Byline: MICHAEL HANLON
MANKIND has always feared that doomsday is just around the corner.
Thunderbolts from the gods, flood, famine, pestilence, plague and war have always sent shudders down our spines.
But our species now faces a threat far more real and far more deadly than the feared apocalypses of old.
Forget global warming and the hole in the ozone layer.
These may kill many and inconvenience millions more, but real Armageddon will be far nastier and much quicker.
As panic grows over the threat of bio-weapons from terrorists, a new book claims that germ warfare will destroy the human race in 1,000 years. The only way to save ourselves is to colonise other planets.
From anyone else, these would seem the rantings of a madman. But this chilling prophecy comes from Professor Stephen Hawking, the world's most respected cosmologist.
As Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, he not only works with the most advanced theories of physics but is also renowned for his best-seller, A Brief History Of Time, which addressed the inner workings of the universe.
In his new book, The Universe In A Nutshell, he claims that humanity can be saved only by pushing into the outer reaches of the universe.
Forget nuclear weapons which Man has had for 56 years. The real threat is from viruses and bacteria, capable of killing millions.
Prof Hawking points out that these biological weapons can be manufactured secretly and silently in small, hidden laboratories anywhere around the globe.
Since September 11, the world has been a different, more dangerous place.
It is as though all the apocalyptic prophecies of bad, 20th-century science fiction have come true at once.
Hijacked airliners crash into skyscrapers and kill thousands; the Pentagon, the symbol of U.S. military might, is smashed.
And now, anthrax, a disease that has been a scourge of farming folk for centuries, has been put to a new, sinister use.
Although September 11 was 'horrible', Prof Hawking says, 'it didn't threaten the long-term survival of our species'. It is doubtful that anthrax - or any of the half-dozen germs, such as plague or smallpox, touted as possible warfare agents - could wipe out humanity.
All these bugs have been around for centuries, and humanity has built up a certain degree of resistance to them.
Even in the Black Death or smallpox and cholera epidemics of the past, most people exposed to them survived. And that was without the aid of modern medicine, vaccinations and antibiotics.
Prof Hawking believes a true doomsday weapon would be a genetically-modified bug against which we have no resistance.
For instance, meddling around with anthrax's DNA to make it antibiotic-resistant would turn it from a potential threat to thousands into a killer of millions.
Prof Hawking thinks the risk is too great. If we don't 'nuke' ourselves to death - and it is unlikely that even an all-out atomic war would kill everyone - we are quite likely, he thinks, by accident or design, to create a super-germ which would run rampant through humanity.
After all, HIV (a natural virus) has killed millions because of our lack of immunity to it. A deliberately-engineered killer would be …