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“The Doomsday Calculation: How an Equation that Predicts the Future is Transforming Everything We Know about Life and the Universe,” by William Poundstone, Little Brown, NY, 2019. In the 304-page hardback, William Poundstone presents yet another discussion of logic and probability to estimate almost anything. In particular he uses the method to predict the end of civilization.

He begins with the idea of uncertainty. If you wish to estimate how long a relationship will last at the 50% probability level, you do not know where you are now, but 50% runs from 25 to 75%. If you are at 25%, the end is predicted to lie at three times the present time; if at 75% the prediction is one third of the present time. At the 95% probability level, the uncertain time runs from 2.5% to 97.5. Hence, the relationship will last from 39 times the time to now to 1/39 of that time.

A series of calculations test the method. In World War II, the number of tanks produced by the Nazis was estimated from serial numbers at 270 tanks per month. The actual number was 276 tanks per month.

Estimates of the survival time of plays on Broadway found 36 of 44 plays had closed with 95% confidence limits. The method also works for estimating the life of corporations in the S&P 500 or Fortune 500 companies. The oldest companies are estimated to survive longest.

Homo sapiens are thought to have existed for 200,000 years. On this basis at the 95% confidence interval, the species is calculated to survive from 1/39th to 39 times that. Or from 5,100 to 7.8MM years. The book follows with extensive discussions of various estimates and their assumptions. His best estimate is 760 years.

We are taken through a series of thought experiments. How much cash is in Brad Pitt’s wallet? The estimate is a 50% chance that he has more than $300 and a 20% chance of a five figure sum. In 2012, People magazine revealed the answer was $1100.

Along the way Poundstone shares many incites. He notes that a phenomenon known as survivors bias causes index funds to load up on stocks that have done well in the past knowing they are unlikely to perform as well in the long run.

He describes several incidents where luck prevented nuclear disaster. In 1958, an unarmed bomb was dropped over South Carolina due to a faulty red warning light. Its conventional explosives detonated on impact causing some damage. This was a close call in the Cold War era when dozens of armed B-52s were in the air at all times. In 1961, a B-52 carrying two hydrogen bombs developed a fuel leak and broke up over North Carolina. Two bombs fell to earth as the tail sheared off. One was found suspended from its parachute in a tree with the arm/safe fuse still in the safe position; the other’s parachute failed to open but landed in a swamp with sufficient cushioning to avoid detonation of its conventional explosives. It’s arm/safe switch was found on arm. A Russian response to a faulty radar warning was avoided when the officer in charge refused to believe the US would attack with a single missile.

A chapter discusses the probably of finding life on other planets. That includes Fermi’s Question. If intelligent life exists on other planets, why have they not visited earth? Von Neumann’s response is that intelligent forms destroy themselves soon after reaching that level of sophistication.

Another chapter considers the implications of artificial intelligence. Citing HAL, the computer that tried to kill humans to protect itself in 2001 Space Odessy, some feel AI will be the end of human domination of the earth.

This book is for thinkers. None of it can be rated at critical to important decisions in your life, but it can get discussion going over a beer. For most this is a fun read, but perhaps some budding thinkers will be stimulated to advance the art. The book does include extensive references to recent discussion of classical thought problems. Notes, references, index.
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