Scientific American Lays Odds

I just received Scientific American’s September Special Issue on “The End” and immediately turned to pages 82-83 to read the article “Laying Odds on the Apocalypse: Experts Assess Doomsday Scenarios.” Eight scenarios are listed, ranging from a killer pandemic (Destruction Ranking 4, Odds: 1-in-2 over the next 30 years) to bubble nucleation, in which a universe pops up within our own (Destruction Ranking 10, Odds: 1-in-1,000,000,000 over the next trillion years). While I skipped over the latter (and won’t pretend to understand it), I was very interested in scenario #5 on nuclear war. The magazine gave it a Destruction Ranking of 6 (hundreds of millions dead) and Odds of 1-in-30 over the next 10 years.

I wish the article had used consistent numbers, such as a time horizon until we expect the event to occur. Thus, the killer pandemic’s odds of “1-in-2 over the next 30 years” would become a time horizon of 60 years, while bubble nucleation’s 1-in-1,000,000,000 over the next trillion years would become a time horizon of a billion-trillion years (10^21 years). Using that system, nuclear war’s odds of 1-in-30 over the next 10 years would become a time horizon of 300 years.

Alternatively, we could express the odds as probabilities over the expected lifetime of a child born today. The killer pandemic would have better than 50-50 odds of occurring in that time frame, bubble nucleation would have very slim odds (roughly one chance in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000) and nuclear war would be in between with a 25% chance of occurring.

Scientific American’s estimates are consistent with my own research which found the time horizon for a full scale nuclear war to be no greater than 1,000 years and possibly in the 100 year time frame. And, even if the time horizon were as long as 1,000 years, that newly born child would have roughly a 10% of not living out his or her natural life.

It’s past time to wake society up to the unacceptable risk it faces so that we can start changing policies and give that child better odds. One way to do that is to send a link to this post or whatever you find most helpful in that effort to all your friends. An alternative link (or better yet, recommend both) is a great new video done by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ,“The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence.” It’s currently at the top of their home page, but should that move, it’s also on YouTube.

As our slogan says: The risk of a nuclear catastrophe is far greater than we think. Our ability to reduce that risk is far greater than we imagine. Let’s get busy finding out just how much we can do!

About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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2 Responses to Scientific American Lays Odds

  1. Marty,
    I agree that calculating odds and probabilites is necessary in determining risk, and assessing risk is an important element in planning for uncertainties. However, as I learned early in my career of selling life insurance, even though the risk of dying at age 60 may only be 0.3% (or there about), if I’m the unlucky one, the relevant statistic is 100%! Perhaps, these studies should go farther and quantify the risk adjusted expected losses of a nuclear catastrophe compared to the cost of preventing them.
    Bruce Roth
    Daisy Alliance

  2. Add your voice to the global call to abolish nuclear weapons, for good.

    The MillionPleas.com campaign, an initiative of ICAN, aims to be the world’s longest video chain letter. It is addressed to the 9 countries that still have nuclear weapons.

    ICAN is asking people from all over the globe to upload a video clip of themselves saying the word “please”. The “pleases” will then be edited into a long virtual chain letter, which will act as a petition to abolish nuclear weapons, worldwide.

    The Million Pleas campaign marks the 65th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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