering thoughts for humans to think.Rees closes by asking if the future will be filled with life, or as empty as the Earth s first sterile seas and he opines that The choice may depend on us, this century Here I think he is waxing perhaps a bit melodramatically since, while we may have the ability to destroy civilization here on earth, life will indeed go on since it is highly unlikely that we will develop any time soon the ability to destroy all life Further, I agree with those who believe that life in some form exists beyond our solar system Surely we will not be able to destroy them Dennis Littrell, author of The World Is Not as We Think It Is Written in 2004, Martin Rees sees the experiments at CERN as threatening to biological life on Earth than climate change and loss of biodiversity He is willing to bet that a biological weapon can wipe out about 1 million people before 2020 but believes a moratorium on certain types of scientific experiments should be in order I read this book quite quickly as he was talking about many subjects I have been thinking about for quite some time You may enjoy this book even though you do not agree with everything Rees says. The most common objection to Our Final Hour seems to be alleging that it is alarmist This stems from Martin Rees assertion that there is about a 50 50 liklihood of humankind surviving the next 100 years I guess I don t really buy that it s alarmist first, because when you encounter an alarming phenomenon, the proper response is urgency and secondly because, though Rees deals with some ideas that I think have a very small chance of negatively affecting our species, he always takes care to be up front with saying that the odds of, say, an asteroid colliding with earth in our lifetimes, is very small If you can look beyond the fact that there is some outlandish science fiction y sounding stuff in this book, it s got plenty of ideas that are geniunely worth considering I think of this book as something like a survey course in Things That Could Kill Us, taught by an affable professor Here is a list of some of those Things good old fashioned nuclear warfare, nuclear or biological terrorism, accidental release of virulent bio agent, creation of nanotechnology that using solar energy efficiently than current plant life and outcompetes every biological organism on the planet, asteroid impact, overpopulation, climate change, and advanced physics experiments creating a black hole Some of these sound crazy than others, but Rees treatment is always accessible and often very interesting He almost always finds a question or philosophical issue related to one of these possible doomsday scenarios that I hadn t ever considered.The treatment of advanced physics was especially interesting As Rees admits, the odds of a atom smashing experiement creating a black hole or other cosmic event is very small perhaps one in 50 million But, Rees asks, when the entireity of life on earth is at stake, how comfortable should be with odds of 1 in 50 million Is that really good enough considering what is being risked And should someone outside of the scientific community have some say in whether experiments of this sort are conducted Should there be some kind of democratic process or forum where it can at least be discussed Rees is also eloquent on the future of scientific enquiry and where human life fits in the scheme of the cosmos He s funny and humble and this book was a joy for me, though this is admittedly the kind of thing I love And if nothing else, the notes contain this beautiful quote from Arthur C Clarke about what the universe will look like after the hot stars burn out It will be a history illuminated only by the reds and infrareds of dully glowing stars that would be almost invisable to our eyes yet the sombre hues of that all but eternal universe may be full of colour and beauty to whatever strange beings have adapted to it They will know that before them lie, not billions of years that span the past lives of the stars, but years to be counted literally in trillions They will have time enough, in those endless aeons, to attempt all things and to gather all knowledge But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of creation for we knew the universe when it was young. Brief, elegantly written and balanced view of existential risks facing humanity at the beginning of the current century, with attention on natural and even so on artificial sources of risk Sir Martin Rees s sharp and critical sight is not blinded by fear, and tackles most aspects of the scenario from natural catastrophes to artificial doom linked to misuse of technology, from philosophy to history to future colonization of space and the search for extraterrestrial life and contemplates the place and role of humanity and life in general within the universe It was interesting to read this short book, originally published in 2003, at a distance of 15 years to appreciate what the course of time may have revealed as inopportune or ever so timely or prescient, in an exercise of looking backwards at earlier predictions and learn from their outcome to instruct the future ones which is probabily futile or of limited a priori advantage.
- Our Final Hour: A Scientist's warning - How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future in This Century — On Earth and Beyond
- Martin J. Rees
- 15 March 2018 Martin J. Rees