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Friday, July 05, 2019

A math equation that predicts the end of humanity | Future Perfect -

How much longer till we all die off? 760 years, give or take, argues William Poundstone, author of fourteen books.

Photo: Javier Zarracina/Vox
The most mind-boggling controversy in the contemporary philosophy of science is the “doomsday argument,” a claim that a mathematical formula can predict how long the human race will survive. It gives us even odds that our species will meet its end within the next 760 years.

The doomsday argument doesn’t tell what’s going to kill us — it just gives the date (very, very approximately).

When I first came across this idea, I thought it was absurd. A prediction must be founded on data, not math! That is by no means an uncommon reaction. One critic, physicist Eric J. Lerner, branded doomsday “pseudo-science, a mere manipulation of numbers.”

Prof. Holger Bech Nielsen
Photo: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Yet I now believe the doomsday prediction merits serious attention — I’ve written my latest book about it. Start with J. Richard Gott III. He’s a Princeton astrophysicist, one of several scholars who independently formulated the doomsday argument in the last decades of the 20th century. (Others are physicists Holger Bech Nielsen and Brandon Carter and philosopher John Leslie.) In 1969, Gott was a physics undergraduate fresh out of Harvard, spending the summer in Europe. At a visit to the Berlin Wall, he did a quick calculation and announced to a friend: The Berlin Wall will stand at least 2 and 2/3 more years but no more than 24 more years...

Demographers have estimated the total number of people who ever lived at about 100 billion. That means that about 100 billion people were born before me. Currently, about 130 million people are born each year. At that rate, it would take only about 760 years for another 100 billion more people to be born. That’s the basis of the claim that there’s a 50 percent chance that humans will become extinct within about 760 years. The flip side of the claim is there’s also a 50 percent chance we’ll survive past 760 years, possibly long past that.

As Holger Bech Nielsen pointed out, the latter part of this estimation isn’t airtight. A sharp decrease in the birthrate could postpone doomsday. Yet it’s hard to put an upbeat spin on that. It might mean a global catastrophe leaving a handful of post-apocalyptic survivors. 
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Recommended Reading
The Doomsday Calculation:
How an Equation that Predicts the Future Is Transforming Everything We Know About Life and the Universe