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Evaluating the Risk of Events That Could End Civilization


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Every so often, Seth Baum heads out to meet Inés García, a video director and actress, at her Manhattan apartment. While he’s there, he helps out in whatever way he can — holding a microphone for hours on end, carrying heavy equipment and running to the local computer store to get an extra memory card for the camera.

Baum presents the “Sustainability Solution,” an explanation for why we haven’t made contact with extraterrestrial life, at the 2012 FameLab, an American Idol-style event for scientists. Credit: Henry Throop (PSI / NASA HQ)

This is not Baum’s day job.

Baum is a global catastrophic risk researcher who evaluates the risks posed by events that could lead to the end of humanity. He is affiliated with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science and is co-founder of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, a think tank he started in 2011 when he noticed the void in interdisciplinary research on global catastrophes.

But during his down time, his focus is on how to get his research in front of different audiences. García and Baum met two years ago at a colloquium in New York. García was performing a piece on the interconnectedness of the natural world. Baum was presenting his doctoral research on climate change. The two, who found themselves at the same table, were both interested in each other’s work and out of that initial conversation was born Osomocene — a production company that creates videos based on Baum’s research for a lay audience with the intention of promoting awareness and activism.

In their most recent video, Small World, two doughnut-loving friends discuss the possibility of aliens colonizing earth and the consequences of a human civilization-ending event. The themes of the video are some of Baum’s major research interests. What are the risks for an inadvertent nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia? If there are extraterrestrial beings in the universe, why haven’t we made contact with them yet? And is geoengineering a safe solution to mitigate climate change?

Despite the seemingly disparate topics of interest —nuclear warfare, astrobiology and climate change — Baum believes that surveying different risks is crucial. “The central question that drives my work right now is what are the most effective ways of reducing global catastrophe.”

Key to that goal is his interest in nuclear weapons and their operational safety. Earlier this year Baum and his colleagues published a paper attempting to quantify the risk of inadvertent nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia.

“What Seth has done is of enormous importance,” says John Hallam, a member of People for Nuclear Disarmament in Sydney, Australia and a co-convener of the Human Survival Project. Hallam has spent the last two decades organizing panels at the United Nations and gathering support from activists and parliamentarians to improve the safety of nuclear weapons during non-crisis times.

Both Russia and the U.S. have nuclear weapons that can be launched in a minute’s notice even today. Hallam and others fighting for nuclear disarmament worry about the risks that this high level of readiness poses — and with good reason. In the past quarter century there have been at least four incidents, plus the Cuban missile crisis back in 1962, in which the U.S. and Russia came dangerously close to deploying their nuclear arsenals.

In the 1980s, for instance, when an unusual formation of high clouds over North Dakota reflected sunlight into the eye of the Soviet nuclear missile surveillance satellite, its warning system went berserk and falsely reported a missile launch by the U.S. Fortunately, Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who was in charge that day and had been repeatedly told that if the U.S. were to attack, they would strike strong enough to overwhelm the Soviet Union in a single blow, recognized that the system showed only five launched missiles, decided that it was a false alarm and did not counter strike.

Close calls like one in Russia are the reason why studying the risk of an inadvertent nuclear war is important. In the study, Baum and his colleagues break down responses to false indicators of a missile attack and model different circumstances under which a false alarm could be set off during global crises as well as quiet periods.

Hallam says this classification isn’t entirely representative of real life situations, however. The Colonel Petrov incident, for example, did not occur during a formally defined period of crisis. Instead there was a state of high tension and high readiness on the part of U.S. and Russian forces. It was state of mind in which each side was thinking, “Maybe we’ll pre-preempt their preemptive strike,” said Hallam.

What Baum and his colleagues have attempted to do is quantify future events of critical importance based on predictive modeling and the little empirical data publicly available on similar, past situations. The high error margins and low confidence in their predictions cannot be overstated here. Yet Hallam believes that Baum’s work is necessary because it “enables you to think in a disciplined way and see what is needed to quantify things” even if ultimately “things are decided by certain unknowable factors.”

In May 2014, Baum will be part of a U.N. panel along with Hallam and other researchers, discussing ways to mitigate the high risk of inadvertent nuclear warfare. At this point, Hallam says Baum isn’t “very well known at all,” but is confident that in a few years he will be “exceedingly well known.”

“I expect Seth will make his debut at [the U.N. panel],” said Hallam.

As a freshman at the University of Rochester, Baum studied optics and applied mathematics and went on to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering. But he then quickly moved away from the hard sciences and completed a doctoral degree in geography, a field of study, he says, that allows him to “keep one leg in the science and engineering and have another in social science, policy and ethics all at the same time.”

During his time at Penn State University as a doctoral student, Baum met Jacob Haqq-Misra, then a meteorology doctoral student. Haqq-Misra, who had been working on a paper on the Fermi Paradox — a contradiction between the high probability of the existence of extraterrestrial life and the lack of evidence for such civilizations — invited Baum to collaborate.

“I could only put the astronomy language,” said Haqq-Mira. “Seth really knew what people had to say about sustainability issues.”

The two researchers hypothesized that perhaps the reason we haven’t found evidence of extraterrestrial life yet is that exponential growth akin to that of the human race on Earth is not sustainable for intelligent civilizations. Called the “Sustainability Solution,” their paper challenged the premise of the Fermi Paradox — that intelligent life grows exponentially and tends to colonize new habitats.

Since then Haqq-Mira and Baum have tackled several other global-catastrophe related ideas. In their most recent work, they analyze the possibility of a double catastrophe. Geoengineering is a widely discussed solution to climate change and one particular idea amongst researchers is to spray large quantities of aerosol particles into the atmosphere to reflect light away from the Earth and reduce temperatures. What if, Haqq-Misra and Baum postulated, a pandemic were to break out or a nuclear war was to start while we had geoengineering strategies in place?

When a greater threat to human civilization is underway, we may not have the resources to ensure that the aerosol supply is regularly replenished and monitored. In such a situation, we might end up facing a double catastrophe — one that’s twice as disastrous to humanity.

Baum’s work is almost always highly theoretical and often highly probabilistic. But at the root of his research, is a unifying thread of how his work can help people. Each of his varying research interests, be it nuclear war or the potential risks of climate change mitigation solutions, is people-centered.

“Everything that Seth does is with the ultimate goal of how can this make some political or social change in the world today,” said Haqq-Misra.

Naveena Sadasivam About the Author: Naveena Sadasivam is a graduate of NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program and is currently interning at ProPublica. Her work has appeared on Scienceline.org and InsideClimate News. Follow on Twitter @NaveenaSivam.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. tuned 11:44 am 02/19/2014

    I root for the big “rogue planet” thrown out of a cosmic cataclysm. Moving at 25 million miles per hour.
    Yep, it’s possible. Just ask the astronomers.
    Earth would be vaporized instantly.
    Too fast to see or track.
    All evil and agony and suffering would be ended in much less than the blink of an eye.
    Sweet.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jerzy v. 3.0. 3:21 am 02/20/2014

    Most likely is economic crisis leading to technological regress. Possible with the government going authoritarian.

    Fate of previous civilizations teaches us so. All past cultures (with the possible exception of Minoans) ended with a whimper, not a bang.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jafis 3:26 am 02/21/2014

    Have these prognosticators studied the ultimate effects of human over-population yet? Aside from nuclear weapon incidents and an occasional asteroid near-miss, that is of much more practical interest than why we haven’t yet encountered alien civilizations.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Dr. Strangelove 10:34 pm 02/24/2014

    Naveena,

    The Fermi Paradox is easily explained by probability theory. We don’t see ET because the odds are against it. There are at least 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Assuming at least one ET civilization in our galaxy has the technology for interstellar travel and is looking for us. The odds that ET will find our solar system is one in 100 billion or 10^-11.

    Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Granted ET finds earth, the odds it happens in the last 4,500 years is one in a million or 10^-6. The combined probability of these two independent events is 10^-17. This is lower than the odds you will win the lottery twice consecutively (10^-14). So if you’re not surprised why you haven’t won the lottery twice, why are you surprised we don’t see ET?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Dr. Strangelove 2:02 am 02/25/2014

    Baum has no grasp of the probabilities of catastrophic events. Alien invasion is extremely improbable P = 10^-17. No sense speculating on this. But he failed to mention a catastrophic event that’s very likely to happen: giant meteor impact

    Based on lunar geologic evidence, astronomers estimate meteors bigger than 5 km in diameter hit earth every 20 million years. The last known giant meteor impact on earth was 66 million years ago. That killed all the dinosaurs. We are long due to get hit again. The theoretical probability of giant meteor impact is P = 1. It is almost certain earth will get hit this century.

    Forget alien invasion. That’s science fiction. Expect giant meteor impact. That’s Armageddon!

    Link to this

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