Is There a Plan(et) B?
Eleven Bicester Technology Studio students from Years 10 and 11 attended a Scientists in School Symposium from the Oxford International Biomedical Centre and the Abingdon Science Partnership, hosted by Abingdon School. The day centred around the question “Is there a plan(et) B?” and featured talks from four leading scientists about how humanity might come to an end and whether we can do something about it.
Humanity is a species which, like others, is vulnerable to extinction. But unlike most species we are our own worst enemies because human-created risk appears to be greater than natural risks. However, this also means that we should be able to do something to reduce these risks.
Prof. Peter Townsend from Sussex University gave a talk on The Dark Side of Technology, in which he discussed how technological developments have led to the production of ever more effective weapons and how humanity could be destroyed by a nuclear war. He went on to show how non-military advances have also made us extremely vulnerable. For example, who knew that massive solar flares could send out so much dangerous radiation that it would destroy most man-made satellites orbiting Earth and so knock out all commercial flights, internet, transport & supply chains as well as the National Grid to plunge entire countries into darkness for weeks, if not months?!! What’s more, these events seem to occur every 150 years or so and the last one was 159 years ago. Not only that but cyber warfare software already exists which could produce these results at the click of a mouse. While not an extinction event, it would lead to the loss of millions of lives.
On a cheerier note, Piers Millett from the Future of Humanity Institute spoke about the risk of a disease emerging which would wipe out 95% of the human population. Natural pathogens exist which could lead to massive loss of human life if they spread uncontrolledly (Ebola & Lassa Fever for example). Worse, though, is the idea that today’s technology could lead to the production of a biological weapon so deadly and transmissible that it could infect almost every human before any symptoms become apparent.
It is widely accepted that a strike from a giant meteor from space was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. That this could happen again and destroy humanity makes it worthy of consideration. Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute explained that while an extinction-causing meteor collision will happen in the future, it is unlikely to happen any time soon. Scientists are keeping watch over our planet and know the positions and trajectories of most Near-Earth Asteroids. They have also produced some suggestions about what to do if they ever find an object which is on a direct collision course: These range from hiding under a table to launching a nuclear explosion to knock it off course.
Finally, David Hulme from Vision Foundation International finished the talks by discussing the rise in attacks to democracy across the world, and asked: Are we about to see the return of dictatorships?
All students then broke out into small discussion groups before bringing their ideas and questions back to the panel of experts on stage. There were some searching and intelligent contributions from our students who stood their ground against mostly 6th form students from the other five participating schools. Congratulations go to Annie, Tushaar and Ella-Jade for presenting their group feedback to the audience. A brave and mature step to take.
The day had several other positive effects for many of our students with some saying they have now decided they really want to study sciences at A Level, others describing the event as “Thought provoking”, “Scary” or “fascinating”, and one said they are going to go straight home tonight to learn their Biology!
A final quote from the panel: “We may have opened Pandora’s Box, but there is a grain of hope sitting at the bottom.”