Doomsday Science - Then and Now
7-9 October 2004

An interdisciplinary meeting
organized by
the Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte

Conference Abstract


John Martin: "The Great Day of His Wrath" (1852)


Conference Abstract

In recent years, there has been a surge of scientific doomsday literature. The threat of major impacts by comets or asteroids, and indications of climate change, global warming and sea level rise have deepened anxiety about a possible end to civilization-as-we-know-it. Moreover, science itself is now regarded by some of its leading practitioners as a force of potential doom. Fear of an atomic bomb Armageddon may have receded, but this has been replaced by apprehensions of global havoc due to botched genetic engineering or nanotechnology. Reputable academics produce monographs with titles such as The End of the World (1996, 1998, 2000, by John Leslie) and Our Final Hour (2003, by Martin Rees). Not long ago, the British Government commissioned a Report on the Hazard of Near Earth Objects, and in the USA a Pentagon report, Imagining the Unthinkable, concludes that an abrupt climate change and concomitant sea level rise may pose a greater danger to national security than terrorism does.

This increase in doomsday concern, in part founded on new scientific observations and insights, also coincides with socio-political change such as the end of the Cold War. Coincidences of this kind invite scrutiny, and the question arises as to what extent today's scientific catastrophe debates are part of a doomsday preoccupation that receives input, not only from science, but also from politics and religion as well as from its historical place in the discourse of human destiny. Catastrophe forecasting has a history, and in Western science it was prevalent, for instance during the early-modern period. Bringing that history to bear on the current concerns may deepen our understanding of the forces that drive the doomsday discussions in today's society.

For this purpose, the Göttingen meeting "Doomsday Science - Then and Now" conjoins three different yet overlapping clusters of disciplinary approaches to doomsday science. The first of these addresses present-day risk assessment, asking what relevant facts are known and how these are being brought into the public sphere. Relevant questions in this context are: which interest groups are raising the alarm and what political ideologies may be mixed with the science? The second looks at the history of doomsday science from the past three centuries, examining early-modern theories of global catastrophe as influenced by religious belief in a past deluge and a future conflagration. It explores, too, why it was that Victorian science dismissed catastrophe discourse as unscientific, and looks into how, in the course of the twentieth century, neo-catastrophism has emerged.

The third cluster, by linking up with the burgeoning disaster studies of recent years in a variety of disciplines, especially in environmental history and Holocene geology, deals with public and scientific reactions to past catastrophes, ranging from major earthquakes to epidemics and their perceived meaning as harbingers of ultimate destruction. Folk and mass psychology, the verbal representation of "the end of the world" in science fiction literature or the visual representation of global catastrophe in drawings or paintings are aspects of this third category of studies.


Thursday 7 October 2004

Venue: Paulinerkirche, Papendiek 14

17.00-17.15: Welcome by the University President, HORST KERN

Opening Address
Chair: Sir IAN AXFORD (Katlenburg-Lindau)

17.15-18.15:  Sir CRISPIN TICKELL (Oxford): Doomsday science and world affairs
18.15-19:15:  Sherry reception (Heyne-Haus, Papendiek 16)


Friday 8 October 2004

Theme: Doomsday Science-and-Theology in History
Venue: Hotel Gebhards, Goetheallee 22-23
Chair: GEBHARD LÖHR (Göttingen)

09.00-09.30: NICOLAAS RUPKE (Göttingen), Introduction: the doomsday discourse in the history of modern science
09.30-10.00: SICCO LEHMANN-BRAUNS (Berlin), Johann Amos Comenius'  millenaristic science concept and the arrival of doomsday
10.00-10.30: MICHAEL KEMPE  (Frankfurt/M.), Theories of the deluge: early-modern thinking on catastrophes
10.30-11.00:  Coffee
11.00-11.30: MARITA HÜBNER and NICOLAAS RUPKE (Göttingen), From Jean André Deluc to Arnold Guyot: eschatology in late-18th and 19th century earth sciences
11.30-12.00:  ANDREAS GRÜNSCHLOSS (Göttingen), Astronaut Gods, science  and the millennium: apocalyptic cosmologies in new religious UFO movements
12.00-12.30:  General discussion led by JIM MOORE (Cambridge)

12.30-14.30:  Lunch (Heyne-Haus, Papendiek 16) and tour of the historical premises (Research Library for the History of Science)


Theme: Images of Catastrophe in Art, Literature and Folk Psychology
Venue: Hotel Gebhards, Goetheallee 22-23

14.30-15.00: KAREN WONDERS (Göttingen), The iconography of doomsday fact  and fiction
15.00-15.30: ANGELA SCHWARZ (Duisburg), Science, doomsday fears and the emergence of science fiction in the late-19th century
15.30-16.00: Tea
16.00-16.30: MARK ELVIN (Canberra and Heidelberg), The spectrum from myth to reality: folk psychology of dangerous animals and natural disasters in western Yunnan, China
16.30-17.00: LEWIS LEAVITT (Madison, WI), The psychological effects of exposure to violence and disaster
17.00-17.30: General discussion led by REGINA BENDIX (Göttingen)
19.00-22.00:  Conference dinner, Burgschänke (Burg Plesse, Reyershausen)


Saturday 9 October 2004

Theme: Natural and Man-Made Disasters - Retrospectives and Anticipations
Venue: Hotel Gebhards, Goetheallee 22-23

09.00-09.30: ANDREW CUNNINGHAM (Cambridge), Pandemics in history
09.30-10.00: THOMAS JUNKER (Tübingen and Göttingen), "The decline and fall of culture in the light of biology": Erwin Bauer's Darwinian explanation for an end to civilization (1922-1933)
10.00-10.30: MARK WALKER (Schenectady), Nuclear fear
10.30-11.00:  Coffee
11.00-11.30: MATTHIAS DÖRRIES (Strasbourg and Austin,Texas), Krakatau: local  disaster, global excitement
11.30-12.00:  JAN KOZÁK (Prague), Natural disasters in historical pictures
12.00-12.30: General discussion led by ROBERT MUIR-WOOD (London)
13.15-14.15:  Farewell Lunch (Heyne-Haus, Papendiek 16)

Supported by a grant from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation