Our Final Hour

The subject line is the title of the book by Sir Martin Rees who was also the President of the Royal Society, UK from 2005 to 2010.  I don’t regret spending time on it. With my limited science knowledge and reading, I hadn’t come across scientists who openly admit to the limitations, uncertainties and dangers of their research. Yes, after the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombs, there was a push against further nuclear tests and development of bombs. Robert Oppenheimer himself felt a lot of emotions after the bombs were actually dropped and they could see the devastation they caused. The Pugwash Conference happened some fifteen years too late, perhaps. The first conference was held in 1957.

So, it was good to find a scientist who was calling for restraint, for a rigorous evaluation of costs and benefits of science, etc. I found it difficult to concentrate only with the last four to five chapters. Not that they were uninteresting but they did not fit into the overall theme of the first six to seven chapters. At least, that is what I thought.

But, he is going to be 76 soon (end of this week) and I found his overall views on the places of science and religion quite healthy, clear and level-headed. You can read an article here and an interview here. His comment on Stephen Hawking’s comment on God is worth noting:

He is equally scathing about Hawking’s more recent comments about there being no need for God in order to explain creation. “Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve know for 40 years and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic,” he said. [Link]

This is what he had to say about scientific research:

The views of scientists should not have special weight in deciding questions that involve ethics or risks: indeed, such judgements are best left to broader and more dispassionate groups.

Scientific research, and our motives for pursuing it, cannot be separated from the social context in which such research is carried out.

For example, he cites Cass Sunstein here to talk about a ‘networked’ or connected world leads to more polarisation:

In his book republic.com , Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago , suggests that the Internet is allowing all of us to “filter” our input , so that each person reads a “Daily Me” customised to individual tastes and ( more insidiously ) purged of material that may challenge prejudices. Rather than sharing experience with those whose attitudes and tastes are different, many will in future “live in echo chambers of their own design” and “need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out. Sunstein discusses “group polarization,” whereby those who interact only with the likeminded have their prejudices and obsessions reinforced, and shift towards more extreme positions.

Another example: mood-altering drugs:

In Our Post-human Future Francis Fukuyama argues that habitual and universal use of mood – altering medications would narrow and impoverish the range of human character. He cites the use of Prozac to counter depression, and of Ritalin to damp down hyperactivity in high – spirited but otherwise healthy children: these practices are already constricting the range of personality types that are considered normal and acceptable. Fukuyama foresees a further narrowing, when other drugs are developed, that could threaten what he regards as the essence of our humanity.

I found that rather thoughtful of Francis Fukuyama.

However, the caveat:

The difficulty with a dirigiste policy in science is that the epochal advances are unpredictable.

Our (humans’) inability to predict the future is so well captured in this paragraph. In a way, it reminds us that we cannot be sure of what the future holds, when we unleash something:

In 1937, the US National Academy of Sciences organised a study aimed at predicting breakthroughs; its report makes salutary reading for technological forecasters today. It came up with some wise assessments about agriculture, about synthetic gasoline, and synthetic rubber. But, what is more remarkable is the things it missed. No nuclear energy, no antibiotics (though this was eight years after Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin), no jet aircraft, no rocketry nor any use of space, no computers; certainly no transistors. The committee overlooked the technologies that actually dominated the second half of the twentieth century. Still less could they predict the social and political transformations that occurred during that time.

Bill Joy’s ‘Why the future does not need us’

I must be grateful to Sir Martin Rees for one important reference that I had not come across before. He mentioned about Bill Joy’s article, ‘Why the future does not need us?’ published in the ‘Wired’ magazine in April 2000. I read it this morning and I liked it immensely. The original is here. There are so many quotable quotes from that article. I think, if you had not read it before, you must read it. I am doing a separate post on Bill Joy’s article.

His idea of how the world could support 10 billion people by 2050:

A population as high as ten billion would be fully sustainable if everyone lived in tiny apartments, perhaps like the “capsule hotels” that already exist in Tokyo, subsisting on a rice – based vegetarian diet, electronically networked, travelling little, and finding recreation and fulfilment in virtual reality rather than the consumerism and incessant travel now favoured in the profligate West.

On extinction and its acceleration in the modern era:

Extinctions are, of course, intrinsic to evolution and natural selection: fewer than ten percent of all the species that ever swam, crawled, or flew are still on Earth today.

But human beings are perpetrating a “sixth extinction” on the same scale as earlier episodes. Species are now dying out at one hundred or even one thousand times the normal rate. Before Homo sapiens came on the scene, about one species in a million became extinct each year; the rate is now is closer to one species in a thousand.

There were vineyards in England and it was warmer in Northern Europe! So, climate keeps changing. But, the problem is the speed of change.

On Climate change:

Climatic change has, like extinction of species, characterised Earth throughout its history. But it has, like the extinction rate, been disquietingly speeded up by human actions.

It was warmer in Northern Europe a thousand years ago: there were agricultural settlements in Greenland where animals grazed on land that is now ice – covered; and vineyards flourished in England. But there have been prolonged cold periods too. The warm spell seems to have ended by the fifteenth century, to be succeeded by a “little ice age” that continued until the end of the eighteenth century.

Can we always count on this luck? Phew!

Paul Crutzen, one of the chemists who elucidated how CFCs actually acted in the upper atmosphere , has pointed out that it was a technological accident and quirk of chemistry that the commercial coolant adopted in the 1930s was based on chlorine . Had bromine been used instead, the atmospheric effects would have been more drastic and longer – lasting.

The final words:

In the twenty-first century, humanity is more at risk than ever before from misapplication of science.

AND

I think the odds are no better than fifty – fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.

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