This book was published in 1998 and was thus riding on the crest of the wave of anticipation that preceded the new millennium. It's already becoming hard to remember the apocalyptic prophecies of disaster that were current at the time; in the event the new millennium turned out to be something of an anticlimax. But the possibility of apocalypse is still with us, even if it isn't tied to the calendar. In this book Halpern looks at disasters, real and imagined, that have faced the world in the past or might do so in the future.
The book is in two parts, which might be termed Ancient and Modern. In the first of these we begin in prehistory, with the record of mass extinctions, including that of the dinosaurs, probably although not certainly caused by the impact of a bolide. Coming into the human era, we glance briefly at Atlantis and the Old Testament, before moving on to mediaeval and later history, concluding with the Branch Davidians, whose disastrous story is related in some detail.
The second and larger part of the book looks to the future from a scientific perspective. Halpern, of course, finds no shortage of all-too-plausible scenarios for the end of the world here. They include among other cheerful possibilities a new ice age, which could be natural or triggered by a nuclear war; environmental collapse; and impact of an asteroid or comet. Even if we escape these, our doom is sealed in the longer term as the sun comes to the end of its life cycle and becomes a red giant, swallowing up the inner planets in the process. Finally, the universe itself will probably evaporate into nothingness.
The book, not surprisingly, ends on a sombre note. Science, Halpern tells us, is our best hope but it doesn't have answers for everything; an unnecesary caveat today, one might think, when science is seen by many as the problem rather than the solution. The book concludes with a rather powerful meditation on night thoughts, which reads as if it is a transcription of Halpern's personal experience: what Marghanita Laski called a desolation experience, the opposite of an ecstasy.
"Daytime presents illusions of continuity, of comforting locales and familiar faces. But when at night these calming visions have faded into darkness, alarming visions of extinction become all too apparent… What final images would fill our heads when we face the inevitability of not just our own demise, but the death of our kind as well? What would we think—what could we think—when it's the end of the world?"In the words of the Noel Coward song (to a jaunty little tune), "There are bad times just around the corner…"