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Our Final Hour (2003)

por Martin J. Rees

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286370,909 (3.58)14
Bolstered by unassailable science and delivered in eloquent style, Our Final Hour's provocative argument that humanity has a mere 5050 chance of surviving the next century has struck a chord with readers, reviewers, and opinion-makers everywhere. Rees's vision of our immediate future is both a work of stunning scientific originality and a humanistic clarion call on behalf of the future of life.… (mais)
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While overall an interesting and readable book on the risks of human extinction, this has pretty much been completely supplanted by Toby Ord’s The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (2020).

Rees does a quick-ish overview of all the major risks to the human species, as well as some strategies for mitigating them. Unlike more recent authors on the subject (e.g.: Ord), he doesn’t really delve into the risk of superintelligence A.I., and (surprisingly for a cosmologist) there’s no references to gamma-ray bursts. It’s on the cusp of being too superficial.

Writing in 2003, with the memories of 9/11 and the Amerithrax attacks still fresh, Rees focuses primarily on the risk of biological terrorism (he bet $1,000 that there would be a massive bioterrorism attack by 2020, a prediction which mercifully appears to be false). While we’ve so far avoided anything more than a few cultish bioterror attacks, I can’t disagree with Rees’ assessment that the risk is only going to grow greater with the passing years, as the knowledge diffuses and the technical means of creating biological weapons become more and more available. Unlike nuclear terrorism (Rees makes a few points on fears of lost/stolen Soviet nuclear weapons, which also, thankfully, appear to have been misguided), bioterrorism could conceivably be conducted by a lonely, disaffected grad student with access to a decent university lab. Rees notes that had Ted Kaczynski come of age in the 90s, he may well have made a plague instead of nail bombs. While we are lucky that there seems to be an inverse relationship between psychopathy and intelligence, there are enough humans in the world that even a one-in-a-million personality type is going to crop up fairly frequently.

Rees was surprisingly alarmist about the risk of high-energy physics experiments, such as the types conducted at CERN, and his arguments against them are more fervent than those found in similar works by Ord or Bostrom. Drawing parallels with the Manhattan Project-era fears that the Trinity test might ignite the atmosphere, Rees notes that these experiments may be riskier – and therefore more unethical – than commonly supposed. Even if an experiment has only, say, a one-in-fifty million chance of creating a false vacuum and destroying the Earth, the fact that such an experiment theoretically endangers billions of humans who have not consented to the risk (or possibly trillions, if you factor in the risk to all possible future generations of humans), and offer almost no practical benefits, should tip the moral calculus against conducting such experiments.

I’m personally skeptical that any experiment humans can conduct could endanger the very universe – if we could, odds are an extraterrestrial civilization millions of years ago would’ve already wiped us out – but I nevertheless find the argument oddly persuasive.

The book is quite readable, but a little disjointed in places, and sometimes Rees’ digressions into the origins of life or interplanetary colonization see rather tangential to his main argument. He is also surprisingly opposed to the creation of the International Space Station. While one can make an argument that it was not the most efficient use of space resources, it certainly wasn’t a boondoggle on the scale of the Shuttle program, and we still managed to learn quite a bit about long-term habitation in space.

Good, but read Ord’s book first. And start thinking about how we’re going to muddle through the next few centuries. ( )
  pvoberstein | Dec 14, 2020 |
This was a great book on a subject near and dear to my heart. I have no direct descendants so I often concern myself with the fate of our entire species. This book is a great introduction into SOME of the EXISTENTIAL threats to our species and to the entire EARTH. The purpose is not to keep you up at night but to inform you about some things that TRUELY MATTER to our decedents on 50-100 year (2-5 generations) time scale.

It is ABSOLUTELY FALSE that there is NOTHING we can do about these matters. In small ways we can all make choices which either promote or demote the chances of our species surviving for the long run. By living CONSCIOUSLY and making WISE CHOICES we can all do our part to promote a more positive future. "Ignorance is bliss" is about as sound advice as having another drink after you are already drunk. NO good decisions are likely to result. KNOWLEDGE is POWER (The Power to do GOOD). ( )
  RFBrost | Nov 2, 2017 |
The Astronomer Royal opines that _H sapiens_ has only a 50-50 chance of surviving the twenty hundreds. Includes yet another mention (a short chapter in fact) of the Carter/Leslie/Gott doomsday argument, which "has weathered a good deal of scrutiny" (p 135).
  fpagan | Dec 19, 2006 |
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Bolstered by unassailable science and delivered in eloquent style, Our Final Hour's provocative argument that humanity has a mere 5050 chance of surviving the next century has struck a chord with readers, reviewers, and opinion-makers everywhere. Rees's vision of our immediate future is both a work of stunning scientific originality and a humanistic clarion call on behalf of the future of life.

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