Friday, 20 August 2010

Book Review - "Our Final Century" by Martin Reese

Martin Rees is a cosmologist based at Cambridge University and his true interests shine through in the final chapters. He ends by wondering if the wider cosmos has a potential future for humanity that could even be infinite. He states that “[h]umankind will remain vulnerable so long as it stays confined here on Earth.” I question his reasoning from start to finish. He begins with an analysis of the risks we have living on this planet and ends up with a suggestion that an escape to space may be our best option. But common sense tells us that we would have even greater risks if we left the Earth for places where we do not naturally fit. He talks about science transforming Mars and people moving there and colonizing, possibly with a little artificially induced variation in the genome to assist with diversity (and manmade food and plants of course). He says that space exploration is safer than the terrestrial exploration done in the past, but fails to acknowledge that pioneers were not driven by fear due to the risk of devastation of the homeland, but by the motives of improving life, information gathering and acquiring things.

Rees explores the doomsday theories from natural events such as astroids striking the Earth to manmade catastrophes and points out that the manmade ones are far more likely and disquieting. He even made a bet in the WIRED magazine “[t]hat by the year 2020 an instance of bioerror or bioterror will have killed a million people.” He talks about a possibly growing number of Americans with a “tenuous hold on rationality” who may gain access to advanced technology in addition to other individuals and countries in the world with destructive intentions. He describes the use of nanotechnology in the development of robots and superhuman computers that may out do us. And he discusses how some scientific research (such as today’s Large Hadron Collider) could risk the entire Earth or even space as well.

However, Rees does not explore science in food much which is a vital aspect of our survival as human beings. He does not mention the development of nanotechnology in the food industry. No mention of cloning in food either. Although, those were the early days back in 2002 when an American funded cloning research in Texas with five million dollars to clone his aging dog. He didn’t get his dog cloned, but we now have the Cloned Texas Icon Bull! He expresses a lack of concern for genetic modification of food despite quoting Prince Charles saying that we do not understand the true complexity of nature. Since food is the part of nature that sustains us physically, and these scientific manipulations are tampering with nature without fully understanding the process or consequences, I question his lack of attention to detail in this area.

I found the discussion about the global population expanding interesting where he mentions 8 billion, not today’s touted 9 billion for 2050. I think these estimates are bold either way because although many people are living longer today, we also have many dying from Aids (which Rees says is rising in Africa, Russia, China and India), famine, medical treatment, and obesity related diseases (which today’s news tells us is rising globally at an exponential rate). Besides health problems, climate change disturbances will contribute to make even the lower prediction of 8 billion unlikely to come to pass.

Rees gives good evidence that there is so much we can do to improve our lot on this planet, but in the end I got the impression that he would rather join the wealthy individual space explorers and leave the planet behind because the risks here are just too great. He says that the developing science technologies are moving forward too quickly and impossible to control to allow us to survive on Earth for much more than this century. He argues that we can put a moratorium on science, but it would only slow it down a bit, not stop it. Science seems to be taking over from nature and is our doom. But by saying that science is a way to escape the Earth, Rees is basically saying that science is our saviour as well. I don’t think science will be our saviour, not even in the sense where we put a few people somewhere in space to start a new population. Humans will simply take their problems with them and in the time frame of billions of years may die out soon anyway. Also, although this was news after Rees wrote this book, some theorists claim that dark matter in space is collapsing and space and everything in it will go back to the nothing it came from. Rees is hoping for a better future in space, one that entails vast expenses and effort. If all this money and time were spent on fixing the things wrong with how we live our lives on this planet, we could all be happy here and not want to travel to space out of desperation and fear to conquer new worlds, but perhaps one day, as a pastime ... for fun, curiosity, to expand our knowledge and as an expression of our creativity instead.

Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed the book very much and would recommend it.

Our Final Century
by Marin Reese
London: William Heinemann, 2003

I borrowed the book from my local library.