Martin Rees: Can we prevent the end of the world?


Lord Martin Rees, one of the world’s most eminent astronomers, is an emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and the UK’s Astronomer Royal.


The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this is the first where threats to the Earth could conceivably come from humanity. The political will to deal with these catastrophic threats is weak – instead we focus on minor hazards such as plane crashes and chemicals in food. In the same way as we pay a premium for car insurance, doesn’t it make sense to plan for these threats?

It is likely that common people will have the capability to design biological organisms this century. These could be misused by people looking to do immense damage. Regulation cannot prevent misuse, since there will always be a country where anything is possible.

People were concerned when the particle accelerator came online, but this has been done naturally many times. Of more concern is the truly new technologies being developed.

Martin suggests that a core question is existential – is a 100% death rate from a disaster significantly worse than 90%? Some would suggest it is only 10% worse, but Martin says it is immeasurably worse. He can’t believe that humanity is the last link in an evolutionary chain. Even on an astronomical or evolutionary time scale, there is still a lot of life left in the Earth (~5 billion years), and future evolution may develop faster on a technological time scale. Surely even a 1 in a billion risk of human destruction should be mitigated. While some threats are pure science fiction, others are improbable but possible.

To study these risks, Martin has established a centre to mitigate these existential risks at Cambridge university. It makes sense for at least a few people to think about these issues.

My Thoughts

Martin talks well about the risk management approach we need to take to deal with unlikely but catastrophic events. However aside from biological terrorism, he does not delve too much into what issues he is particularly concerned about, or possible solutions. I am curious to see what comes out from his studies.

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