Drawing on evidence from biology, geology, chemistry, technology, sociology, astronomy, quantum mechanics, Alok Jha presents science-based end-times scenarios, as a counter to all the god-based ones (or where the calendar just runs out.
Some of the threats are more concrete and relatable than others, for example viruses, global warming, freak weather events or asteroid impacts, and the threats range from, ‘actually it wouldn’t be so bad and we’d get over it eventually’ to ‘yep, it’s definitely all over’.
There are also purely theoretical discussions, like what exactly constitutes ‘time’ and what would happens if it ends, and ‘stranglets’, hypothetical particles made up of heavy strange quarks which could collide with ordinary matter and potentially turn Earth into ‘a hot lump strange matter’. These purely theoretical scenarios are really interesting, but they are taken a touch too far with an exploration of what if ‘it’s all a dream’ and we’re living in the Matrix, which, without getting into all the philosophical implications, I’m not sure counts as one of the biggest doomsday scenarios. As someone else mentioned in another review, in what are supposed to be the biggest threats to the humanity, it’s odd to include this and not electromagnetic pulses, which are familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the genre.
I’m long-term admirer of his science reporting for the Guardian and great podcasts , and this is a good showcase for Jha’s ability to explain complex scientific theories in an accessible, journalistic style. Given the dizzying range of topics covered, it is admirably researched, and it was great to see explicit references to published research and quotes from an impressive variety of experts. I’m not sure if the print version has a full reference list but my Kindle version didn’t, which is a real shame as I’m genuinely interested in reading some of the source material.
‘Handbook’ is definitely an appropriate title, as the book serves as a pretty good primer and launchpad for discovering new and occasionally mindboggling science; it is definitely a book more suited to being dipped in and out of, rather than being read continuously for any length of time. The scenarios and the science behind them are fascinating but after the reading the 30th one, I was getting a little fatigued. The repetitive format (what is it, how likely is it, and occasionally what we can do about it) and some of the repetitive content (a result of the massive overlap of some of the scenarios; global warming covers around half a dozen related topics), can get a little much. As good as some of the writing is, I think the book would have felt a little less throw-away if it covered half as many scenarios but each in more detail.
I found this Doomsday List, which covers a sample of apocalyptic events that were predicted to happen in the last 12 years but haven’t come to pass. It’s likely that all of the doomsday scenarios that Jha outlines will end up on this list, perhaps because humans devise ways of coping with them, their sheer unlikelihood, or because they were so far-fetched to begin with. Perhaps, as Jha suggests, our fate will be decided by an unknown unknown. Or, maybe it will all come to end just because god wants it to.