Odds for apocalypse put at 50-50  
By Deena Beasley

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - This is the way the world might end: A
genetically engineered pathogen is released, debris from an erupting
"supervolcano" blocks the sun or scientists in the biggest "bioerror" of
them all accidentally trigger a matter-squeezing "big bang."

The demise of civilisation has been predicted since it began, but the
odds of keeping Planet Earth alive and well are getting worse amid a
break-neck pace of scientific advances, according to Martin Rees,
Britain`s honorary astronomer royal.

Rees calculates that the odds of an apocalyptic disaster striking Earth
have risen to about 50 percent from 20 percent 100 years ago.

The 60-year-old scientist, author of the recently published "Our Final
Hour," says science is advancing in a far more unpredictable and
potentially dangerous pattern than ever before.

He lists as mankind`s biggest threats: nuclear terrorism, deadly
engineered viruses, rogue machines and genetic engineering that could
alter human character. All of those could result from innocent error or
the action of a single malevolent individual.

By 2020, an instance of bioterror or bioerror will have killed a million
people, Rees contends.

"There is a growing gap between doors that are open and doors that
should be open," Rees, a professor at Britain`s Cambridge University,
said in an interview.

The cosmologist concedes that natural disasters have always loomed --
so-called supervolanoes could explode at any time and asteroids slam
into the planet, causing massive climate changes -- but says the most
frightening risks are probably man made.

"A hundred years ago, the nuclear threat wasn`t even predicted...but
that threat still hasn`t gone away," he said.

The arms race, after all, was fuelled by science, and the field has a
responsibility to inform a wide public of the risks in deciding how to
apply scientific breakthroughs, he added.


"For the first time ever, human nature itself isn`t fixed. Biotech drugs
and genetic engineering are empowering individuals more than ever
before," Rees said.

With rapidly advancing DNA technology, "even a single person could cause
a disaster," Rees warned, noting that the United States, after the
September 11, 2001, attacks and anthrax scare, is well aware of this

Thousands of people have the ability to engineer viruses and bacteria to
cause deadly plagues. Even if one such "weirdo" didn`t kill many people,
that type of biological terrorism would profoundly change daily life,
the scientist said.

Nanotechnology -- the subject of a recent Michael Crichton thriller
about the havoc caused by runaway microscopic machines -- is also a
potent threat, he said.

If the field advances far enough, rogue self-replicating nanotechnology
machines -- feeding on organic material and spreading like pollen --
could devastate a continent within a few days, Rees said.

The dangers of global warming are also addressed in the book, subtitled
"A scientist`s warning: How terror, error, and environmental disaster
threaten humankind`s future in this century -- on Earth and beyond."

Rees does not discount the possibility of disaster caused by scientific
experiments involving particle accelerators. "Perhaps a back hole could
form, and then suck in everything around it," he cautions.

So what`s to be done?

Rees calls for better regulation and inspection of sensitive data and

"We need to keep track of those who have potentially lethal knowledge,"
he said.

He also suggested better efforts to "reduce the number of people who
feel excluded or otherwise motivated to cause harm."