In the latest installment of the River Campus Libraries’ Neilly Lecture Series, executive editor of Scientific American magazine Fred Guterl addressed students and community members on Wednesday, Feb. 26 in the Hawkins-Carlson Room. Guterl discussed his book, “The Fate of the Species,” a speculative non-fiction work about potential human extinction events.
Assistant Dean of River Campus Libraries Nora Dimmock introduced the lecture. Guterl himself was introduced by his fellow science journalist and colleague Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at UR who previously worked for Guterl when the latter was an editor at Discover magazine.
Guterl, an alumnus of UR, graduated in 1989 with a degree in Electrical & Computer Engineering. While an undergraduate, he was an editor and writer for the Campus Times.
Guterl went on to explain how he started his career in journalism at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). “I knew when I was graduating that I didn’t really want to do engineering,” Guterl explained, “and I said as much to my advisor […] and he knew someone at IEEE.” Guterl began writing for an IEEE trade magazine called Spectrum.
“That was like my graduate school of journalism,” Guterl noted. “That was where I learned how to write, you know, long form non-fiction.”
After leaving Spectrum and IEEE, Guterl worked as a freelance journalist and an editor for Newsweek before being hired at Scientific American, where he has worked for five years as the magazine’s executive editor.
In “The Fate of the Species,” published in 2012, Guterl discusses the potential dangers facing the human race, as well as our unique status as a “technological species.” He noted that the idea for the book came to him while he was working at Newsweek, especially as he noted a trend toward coverage of disastrous and foreboding events such as SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome), bird flu and climate change. “There was always kind of a little hint of ‘Oh, this could be catastrophic,’” Guterl noted. He became interested in pandemics and other potentially apocalyptic events, researching possible scenarios and the science behind them.
In his lecture, Guterl mentioned an observation made by ecologist Jennifer Dunne, who noted that, from a strictly ecological standpoint, the exponential growth of the human race predicts a massive population crash in the near future. “I find that simple statement very chilling,” Guterl noted. He said that, in his book, he wanted to address the risks taken by the human race in terms of our technological development.
Guterl began his lecture by reviewing three main points covered in his book: diseases, climate change and machines.
Regarding diseases, Guterl described how airplanes and worldwide shipping have created a global environment in which communicable diseases can be spread not just from person to person, but from continent to continent. Refering to influenza and ebola as examples, Guterl noted that a communicable disease could easily become a pandemic.
Guterl also spoke on climate change, calling the public’s attitude “complacent.” He described the work of Dutch biologist Marten Scheffer, a researcher in the field of weather and atmospheric patterns. Guterl noted that sufficient stress on the Earth’s climate could very quickly cause drastic changes in monsoons and other major weather patterns.
As for machines, Guterl discussed the vulnerability of Internet technology to viruses and malware. He proposed a hypothetical scenario in which a computer virus might disable or destroy half of all electrical generators in the United States, citing a 2010 cyber attack on Iranian research facilities as precedent. He noted that when Hurricane Sandy caused major power losses in New York in 2013, gasoline filling stations were unable to supply gasoline because of their dependence on electrical pumps. This and other disruptions could lead to an apocalyptic scenario. Guterl noted that the ability of the human race to cause its own extinction is greater than it was 100 years ago.
Despite these dire predictions, Guterl described himself as an optimist.
“Extinction is a very high bar,” he said. “The future is not necessarily like the past…Just because we’ve done so well up until now doesn’t mean we’re going to keep doing the same thing.”
Passanisi is a member of
the class of 2017.