The Precipice - Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity: a thesis of sweeping optimism

Book review: Toby Ord is a defiant Utopian who believes many of the ‘harshest injustices’ we have visited on humanity are behind us

The first atomic  explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16th, 1945.  Ord assigns it   as the beginning of  the “precipice”, our new era of heightened existential risk. Photograph:  Getty Images

The first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16th, 1945. Ord assigns it as the beginning of the “precipice”, our new era of heightened existential risk. Photograph: Getty Images

The team of US experts secretly working on the development of the atomic bomb made a profoundly worrying discovery in 1942: an atomic explosion would create temperatures on Earth (15 million ºC) hotter than at the centre of the sun.

What might such an unprecedented inferno trigger? Scientists openly speculated that it could well ignite the hydrogen in the world’s oceans, or nitrogen in the atmosphere, setting off a cataclysmic fireball capable of extinguishing life on Earth almost entirely.

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