Brian Clegg, Armageddon Science

Disaster nonfiction is a genre unto itself, sometimes called disaster porn, and Brian Clegg has provided a very handy reference guide to the principles behind such disasters in Armageddon Science: The Science of Mass Destruction.

Nanobots! Aaah!
In general, Clegg argues that we shouldn't worry much about scientists, because they mean well, and we should be able to remediate most of their most serious future screw-ups. He's reasonable, and logical, but in the end I don't know if I trust his comfort with science. Maybe I'm just not inside the circle of trust, science-wise, or I'd see that the safeguards really are potent enough, but this particular English prof has some commitment issues in this area.

With nanobots, for example, Clegg chillingly describes the (hypothetical) experience of being flayed alive by grey goo flowing over your body, as well as the risk of military nanobots being far more efficient at massacring civilians rather than military targets (since soldiers would presumably have countermeasures). It's terrifying, but Clegg simply presumes that "nanobots [would be] programmed with a limited lifespan--otherwise it's not clear why the destruction would ever stop" (p.188). Right, I say, right: that's what I mean by the term "armageddon," that the destruction would be absolute.

Without a qualm, Clegg thinks they'll be utterly banned, writing confidently that "the international community would act to suppress their use" (p.188). How did that work out with landmines, I wonder? Did they become a problem?

The extrahuman causes of disaster, though, I agree with Clegg about: a supervolcano would almost certainly end the human experiment, and we're in serious trouble with climate change assured to continue. (Climate change is anthropogenic, so it's not truly extrahuman, but it's not a single event, like a catastrophic bioterrorist attack would be, for example, or Rise of Planet of the Apes.)

Overall, it's a good book to spend some time with: it didn't hook me the way I expected it would, but I'm not sure why. Oddly, I felt almost entirely meh about Armageddon Science, even though it seems useful. So … yeah. Browse before buying, I guess!

Clegg's interview with Salon is a good way to get short hints at several of the issues addressed in Armageddon Science. Not exactly a substitute for the book, but useful.


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