2001 : WHAT NOW?

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Former President, The Royal Society; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics, University of Cambridge; Master, Trinity College; Author, From Here to Infinity
Leading astronomers and cosmologists.

The most immediate concern is that an ill-judged US response to the WTC attack could heighten tension still further. But recent events should be a "wake-up call", alerting us to the risk of even more devastating attacks, using nuclear devices. A long-range missile carrying a compact warhead Ù the kind of weapon that "star wars 2" is supposed to defend the US against Ù may be beyond the resources of dissident groups. Not so, however, detonation of a stolen weapon transported in a truck or ship, or a crude device assembled, using stolen fissile material, in a city apartment. The latter activities are less technically demanding; and they would would, unlike a missile -launched bomb, leave no trace of their provenance. The US and Western Europe should offer resources to accelerate programs to monitor and dismantle the 20000+ nuclear weapons in the FSU, and to safeguard fissile material. A devastating amount may already have gone astray, but this effort surely deserves far more urgent priority from the US government than missile defenses.

But what terrifies me most is the potential impact of biological advances. Thousands Ù even millions Ù of people will soon have the technical capability to make and disseminate "weapons" that could cause widespread (even worldwide) epidemics. Not even an organised "cell" or network of terrorists is required Ù just a single fanatic, or a wierdo with the mindset of those who design computer viruses (or even someone who is merely incompetent rather than malign) . Even if all nations imposed strict regulations on perilous applications of biological advances, the chances of effective enforcement are no better than in the case of the drug laws. And a single infringement could trigger disaster. I'm despondent about the 21st century because there seems absolutely no realistic chance of preventing these hazards from looming ever-larger.