Los Angeles, June 10 (Reuters): This is the way the world might end: A genetically engineered pathogen is released, debris from an erupting “super-volcano” blocks the sun or scientists in the biggest “bio-error” of them all accidentally trigger a matter-squeezing “big bang.”
The demise of civilisation has been predicted since it began, but the odds of keeping Planet Earth alive and well are getting worse amid a break-neck pace of scientific advances, according to Martin Rees, Britain’s honourary astronomer royal. Rees calculates that the odds of an apocalyptic disaster striking Earth have risen to about 50 per cent from 20 per cent 100 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 bio-terror or bio-error will have killed a million people, Rees contends.
“There is a growing gap between doors that are open and doors that should be open,” Rees, a professor at Britain’s Cambridge University, said in an interview.
The cosmologist concedes that natural disasters have always loomed — so-called super-volcanoes could explode at any time and asteroids slam into the planet, causing massive climate changes — but says the most frightening risks are probably man made.
“A hundred years ago, the nuclear threat wasn’t even predicted but that threat still hasn’t gone away,” he said. The arms race, after all, was fuelled by science, and the field has a responsibility to inform a wide public of the risks in deciding how to apply scientific breakthroughs, he added.
“For the first time ever, human nature itself isn’t fixed. Biotech drugs and genetic engineering are empowering individuals more than ever before,” Rees said. With rapidly advancing DNA technology, “even a single person could cause a disaster,” Rees warned, noting that the US, after the September 11, 2001, attacks and the anthrax scare, is well aware of this threat.
Thousands of people have the ability to engineer viruses and bacteria to cause deadly plagues. Even if one such “weirdo” didn’t kill many people, that type of biological terrorism would profoundly change daily life, the scientist said.
Nanotechnology — the subject of a recent Michael Crichton thriller about the havoc caused by runaway microscopic machines — is also a potent threat, he said.
If the field advances far enough, rogue self-replicating nanotechnology machines — feeding on organic material and spreading like pollen — could devastate a continent within a few days, Rees said.
The dangers of global warming are also addressed in the book, subtitled A scientist's warning: How terror, error, and environmental disaster threaten humankind’s future in this century — on Earth and beyond.