Book Review: Our Final Hour by Sir Martin Rees

Article written: 10 Jul , 2003
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It’s strange how many “the world is going to end” books cross my desk here at Universe Today. Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century–On Earth and Beyond is the latest offering is by Sir Martin Rees, England’s Astronomer Royal, and delves into the possiblility that the fate of humanity, the Earth, and maybe even the entire universe is in the hands of well-intentioned (or malicious) scientists as they push the boundaries of nature.

Scientists will destroy the world! We’ve all heard that before, but found it kind of a strange statement coming from one of the more prominent scientists in the world. In “Our Final Hour”, however, Rees makes some well-reasoned arguments about the dangers of scientific exploration. Not that we shouldn’t explore nature, just that we should be mindful of the risks and take extra precautions.

The book is a quick read, only 228 pages, and takes us through the range of doomsday scenarios that scientists can unleash: environmental disasters that warm/cool the Earth and make it unlivable; bioterrorism that could unleash a plague of germs on the populace; and exotic physics experiments that could convert all matter in the universe into something… unpleasant.

Rees is calm and reasoned in his arguments; at no point does he stray into “science is bad” rants. Instead, he adopts the tone of a scientific professional, concerned about the ethical implications of scientific discovery. But he doesn’t argue that science should be slowed down, in fact, Rees believes that it’s pretty much impossible to stop scientific development. For every country that has a ban on genetic research, there will be one happy to support it. And technology will allow the tools to create viruses and other nastiness by a much larger group of people – some with nasty intentions.

I guess that’s where the book fell down a bit for me. It offers up lots challenges the world could face from science, but it’s short on solutions that could help guide policy. I got the impression that Rees feels largely pessimistic that anything can really be done to slow progress, and the inevitable disasters science could cause. It’s unrealistic to tell scientists what they can and can’t work on; even more difficult to enforce ethical guidelines; and probably impossible to stop technology from falling into the wrong hands. The only hope Rees sees is in human spaceflight – essentially escaping the problem and heading to the stars. That’s all well and good, but the Earth is where I keep all my stuff. There’s got to be more than that. I was hoping for a much longer book that offered up some deeper policy suggestions, but I suspect the implications are just too far reaching to make realistic suggestions.

Still, it’s an interesting read.

Here’s a link to Amazon.com, Amazon UK, and Amazon Canada.


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