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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on 28 September 2004
Being an astronomer gives you a different perspective to life on Earth to the rest of us, as Martin Rees acknowledges in this book. While the rest of us spend our lives surrounded by life, astronomers spend their time staring into and thinking about vast expanses of lifeless nothing, watching stars blow up and seeing the evidence scattered all around us that shows how the Universe just doesn't look to receptive to life in general. We are just a small blue speck in the vast scheme of things, and specks get blown away all too easily.
It's why he's probably better placed than most to write a book like this, looking at the various ways we could wipe ourselves out over the next hundred years, and what steps we could take to increase the chances of our survival. He looks at a variety of scenarios, from 'bioerror and bioterror' through nanotechnology gone wrong to bizarre possibilities in advanced physics experiments that might not just destroy Earth, but could go on to destroy the entire universe - and it would all happen so quickly that we'd never know about it.
Rees is clearly and expert on his subject, and isn't just a mad prophet in the desert calling down woe on the works of mankind. He wants us to survive, wants us to be aware of the risks we face and what we can do to avoid them or lessen the risk. He's careful to end the book on notes of hope rather than despair, like a Nick Ross on a cosmic scale telling us not to have nightmares about the risk of our entire existence being stolen from us in the night.
However, it's not the book it should be, principally because it's too short, often reading as though it's either a precis of a longer and more detailed work or that Rees' editor was convinced by some of his earlier arguments and pressured him to finish the book before Armageddon overcame us all. Or, it may be simply to attract an audience for the book that might be put off by a larger and more complex work, which is a shame as some of his arguments don't carry the weight they could - for instance, there's little discussion of the risk of nuclear conflct beyond terrorism in the next century - if they were at greater length. One also wonders why Rees chose to devote so much space to the so-called Doomsday Argument when its philosophically rather weak (the most glaring flaw I spotted is that it could have been made at just about any time in the last several thousand years to 'prove' we would be extinct 'soon') when other areas are skirted over, but perhaps that's merely personal choice.
However, that doesn't stop this from being a generally interesting and informative book that's well worth reading, though one will have to resort to the extensive bibliography to get the real depth that would make the book a true classic.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 18 July 2012
Our Final Century - Martin Rees - 2003

This book, published nearly a decade since, has survived with us close on thirteen years into the 21st Century, it remains to be seen if some of us get past the 2012 Olympics being staged in London, UK.

The subtitle for Rees's 228 book is "Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century? " Perhaps this should be "Will the Planet Survive another Century of Human Endeavour?" Speaking as an all-round scientist myself (more accurately, a polymath) I would doubt it.

Martin Rees is a fellow astronomer for whom I have a great deal of respect. His writings are lucid and economical and therefore well focussed. My only regret with the present volume is that he could not resist bringing in cosmology (he is after all more of a theoretician than a practical astronomer, despite holding the rank of Astronomer Royal). Therefore I am bugged by allusions to big bangs, string theory and the like; but I'll disregard this aspect of the book and concentrate on what appears to me to be the real threats to our continued tenancy of planet Earth.

The Prologue starts well: "The twentieth Century brought us the bomb, and the nuclear threat will never leave us; the short-term threat from terrorism is high on the public and political agenda; inequalities in wealth and welfare get ever wider. My primary aim is not toad to the burgeoning literature on these challenging themes but to focus on twenty-first century hazards, currently less familiar, that could threaten humanity and the global environment still more."

The theme of thermonuclear self-destruction is developed in the Prologue. And it needs to be emphasized that, as indeed Rees himself asserts, this threat has not gone away in these post-cold war years, neither is it likely to; further I would add that the so-called nuclear deterrent has not deterred us from warring but has merely acted as an umbrella (the presumption being that no state or nation will fall back on its nuclear arsenals for fear of self-mutilation) for "conventional" hostilities and adventures such as we are currently witnessing in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Chapter Two entitled "Technology Shock", commences: "In the past century, there were more changes than in the previous thousand years. The new century will see changes that will dwarf those of the last".
A good deal of this is common sense. But our ever-increasing reliance upon technology is depriving most us of an understanding of those forces that are bringing about such change; hence, I would submit, wisdom and common sense are dwindling commodities in a rapidly expanding world population of humans.

From Chapter Six "Slowing Science Down", we have the important section under the sub-titles: "The Paymasters of Science". The intermingling of science research with military motivation is not ignored: " The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) would have cost even more had it not shared some development costs with spy satellites."

Chapter Seven: "Baseline Natural Hazards - Asteroid Impacts" opens with reference to the impacting on the surface of giant planet Jupiter fragments from Comet Shoemaker-Levy, the aftermath from which could be observed in quite small telescopes (refractors of 80mm aperture for example).
Rees puts fears of a similar impacting asteroid that might hit Earth into perspective. We are indeed at greater risk from man-made hazards than from the chance encounter with a "natural" intruder from space.

This theme is developed in Chapter Eight: "Human Threats to Earth": "Environmental changes induced by human activities, still poorly understood, may be graver than the "baseline" threats from earthquakes, eruptions, and asteroid impacts."

Chapter Ten: "The Doomsday Philosophers: Can pure thought tell us whether humanity's years are numbered?"

It is good to find some credence being handed to so-called pure thinkers. Rees mentions the "doomsday" scenario pioneered ". . . (by) my friend Brandon Carter and presented by a conference hosted by the Royal Society as far back as 1983."

It is impossible to ignore this proposition. The speculation can of course run riot but the significances should not be overlooked from these apparently (to some) far-flung notions of "pessimism" and gloom.

From my own observations (seeing so many of my kind ambling along the street with a mobile jammed in at the ear or worse, clapped in headphones-- what has the natural environment got to do with me attitude?) I fear more for our universal demise through inaction than from viruses or thermonuclear explosions. By this I mean that so much of the essentials of life--food production and distribution, the governance of life-support apparatus (social care etc. etc.), heating, ventilating, the theme is almost endless--are now solely dependent upon a few control factors overseen by the microchip. A malfunction in any of these control systems could bring human activity to an abrupt halt from which it might never have time to recover, or it might just be that a large solar eruption could paralyse the entire network.

Rees's book, if nothing else, should make us appreciate the complexities that have intruded into our everyday lives and the direction in which we are travelling towards ever increasing specialization, and an overburdening of mind and body with a plethora of new-fangled technologies.

Ignoring the damage done to our bodies through bad dietary practices, inadequate and inappropriate physical exercise, etc., I doubt if our minds will survive the twenty-first century's onslaught from the "gadgets" of our own devising.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 7 May 2003
Interesting book, which would have been great with a slightly tighter focus. Sir Martin Rees tries to warn us that with ever-faster technological progress, the odds of a truly catastrophic mishap - either by accident or design - are going to be significant over the next century. He outlines 'familiar' dangers such as nuclear weapons, genetically engineered viruses, environmental hazards and includes more futuristic ideas about nanotechnology running amok and artificial hyperintelligences taking over.
Truly an interesting subject, and a good book, but unfortunately the ending maybe rambles off into a fairly generic speculation of humanity's potential future, should we succeed in not wiping ourselves out. The book takes a reasonably apolitical slant, which I think is a shame but maybe justified as the author is, after all, a scientist.
There are interesting thoughts on whether we should seek to ban certain lines of research on the grounds that the research itself is too dangerous, compared to the benefits, or that it might lead to potentially dangerous uses. There's a very interesting chapter on the philosophical, probabilistic Doomsday theories.
All in all, a good and quick read on an interesting, and unfortunately quite timely, subject.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 19 December 2006
Martin Rees discusses a large variety of subjects in Our Final Century; everything that could wipe mankind of the face of the Earth, and that's an awful lot. Taking up such a subject cannot lead to an in-depth description of details. But Rees has succeeded wonderfully in writing a book that informs the general reader about everything that could happen, to what extent we can expect it to happen, and the possible actions we should take to prevent it from happening.

Our Final Century is written in a pleasant, informal style. Rees occasionally shares his experiences and opinions, but in a modest way, without being pushy or pedantic. From beginning to end, this book does not cease to interest, succeeding in both amusing and alarming the reader.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 16 January 2013
I came to this book from Nigel Lawson's book "An Appeal to Reason". In his book NL referred to this book (albeit describing the author as an "all purpose Cassandra") as offering to categorise climate change versus other threats to humanity. In my opinion the author, whilst commenting on climate change gave little in the way of probability to this and other threats. The reader is left to assess the relative importance of those threats himself. Some commentators have said this book is just "a list of possible threats". I tend to agree.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 18 November 2009
Picked up on this book after a mention in the Observer. Found it quite interesting although some of the thinking is a little out of date. Some areas were not in as much detail as I would have liked. Overall thought provoking and emphasises how fragile our planet and our existance upon it remains.
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on 3 January 2013
This is quite a frightening book, but really makes you think about the world we live in and what might happen in the future.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 15 September 2009
Disappointing. Fairly interesting. Insubstantial.

I suppose because of it's age (2002) there's little in this book that I've not heard or read before. Topics aren't treated in any depth. Nanotechnology, bioengineering , nuclear proliferation threats covered, as are some highly speculative threats such as; super intelligent machines, or physics experiments that could extinguish the Earth or even the Universe, which are mused on at length. But global warming, which current science suggests provides a real threat of catastrophe , just gets a couple pages.

A third of the way through of this very short book the author (a cosmologist) goes off at a complete tangent to muse on alien life and future space travel. Like the rest of the book this fairly interesting, but nothing to do with supposed topic the title and blurb promised.

OK for light reading on train maybe.
But you won't find an answer to whether this is likely to be "our final century".
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on 2 October 2014
Read this with a level head....some sense to keep you grounded.
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Good thought provoking book
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