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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Popular Science

End Times A Brief Guide to the End of the World – Asteroids, Supervolcanoes, Plagues, and More

Popular Science
By: Bryan Walsh(Author)
406 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Orion
End Times is a captivating book that, with some reservations, makes for a good first popular introduction to the grim subject of existential threats.
End Times
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  • End Times ISBN: 9781841884042 Paperback Aug 2020 In stock
  • End Times ISBN: 9780316449618 Hardback Aug 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 2-4 weeks
Selected version: £33.99
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About this book

Could an incoming asteroid cause human beings to go the way of the dinosaurs? Will artificial intelligence make the world a better place – or make human beings obsolescent? Could a massive volcanic supereruption thrust the planet into a killer Ice Age? What would happen the day after a nuclear war? Bryan Walsh, a 15-year veteran reporter and editor of TIME, has written a vital work of popular science and investigative journalism that will peel back the layers of complexity around the unthinkable – the end of humankind.

In End Times, Walsh provides a stunning panoramic analysis of the catastrophic dangers of human extinction that emerge from nature and those of our own making: the rising danger of a nuclear war, and the shockingly weak government protocols in place to prevent it; the climate change that threatens to burn the future even as our politicians deny and delay; ground-breaking emerging technologies like gene editing, tools that could save the world – or destroy it. Walsh examines the impact of these disasters were they to happen, the true probability of these world-ending catastrophes, and the best strategies for prevention, all pulled from his rigorous and deeply thoughtful reporting and research.

End Times may be dark, but it does not wallow in doom. Walsh goes into the room with the men and women whose job it is to imagine the unimaginable. He includes stories and colourful profiles of those on the front lines of prevention, actively working to head off existential threats in biotechnology labs and boardrooms. Guided by Walsh's evocative, page-turning prose, we follow the likes of the asteroid hunters at NASA and the disease detectives on the trail of the next mass killer.

Walsh examines the possibility of apocalypse in all forms, employing everything from geology to astronomy, bionics, economics and even human psychology to determine how we can apocalypse-proof our species. In the end, it will be the breadth of our knowledge, the depth of our imagination, and our will to survive that will decide the future.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Good popular introduction, with some reservations
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Feb 2020 Written for Hardback

    If the end of the world is something that keeps you up at night you might want to skip this book. Some might snigger at the “rogue robots” in the book’s subtitle, but End Times is a serious look at so-called existential risks. Former foreign correspondent, reporter, and editor with TIME magazine Bryan Walsh takes an unflinching look at the various disasters that could wipe out humanity, the people whose jobs it is to seriously think through catastrophic threats, and how, if at all, we can prepare ourselves.

    Walsh starts with the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs (see T. rex and the Crater of Doom) before turning his attention to the search for near-earth objects, covering similar ground to the recently reviewed Fire in the Sky, including the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, a visit to the same Catalina Sky Survey, and an interview with NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson. The chapter on volcanism covers the usual suspects, such as the Siberian Traps (see my review of The Ends of the World), the Toba volcano (see my review of When Humans Nearly Vanished), the Tambora volcano, and the looming threat of the Yellowstone supervolcano.

    The threat of nuclear war is a topic that I am less familiar with, and Walsh walks you through the history of the first atomic bomb tests, the arms race during the Cold War followed by disarmament, and the recent resurgence in nuclear weapons stockpiling. Combined with the secret government war plans and the many near-misses, this makes for chilling reading.

    Walsh has interviewed plenty of people while researching this book. Additionally, he draws on personal experience when writing of climate change and pandemics. He was stationed in Hong Kong during the 2003 outbreak of SARS and makes many relevant observations: vaccine resistance, the lack of investment in developing new ones (see my review of Superbugs), and the evolutionary trade-off between transmissibility and fatality that prevents diseases from completely wiping out their hosts.

    Just as Jon Gertner, he has visited Greenland’s Jakobshavn glacier (see my review of The Ice at the End of the World). He discusses climate change tipping points, the fiendish problem of continued global warming even if we stopped emissions now, why addressing the hole in the ozone layer was easy and curbing carbon dioxide emissions is not, and why we all need to read Vaclav Smil’s work. Smil’s point about the difference in energy density between fossil fuels and renewables, and the challenges this presents, is often overlooked (see Energy in Nature and Society and Energy and Civilization).

    Walsh attended the 2009 UN climate change summit in Copenhagen and it is here that he makes some of his sharpest observations on the psychology of our inaction. He notes how in Copenhagen: “no one really wanted to do all that much to slow climate change. Not if it carried any political or economic risk. Not if it could cost them their job, or restrict their citizens in almost any way. Climate change was important, sure – but not that important” (p. 137). He calls climate change “the ultimate collective action problem” and highlights how this existential threat, uniquely, foremost affects generations yet to come.

    The remaining threats – biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and aliens – all stand apart as ones that have yet to pass. He considers biotechnology becoming bioterrorism in the wrong hands the biggest threat of all, discussing at length the ethics, regulation, and double-edged nature of this kind of scientific research. He clarifies why there is nothing to giggle about “killer robots” if so-called artificial general intelligence were to enter the loop of recursive self-improvement and take off on an exponential curve (see also Superintelligence). And the seemingly unlikely threat of alien life forms results in a chapter that nicely discusses the Drake equation, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and some of the solutions to the Fermi Paradox (see also If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens... Where is Everybody?).

    As a reporter, Walsh knows how to write a captivating and entertaining book, even if the topic is grim. Yet I do have some concerns. I appreciate that, in tackling so many big subjects in just over 300 pages, the coverage is going to be somewhat superficial. Although he refers to peer-reviewed literature, I also noticed many references to online newspaper and magazine articles. Similarly, he seems to cite some, but not all, personal communications with people. And when mentioning the work of certain authors (e.g. Vaclav Smil), he curiously cites articles about them, rather than anything they have written.

    If it seems I am harping on about this, I ended up questioning how much Walsh has relied on second-hand information for this book. Although I trust that as a reporter he can judge sources for their reliability, I worry that he sometimes misses out on subtleties. A point in case is the extinction of the dinosaurs, where he sketches as dissenters those who blame massive volcanic eruptions. Although the evidence for impact is by now undeniable, the relative importance of each remains hotly debated (recent examples of palaeontologists airing different views in their books are The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs and The Dinosaurs Rediscovered). And the idea of a global conflagration following impact is not supported by research on fossil charcoal (see my review of Burning Planet). Similarly, the fear of AI running rampant has its share of dissenters.

    Finally, I am not sure I always share Walsh’s optimism that e.g. geoengineering will offer a solution to climate change, or that colonisation of space is the answer to an overcrowded planet. I would not want to exclude these, but I feel as much attracted to Eileen Crist’s call of scaling down and pulling back (see my review of Abundant Earth). Which brings me to two existential threats I felt were missing. What of the one-two punch of habitat destruction and rampant resource extraction? Together with climate change, they are, in my opinion, symptoms of overpopulation accompanied by increasingly widespread overconsumption. I expect these will cause global disruption before climate change can get to us.

    If a book such as Global Catastrophic Risks seems too daunting at first, End Times makes a great read as a popular introduction to existential threats. Where it concerns ethics and philosophy, or human psychology in the face of threats, Walsh makes some excellent observations. Keeping in mind above reservations, I would encourage readers to subsequently go deeper into the literature if any one of these topics fascinates them.
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A graduate of Princeton University, Bryan Walsh worked as a foreign correspondent, reporter, and editor for TIME for over 15 years. He founded the award-winning Ecocentric blog on and has reported from more than 20 countries on science and environmental stories like SARS, global warming and extinction. Currently he writes for Bloomberg, Newsweek, TIME, and Medium, and consults on sustainability issues for corporations like Apple. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.

Popular Science
By: Bryan Walsh(Author)
406 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Orion
End Times is a captivating book that, with some reservations, makes for a good first popular introduction to the grim subject of existential threats.
Media reviews

– Time Magazine: "11 New Books to Read in August!"
Eco Watch: "Best Environmental Books of August"

"A harrowing chronicle of a range of threats that could bring about human extinction in the not-so-distant future."
The Washington Post

Walsh does wonders in unknotting the dizzying agendas fueling many of the existential risks explored in End Times."
Scientific Inquirer

"Instead of freaking out, read End Times. It's a wise and weirdly hopeful journey into civilization's darkest nightmares."
– Jeff Goodell, author of The Water Will Come

"It's not easy thinking about all the ways the world can end, let alone writing a whole book about them. But Bryan Walsh has managed the feat and then some, delivering a book that's as analytically astute as it is terrifically written. It takes a special kind of writer to pull this off, and in Bryan Walsh we found him."
– Ian Bremmer, New York Times bestselling author of Us Versus Them: The Failure of Globalism

In End Times, Bryan Walsh has put together the loudest, scariest wake-up call possible. And yet it's not a book without hope: Walsh lays out a challenging series of believable scenarios that can allow human beings to thrive along with our fellow earth-dwellers, in a way that requires only qualities we already have: compassion, intelligence, focus, and determination"
– Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist and bestselling author

"It takes a bold reporter and subtle thinker to survey the mortal threats we face and find a way towards hope; yet that is what Bryan Walsh has done in this terrifying, fascinating exploration of existential risk. Cascading catastrophes of the manmade kind are so frightful to consider that we naturally look the other way; but Walsh invites us to reckon with the world we've made, a crucial step towards taking responsibility for saving us from ourselves. The asteroids, the supervolcanoes, the plagues are not of our making; but the nukes, the climate disruption, the weaponized pathogens and challenges of AI are. With a storyteller's art and a scientists tools, Walsh helps us think the unthinkable, takes us to the observatories and laboratories where the future is made. Travel with him to doomsday and back, and nothing looks the same."
– Nancy Gibbs, coauthor of New York Times bestseller The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity

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