Magazine article The Spectator

Worst Possible Scenarios

Magazine article The Spectator

Worst Possible Scenarios

Article excerpt

Worst possible scenarios

Steve King

OUR FINAL CENTURY by Martin Rees Heinemann, L17.99, pp. 228, ISBN 0434008095

Sir Martin Rees has written three thrillingly good books on cosmology for non-specialists. In Before the Beginning, Just Six Numbers and Our Cosmic Habitat he made the biggest of big ideas seem not just comprehensible but excitingly available to anyone with a passing interest. Though an elegant and vivid writer, he is no show-off, preferring plainness and clarity to flashy word-painting. Certainly there is in his books none of the self-regarding razzle-dazzle that you get with so many other pop scientists.

Our Final Century is Rees's gloomiest book by far, and sits oddly with its predecessors. It is best approached with a stiff drink at the ready. Never mind that, in another six billion years or so, the dying Sun will flare up into a 'red giant' and vaporise whatever is left on Earth's surface. There are plenty of other potential catastrophes to worry about right now. Indeed, Rees reckons humankind has no more than a 50-50 chance of surviving another 100 years.

First, though, he gives us the good news. The threat of an old-fashioned nuclear holocaust has receded since the end of the cold war. The Cuban missile crisis may have brought us within a whisker of annihilation, but it passed. So much for the good news.

The nuclear threat, Rees goes on to say, will be overshadowed in coming years by other threats that could be just as destructive, and far less controllable.

These may come not primarily from national governments, not even from 'rogue states', hut from individuals or small groups with access to ever more advanced technology. There arc alarmingly many ways in which individuals will be able to trigger catastrophe.

Biological terror is of course one way. Rees mentions the attempt by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult to track down Ebola in Africa in the 1990s. …

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