England's Sword 2.0

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Looking at the stars, clearly from the gutter

Remember the book and film "Longitude" and how John Harrison was frustrated at every turn by a rival scientist with foolish ideas who was eventually appointed Astronomer Royal, using which position he blocked Harrison's proper reward? Well, it looks like one of his successors is following in his footsteps.

The cosmologist ... 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 fueled 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, ... 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 warned.

Nanotechnology -- the subject of a recent Michael Crichton thriller about the havoc caused by runaway microscopic machines -- are 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 black hole could form, and then suck in everything around it," he cautions.

And there's always the chance that this idiot could spontaneously combust, killing several Guardian reporters nearby. The office of Astronomer Royal should emphatically not be used to terrify people into believing that science is a bad thing, yet this is precisely what he's doing here.

So what does the Silly Asstronomer Royal think should be done?

The British scientist calls for better regulation and inspection of sensitive data and experiments.

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

That's it! Let's nationalize all science for the public good, and while we're at it, let's make sure we keep the dangerous intellectuals in camps. Hmmm. What could we call them? Gulags, perhaps?