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Interesting, but not as in depth as it could have been
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.