« September 2008 | Main | June 2009 »

February 2009 Archives

February 3, 2009

The End is Near: What's Your Personal Apocalypse?

It's always good fun predicting how our world will end. So many of us engage in this sport, I'm hoping we can somehow harness the considerable intellectual energy that goes into this question. For example, recently my friend Brian Deagon forwarded an article from USA Today: Recession Prompts Bird Flu Concerns",  and summed up his apocalyptic vision this way:
1. Global depression - leading to...
2. Bird flu pandemic - followed by...
3. Global warming - resulting in...
4. Anarchy

I like the fresh, unorthodox way Brian organized his world-ending themes... but "Anarchy" suggests enough people will still be around to be anarchistic.  Brian's doomsday scenario seems more optimistic than most.  An April 2006 "Doomsday Poll" by TNS Market Research revealed nearly all Americans believed that some doomsday scenario could realistically destroy us.  More than three-quarters of Americans polled believe such a scenario is likely to be man-made.
The one uncertainty about our certain demise is the way it will come.  Robert Frost pondered just two theories in "Fire and Ice":
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Indeed, our world is filled with world-ending possibilities: comets crashing; pandemics spreading; super-volcanoes erupting; global warming; glaciers melting; poles reorienting; solar-rays a'blasting...  I'm afraid I've left a hundred other possible apocalyptic visions out. (Feel free to submit your personal apocalyptic  vision below!)

It would be difficult to attend conferences like TED, the World Economic Forum, The Clinton Global Initiative, etc., without there being at least a few mesmerizing and  terrifying lectures about exactly how our little lives will disappear and soon.  After many years of attending such conferences, the brilliant philosopher, Dr. Yossi Vardi, suggested cutting out the middleman.  Why not hold our own conference: "The End: What's Your Apocalypse?" Our proposed forum of despair would give prophet-pundits an enthusiastic forum to argue for our most likely exit scenario.  Yossi's idea is we would declare a "winner" based on whose catastrophic vision is biggest. 
With potential disasters waiting over this earth with dark-wings, I'm trying to calibrate how terrified I should be of global-warming. Scientists, by in large, are a cautious bunch: timid on making clear predictions. Yet, politics aside, scientists who study greenhouse gases no longer equivocate: they are overwhelmingly certain we face this problem.  What argument remains is between ideologues; not with scientists.

Yet, much as I fear one day the Wall Street subway station might be underwater, I am terrified of a more immediate threat. For simplicity sake, let's call my apocalypse "Global Kaboom."

For decades, many have been waiting for communication from distant stars for what mathematically should be obvious: statistical probabilities suggest other forms of life must be out there. But all we seem to hear back from the Great Beyond is noise from the Big Bang. With the "billions and billions" of stars and their attendant planets, surely some form of photosynthesis and/or chemosynthesis would occur out there.  Where these and other factors that nurture life could exist, isn't it probable, even likely, that some sentient beings would emerge from their version of nutritious ooze?

Some of these creatures... probably unlike anything we would recognize as life-forms... might well have progressed to achieve what could be identified as intelligence. They, like we, might start finding things out about the universe they inhabit. They possibly would discover and contemplate particles that constitute matter and energy... understand methods in which energy travels... identify waves of radiating energy... and perhaps would come to a point in their history, as we have come in ours, where they chance upon ways to manipulate these waves and particles... modulate them... and create methods of sending patterns extraordinary distances.

Then, they, like we, somewhere in the billions upon billions... might realize that such modulation could be used for communication... between themselves and other life-forms that conceivably may exist light-years away.

Reasonable, even likely, to assume we should have heard something yet.  So far: no answer.  Perhaps we are not capable of receiving their message? Are we like dogs--- patiently hearing the master explain simple mathematics--yet, cursed with limited capabilities, sitting there instead wagging tails of incomprehension?

I don't think so. I have another theory... related in a way to a more dramatic form of "global warming." The reason we have been knocking and haven't heard anything answer is not that something wasn't home out there.

Instead, whatever "intelligence" emerged out of the galactic ooze --- the chemo- or photosynthetic bath that brings forth life... even intelligent life... brought our fellow travelers in the universe the same fundamental discoveries. Once they get to understand particles and the basic building-blocks of the material universe, they discover, as we recently did, that you can move atoms around... releasing them from their bonds... as they are naturally released every moment in the stars around us... as they were released beginning in those first milliseconds of whatever keeps this great big universe expanding so rapidly.

And, like us, these smart guys check it out... they see if they can release energy when they want to. In the same blink of an eye as it took us to discover radio waves can be sent through the air, we (and they) also discover a corollary phenomenon: perfectly good atoms ripped apart release lots of energy.
After that hard step comes the easy one: perhaps it comes with anger, bellicosity, or just a silly mistake. After a few moments of sending radio-wave notes to faraway places, they blow themselves up.

It might look something like this...

As we on earth wonder why no one returns our calls, it is probably because those who once could have, can't.  The way we are going on Earth, I think it's fair to expect we are going to be off-line sooner than later. While it is interesting and horrible to watch Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands sink because of global warming, I fear long before flag-poles are fully submerged, a select few of our species will unleash a bunch of those home-made nuclear global-warmers... just like some must have done over and over again in places far, far away.

It is comforting to note that while there won't be much up topside worth living for, with clouded skies blocking out the photosynthesis we've come to expect, along the tectonic plates of this Earth, underwater creatures that look nothing like us will most certainly thrive. They'll still live off the synthesis of hydrogen sulfide and water and life (as we hardly know it) will merrily continue. Until whatever emerges next discovers again how you can send signals long distances or how you can rip atoms apart.

Well, that's my  personal apocalypse. What's yours?

(Special thanks to Pakistani scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan and his colleagues in Iran, North Korea, and Syria for making my personal apocalypse nightmare possible  probable.)

February 18, 2009

A.Q. Khan and the Oath Not Taken

Fans of A.Q. Khan He is old, angry, and suffers from thrombosis and prostate cancer. Yet this sick old man, who trained as a metallurgical engineer, is often described as the most dangerous person on Earth.  Father of the "Islamic Bomb," Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan is a wildly popular figure at home in Pakistan.  No less than fifteen academic institutions have been named in his honor there. Several days ago, throngs of adoring fans erupted in joy as Pakistan's High Court declared Khan "a free man" ending his five-year house arrest.

Dr. A.Q. KhanFor more than fifteen years, Khan and his international team of scientists and engineers eluded (and at times colluded with) various intelligence agencies in a successful effort to create and detonate Pakistan's atomic bomb.  Estimates are that Pakistan now has dozens of nuclear weapons and Khan is portrayed as the savior of his nation against the threat of nuclear blackmail from neighboring India.

Captured Libyan Centrifuges Supplied by Khan's NetworkYet, for most of the world, Dr. Khan is regarded as a reckless and egotistical scientist who widely disseminated nuclear secrets and sold highly restricted equipment. His simple motive: greed.  Five years ago, under pressure from Pakistan's former President General Pervez Musharraf, Khan confessed he ran an illicit worldwide nuclear export network. This massive operation trafficked and traded nuclear materials, gas centrifuges, and critical bomb-making blueprints to countries that included North Korea, Libya, and Iran.

After the public confession, Musharraf immediately pardoned this "national hero," prohibited him from being questioned, and isolated him under unofficial house-arrest. This frustrated international investigators who sought to unravel how much of the nuclear genie Khan set loose around the world and why several of his key associates had met with Al Qaeda leaders.

Have the Pakistani courts freed the most dangerous man on Earth? At the moment, Dr. Khan is still held closely under guard.  His network of agents and collaborators appear to be more carefully monitored now. Might they resume trading in global Armageddon? Possibly.  But Dr. Khan remains dangerous. His release and "rehabilitation" trumpets a tragic message to the world that gross scientific misconduct has no adverse consequences.  He is lionized at home when logic and justice demand retribution for his reckless proliferation. His irresponsibility endangers all mankind and he remains unrepentant.

When asked just days ago what the international community would think of his release, Khan was unapologetic: "Are they happy with our God? Are they happy with our prophet? Are they happy with our leader? Never," he said. "I don't care about rest of the world. I care about my country."

Well, I care about the rest of the world. Most scientists and engineers care about it too.  The problem is that the relationship between scientists and the world has completely changed.  When the 20th century began, scientists and engineers could cause society a modest amount of mischief and harm.  Today, the work of a few determined rogue scientists could destroy a significant portion of our world.  The release of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons or the dissemination of radioactive "dirty dust" are probabilities civilization must now actively prepare for.

Significant threats no longer require massive state-sponsorship.   With rapid advances in biotechnology and with greater dissemination of weapons research and technology, the ability for unethical scientists to manufacture weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has increased exponentially in the past few years and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Intelligence communities, of course, struggle to identify threats as these scientific capabilities continue to grow. But these agencies have limited scientific resources (especially lacking personnel with sufficient training and specialized knowledge of emerging threats.) They have largely focused their efforts on prominent "rogue" governments and terror organizations. So far, they have had mixed results identifying such threats: (i.e.,: failing to assess the status of  chemical and biological weapons in Iraq; failing to discover nuclear weapons research in Syria; failing  for years to comprehend the former Soviet Union's  enormous biological weapons capabilities, etc.)

Equally troubling is how these intelligence agencies have, in large part, been unsuccessful in early detection of "independent" threats: (i.e., timely tracking of Khan's nuclear network; failing to anticipate the release of nerve gas on Tokyo subways; the lengthy and fumbled investigation into the anthrax attack that shut-down Senate office buildings.)

As destructive technology becomes simpler to develop and deploy, scientists must join the frontlines in the battle to protect the public from those whose intention is to abuse science and cause great harm.

Medical doctors take a Hippocratic Oath: First, Do No Harm. Physicians (and even their patients) understand that those who intentionally cause harm practicing medicine must be sanctioned and punished.   Engineering and scientific societies also have established varying codes of ethical standards. In sharp contrast to medical standards, engineers and scientists are first introduced to ethical codes of conduct (if at all) only after reaching post-graduate study. This is too little and way too late.

It is astonishing that clear codes of ethics are not widely subscribed to by scientists.  Even where there are ethical codes, no enforcement mechanisms exist to make these meaningful. While scientists with terrorist aspirations are unlikely to be deterred by codes of conduct (no matter how well-defined), having standards widely inculcated in the broad scientific community is likely to deter those on the periphery of such work. Such standards will encourage scientists and engineers with suspicions about unsavory behavior to help uncover potential threats.

Would a code of ethics deter A.Q. Khan? Of course not. But imagine a world in which scientists know they have ethical strictures to abide by.  Imagine that even the children of scientists and their neighbors know that great responsibility comes with the territory. It would have been far more difficult for A.Q. Khan's network to have flourished for more than fifteen years, largely avoiding significant scrutiny, if all of his associates, suppliers, and collaborators existed in an ethos where scientific responsibility was clearly understood... and where breaking ethical codes had consequences.

In 1999,  Sir Joseph Rotblat, physicist and  Nobel laureate, realized that the advances in science required the adoption of codes of responsibility.   He wrote, "Through its technological applications, science has become a dominant element in our lives. It has enormously improved the quality of life. It has also created great perils, threatening the very existence of the human species. Scientists can no longer claim that their work has nothing to do with the welfare of the individual or with state policies."

Rotblat suggested that scientists adopt an oath something like this: "I promise to work for a better world, where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways. I will not use my education for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment. Throughout my career, I will consider the ethical implications of my work before I take action. While the demands placed upon me may be great, I sign this declaration because I recognize that individual responsibility is the first step on the path to peace." Hourglass Initiative

 I decided, after years of producing war coverage and reporting on technology and proliferation issues, that I would help scientists  become more involved  in preventing the spread of WMD s.  Tracing the arc of Dr. Khan's sociopathic nuclear enterprise should make it clear to all scientists and engineers that ethical standards are required on the job.  These codes of ethics must be spelled out and must be made enforceable. Scientists should have a means of anonymously reporting suspicious and unethical behavior especially regarding the development of WMDs.  Journalists, scientists, and investigators should work together to assess such threats. (See The Hourglass Initiative. )

In December 2008, an astonishing study, "World at Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism," chaired by Bob Graham and Jim Talent was released.   It detailed "where the risks to the United States are increasing: the crossroads of terrorism and proliferation in the poorly governed parts of Pakistan" and potential methods of preventing biological and nuclear terrorism.  Regarding the increasing threat, they quoted Former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig who said, "Only a thin wall of terrorist ignorance and inexperience now protects us."

That thin wall gets thinner by the day as scientists without ethics, like Dr. A.Q. Khan and his henchmen, push the boundaries of technology with disregard of their ethical responsibility and the consequences for all of us.  The world indeed is at risk and scientists can be the cause or the cure.

About February 2009

This page contains all entries posted to Gadgetoff - Things We Like in February 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

September 2008 is the previous archive.

June 2009 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.31
© 2001-2007 Gadgetoff, Inc.