This Astronomer Royal Rees is, relatively, a Johnny-come-lately (in
the Thatcher era) to the science-based conservation which has largely
supplanted Communism as the pet hate of thoughtless right-wingers. When he
first got interested, he set out to examine nuclear power and how it could
be replaced as a source of electricity. He had little difficulty with
that, on paper - wind was his main suggestion (a good one) - but
reported (in Nature) he had been forced to admit windmills would not be
favoured because they fail to produce plutonium.
Never forget that fission reactors were invented for the sole
purpose of creating plutonium for A-bombs. Other uses are mere
rationalisations _post facto_.
It is not so surprising that this astronomer has yet to catch up
with the hazards of GM. The movement for control of GM is now roughly at
the stage where the antinuclear movement was ca.1970. Respectable
scientists could see only Art Tamplin (who ended up managing a strip joint
in DC) and good old John Gofman (a good scientist, & medico), and a few
other scientific critics who could be suppressed from the 'radar screen' on
excuses like lowly rank plus making quite a few errors which, tho' not
material to their conclusions, undermined confidence in them. Ho is a
clear example today of this category of rebel scientist. The intoxicating
feeling of rebellion evidently overwhelms scientific caution.
By the mid-1970s Henry Kendall of MIT, founder of UCS, had raised
the level of debate. Frank von Hippel of Princeton, and an avalanche of
others, by the end of that decade were declaring thru UCS that fission
reactors are an inferior, dangerous way to generate electricity. But the
role of so-called power reactors in creating plutonium continued, crazily,
especially in France & UK & USSR.
The gloomy outlook of Rees, on the assumption that current business
trends continue, is essentially what non-scientists like Goldsmith pointed
out in the 1960s. Scientists such as the Ehrlichs, Holdren, & many others,
have been presenting this approximate picture for 3 decade now. I have
devoted my career all that time to applied ecology. Yet ecology is still
very much marginalised in politics. Us humans sure are stupid!
June 21, 2004 scientific american
Doom and Gloom by 2100
Unleashed viruses, environmental disaster, gray goo -- astronomer Sir
calculates that civilization has only a 50-50 chance of making it to the 22nd
By Julie Wakefield
Death and destruction are not exactly foreign themes in cosmology. Black holes
can rip apart stars; unseen dark energy hurtles galaxies away from one another.
So maybe it's not surprising that Sir Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal,
sees mayhem down on Earth. He warns that civilization has only an even chance
of making it to the end of this century. The 62-year-old University of
Cambridge astrophysicist and cosmologist feels so strongly about his grim
prognostication that last year he published a popular book about it called Our
The book (entitled Our Final Century in the U.K.) represents a distillation of
his 20 years of thinking about cosmology, humankind and the pressures that have
put the future at risk. In addition to considering familiar potential
such as an asteroid impact, environmental degradation, global warming, nuclear
war and unstoppable pandemics, Rees thinks science and technology are creating
not only new opportunities but also new threats. He felt compelled to
Final Hour to raise awareness about both the hazards and the special
responsibilities of scientists.
As one himself, Rees was among the first to posit that giant black holes power
quasars, and his work on quasar distribution helped to refute the theory that
the cosmos exists in a steady state. Rees directed Cambridge's Institute of
Astronomy until 1992; he then served for a decade as a Royal Society Research
Professor before assuming the mastership of Cambridge's Trinity College. Since
1995 Rees has also held the honorary title of U.K. Astronomer Royal, once an
active post based at Greenwich Observatory and first held by John Flamsteed and
then Edmond Halley.
Astronomers are well positioned to ponder the fate of humanity, Rees insists,
because they have a unique vantage point in terms of the vast timescales of the
future. "Astronomers have a special perspective to see ourselves as just a part
of a process that is just beginning rather than having achieved its end," he
says. "And perhaps this gives an extra motive to be concerned about what
happens here on Earth in this century."
Innovation is changing things faster than ever before, and such increasing
unpredictability leaves civilization more vulnerable to misadventure as well as
to disaster by design. Advances in biotechnology, in terms of both increasing
sophistication and decreasing costs, means that weaponized germs pose a huge
risk. In a wager he hopes to lose, Rees has bet $1,000 that a biological
incident will claim one million lives by 2020. "In this increasingly
interconnected world where individuals have more power than ever before at
their fingertips, society should worry more about some kind of massive
calamity, however improbable," Rees states.
In calculating the coin-flip odds for humanity at 2100, Rees adds together
improbabilities, including those posed by self-replicating, nanometer-size
robots. These nanobots might chew through organic matter and turn the
into a lifeless "gray goo," a term coined by nanotech pioneer K. Eric Drexler
in the 1980s. Gray goo achieved more prominence last year after Prince Charles
expressed concern about it and Michael Crichton used it as the basis for his
It's not just out-of-control technology that has Rees worried. Basic
present a threat. In July 1999 Scientific American ran a letter by Princeton
University physicist Frank Wilczek, who pointed to "a speculative but quite
respectable possibility" that the Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic
Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) could produce particles called strangelets. These
subatomic oddities could grow by consuming nearby ordinary matter. Soon after,
a British newspaper posited that a "big bang machine"--that is, RHIC--could
destroy the planet.
The ensuing media flurry led then Brookhaven director John H. Marburger to pull
together an outside panel of physicists, who concluded that the strangelet
scenario was remote, about a one-in-50-million chance of killing six billion
people. (Another panel, convened by CERN near Geneva, drew a similar
conclusion.) In Our Final Hour, Rees noted that the chances can be expressed
differently--namely, that 120 people might die from the RHIC experiments. He
thinks experts should debate in public the merits and risks of such work.
Some researchers were not pleased with Rees's position. Subir Sarkar, a
University of Oxford cosmologist who considers Rees a true "guru" for his
wide-ranging perspective and contributions to astrophysics and cosmology,
contends nonetheless that Rees was "irresponsible in making a big deal of the
negligible probability" connected with the particle collisions at RHIC. Rees
acknowledges that other doomsday scenarios rank much higher in terms of a "risk
calculus." Yet he maintains that if the safety criteria used for nuclear
reactors are applied--in terms of maximum acceptable probability of deaths
multiplied by number at risk--the probability of global catastrophe from any
particle acceleration experiment would need to be below about one in a
Perhaps more important than his Our Final Hour arguments is Rees's ability to
popularize technical subjects. "He is, by any account, one of the clearest and
most readable expositors of current science to the general public," asserts
friend and colleague Peter Meszaros, a Pennsylvania State University
astrophysicist. Rees has written six books for the lay reader (as well as
several Scientific American articles).
It's possible to tip the balance to civilization's advantage, Rees concludes,
believing that environmental and biomedical issues should be higher on the
political agenda. To raise the debate above the level of rhetoric, however, the
public must be better informed. He looks to the U.S. to take a leadership role.
But so far he finds its handling of the controversies over stem cell research
and global warming to be wanting: the U.S. "has been rather remiss in tackling
issues that are taken more seriously elsewhere in the world, especially
If humanity loses, would it really matter to the rest of the universe? Life
exists thanks to a happy combination of physical constants. Tweak a few, and
life as we know it becomes impossible. Those who ponder whether we were meant
to be here or whether our universe is part of a multiverse, consisting of
universes with different physical parameters, sometimes invoke the anthropic
principle. It basically states that the universe must be able to spawn
intelligent life because we are here to observe it. "Anthropic reasoning will
be irrelevant if the 'final theory' defines all the constants of physics
uniquely, but unavoidable if it doesn't," Rees states. "The latter option is
favored by an increasing proportion of theorists"--in other words, science may
be able to explain the numbers only with an anthropic argument.
Anthropic reasoning would seem to cast a supernatural pall over science. But
Rees doubts that revelations from cosmology will ever resolve the controversy
between science and religion. For a start, he sees no qualitative change
debate since Newton's time: scientific explanations remain perpetually
incomplete. "If we learn anything from the pursuit of science, it is that even
something as basic as an atom is quite difficult to understand," Rees declares.
"This alone should induce skepticism about any dogma or any claim to have
achieved more than a very incomplete and metaphorical insight into any profound
aspect of our existence." Or nonexistence, depending on the coin flip.