HOW THE WORLD MIGHT END
It’s a way off, those who didn’t bother to order a diary for 2013 – are still needing one. Cause On 21 December 2012, the world did not came to an end. Everything revealed in an old calendar of the Mayans doomed itself, if you remember how it’s interpreted by various self-appointed experts on their slightly whacky websites.
The predicted Armageddon could not take any forms: a disastrous surge in solar activity, a reversal of Earth’s magnetic poles, a collision with a black hole, the close passage of a mysterious planet called Nibiru – the list goes on. It was all very entertaining, and was pure nonsense.
The Mayans did keep a calendar, called the “long count”, based on a period of 1,872,000 days. It began in August 3114 BC, and so is due to click over to its next cycle late next year. However, there’s no evidence to suggest the Mayans saw the switch from one cycle to the next as apocalyptic. More to the point, even if they did, they had no way of foretelling the future.
On the other hand, it’s true that we are doomed. Our planet and everything on it won’t last. A billion years from now the sun will have brightened and swollen to a point at which the oceans will start to evaporate. A billion years after that, all Earth’s surface water will be gone and, with it, all life except for some hardy species that can survive on whatever moisture remains underground.
There’s no shortage of people who have an opinion on how the apocalypse could look. Here are the likeliest options, with descriptions of the horrors we’d have to endure. According to what many are predicting, it seems like the devastation that might occur sometime extremely soon
The finite lifespan of the sun guarantees the demise of planet three. But there are all kinds of other natural calamities that might kill off large swathes of us in the much shorter term – and we love to talk about them. Asteroid or comet collisions are a big favourite.
The Earth has repeatedly been used for target practice by big dumb objects in the past. An asteroid at least 10 kilometres across barrelled into us just over 65 million years ago and helped wipe out the last of the dinosaurs along with many other groups of animals and plants. A good thing, too, if you’re human, because it left mammals free to flourish.
In 1908 a blast with the strength of about a thousand Hiroshima atomic bombs flattened trees over a wide area around the Tunguska river in Siberia. The presumed culprit in this case was a fragment of a comet or a large meteoroid that exploded several kilometres above the surface. Had it happened over a populous city, the effect would have been disastrous.
Other nasty stuff has happened to the Earth. Supervolcanoes have erupted, blanketing vast areas with dust and lava, and plunging the globe into deepvolcanic winters. Ice ages have come and gone, and very occasionally, during“snowball Earth” events, it seems that almost the entire planet has frozen over for millions of years.
These kind of events will happen again. We will be hit by asteroids and comets, large and small. More supervolcanoes will erupt. It’s inevitable, and some of these events are perfectly capable of decimating the human race, or even driving us to extinction virtually overnight.
The trouble is, the level of danger and the immediacy of the threat is often grossly overstated. Run-ins with asteroids as big as that which put paid to the dinosaurs happen once every 100 million years or so. But that doesn’t mean they happen every 100 million years like clockwork. Much smaller impacts, like the Tunguska episode, occur on average about once every thousand years – a problem if they happen to maliciously target built-up areas, but not so alarming when you think of the great tracts of ocean and wilderness which are much more likely to be on the receiving end.
Speculation about upcoming disasters runs rampant when there’s a failure, or unwillingness, to grasp basic facts. It happened this year in connection with an innocuous little comet called Elenin. Google its name and you’ll find all kinds of hair-raising stories about how Elenin would come close to or even ram into the Earth, bringing death and destruction on a biblical scale. The hysteria started shortly after the comet’s discovery when a few armchair theorists mistook the size of Elenin’s coma – the glowing, almost vacuum-thin shiny fuzz of vaporised particles around the hard nucleus – for the size of the nucleus itself.
Word quickly spread on the internet, helped by the usual eagerness of tabloids and late-night chat shows to exploit a juicy yarn, that Elenin was as big as a planet and would cause chaos during its close passage of the Earth. In fact, as astronomers knew, Elenin was modest by cometary standards and never going to come any closer than 35 million kilometres, or about 90 times as far away as the moon. In the event, it disintegrated and was lost from view to even the most powerful telescopes.
Muddled science opens the door to tales of Armageddon. But it’s helped along by the fact that we love a scary story, for the same reason we enjoy a good horror or sci-fi flick – because it lets us escape the banality of everyday life. For some, there’s another reason to suspend disbelief – the expectation that some time soon the day of judgement will be upon us.
The 2012 phenomenon is dead, and will doubtless be back if someone found out an Aztec or Indus Calendar or so prophetic writings or something from Nostradamus Quad’s until then, we wake up everyday and find the Earth hasn’t been knocked off its axis or suffered any other ill effects from obscure cosmic alignments, geomagnetic reversals or close fly-bys of unknown planets.. it will be enough a reason to go partying. If past experience is anything to go by new doomsday forecasts will replace the ones that didn’t quite work out.
We’ve had a good run of it. In the 500,000 years Homo sapiens has roamed the land we’ve built cities, created complex languages, and sent robotic scouts to other planets. It’s difficult to imagine it all coming to an end.
Anyway..We are not going to wait long for new theories of predictors, so let us predict before hand the probables which we will have to listen from them:
Objects more than a half-mile wide- which strike Earth every 250,000 years or so- would touch off firestorms followed by global cooling from dust kicked up by the impact. Humans would likely survive, but civilization might not. An asteroid five miles wide would cause major extinctions, like the one that may have marked the end of the age of dinosaurs. For a real chill, look to the Kuiper belt, a zone just beyond Neptune that contains roughly 100,000 ice-balls more than 50 miles in diameter. The Kuiper belt sends a steady rain of small comets earthward. If one of the big ones headed right for us, that would be it for pretty much all higher forms of life, even cockroaches.
Earth’s atmosphere would initially protect us from most of the burst’s deadly X rays and gamma rays, but at a cost. The potent radiation would cook the atmosphere, creating nitrogen oxides that would destroy the ozone layer. Without the ozone layer, ultraviolet rays from the sun would reach the surface at nearly full force, causing skin cancer and, more seriously, killing off the tiny photosynthetic plankton in the ocean that provide oxygen to the atmosphere and bolster the bottom of the food chain. All the gamma-ray bursts observed so far have been extremely distant, which implies the events are rare. Scientists understand so little about these explosions, however, that it’s difficult to estimate the likelihood of one detonating in our galactic neighborhood.
Collapse of the vacuum
Very early in the history of the universe, according to a leading cosmological model, empty space was full of energy. This state of affairs, called a false vacuum, was highly precarious. A new, more stable kind of vacuum appeared and, like ice-nine, it quickly took over. This transition unleashed a tremendous amount of energy and caused a brief runaway expansion of the cosmos. It is possible that another, even more stable kind of vacuum exists, however. As the universe expands and cools, tiny bubbles of this new kind of vacuum might appear and spread at nearly the speed of light. The laws of physics would change in their wake, and a blast of energy would dash everything to bits. “It makes for a beautiful story, but it’s not very likely,” says Piet Hut of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. He says he worries more about threats that scientists are more certain of- such as rogue black holes.
Our galaxy is full of black holes.Their gravity is so strong they swallow everything, even the light that might betray their presence. David Bennett of Notre Dame University in Indiana managed to spot two black holes recently by the way they distorted and amplified the light of ordinary, more distant stars. Based on such observations, and even more on theoretical arguments, researchers guesstimate there are about 10 million black holes in the Milky Way. These objects orbit just like other stars, meaning that it is not terribly likely that one is headed our way. But if a normal star were moving toward us, we’d know it. With a black hole there is little warning.
A few decades before a close encounter, at most, astronomers would observe a strange perturbation in the orbits of the outer planets. As the effect grew larger, it would be possible to make increasingly precise estimates of the location and mass of the interloper. The black hole wouldn’t have to come all that close to Earth to bring ruin; just passing through the solar system would distort all of the planets’ orbits. Earth might get drawn into an elliptical path that would cause extreme climate swings, or it might be ejected from the solar system and go hurtling to a frigid fate in deep space.
Giant solar flares
Solar flares- more properly known as coronal mass ejections- are enormous magnetic outbursts on the sun that bombard Earth with a torrent of high-speed subatomic particles. Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field negate the potentially lethal effects of ordinary flares. But while looking through old astronomical records, Bradley Schaefer of Yale University found evidence that some perfectly normal-looking, sunlike stars can brighten briefly by up to a factor of 20. Schaefer believes these stellar flickers are caused by superflares, millions of times more powerful than their common cousins. Within a few hours, a superflare on the sun could fry Earth and begin disintegrating the ozone layer (see #2). Although there is persuasive evidence that our sun doesn’t engage in such excess, scientists don’t know why superflares happen at all, or whether our sun could exhibit milder but still disruptive behavior. And while too much solar activity could be deadly, too little of it is problematic as well. Sallie Baliunas at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says many solar-type stars pass through extended quiescent periods, during which they become nearly 1 percent dimmer. That might not sound like much, but a similar downturn in the sun could send us into another ice age. Baliunas cites evidence that decreased solar activity contributed to 17 of the 19 major cold episodes on Earth in the last 10,000 years.
The grimmest possibility would be the emergence of a strain that spreads so fast we are caught off guard or that resists all chemical means of control, perhaps as a result of our stirring of the ecological pot. About 12,000 years ago, a sudden wave of mammal extinctions swept through the Americas. Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History argues the culprit was extremely virulent disease, which humans helped transport as they migrated into the New World.
The Earth is getting warmer, and scientists mostly agree that humans bear some blame. It’s easy to see how global warming could flood cities and ruin harvests. More recently, researchers like Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School have raised the alarm that a balmier planet could also assist the spread of infectious disease by providing a more suitable climate for parasites and spreading the range of tropical pathogens. That could include crop diseases which, combined with substantial climate shifts, might cause famine. Effects could be even more dramatic.
At present, atmospheric gases trap enough heat close to the surface to keep things comfortable. Increase the global temperature a bit, however, and there could be a bad feedback effect, with water evaporating faster, freeing water vapor (a potent greenhouse gas), which traps more heat, which drives carbon dioxide from the rocks, which drives temperatures still higher. Earth could end up much like Venus, where the high on a typical day is 900 degrees Fahrenheit. It would probably take a lot of warming to initiate such a runaway greenhouse effect, but scientists have no clue where exactly the tipping point lies.
While we are extinguishing natural species, we’re also creating new ones through genetic engineering. Genetically modified crops can be hardier, tastier, and more nutritious. Engineered microbes might ease our health problems. And gene therapy offers an elusive promise of fixing fundamental defects in our DNA. Then there are the possible downsides. Although there is no evidence indicating genetically modified foods are unsafe, there are signs that the genes from modified plants can leak out and find their way into other species. Engineered crops might also foster insecticide resistance. Longtime skeptics like Jeremy Rifkin worry that the resulting superweeds and superpests could further destabilize the stressed global ecosystem (see #9). Altered microbes might prove to be unexpectedly difficult to control. Scariest of all is the possibility of the deliberate misuse of biotechnology. A terrorist group or rogue nation might decide that anthrax isn’t nasty enough and then try to put together, say, an airborne version of the Ebola virus. Now there’s a showstopper.
From Donora, Pennsylvania, to Bhopal, India, modern history abounds with frightening examples of the dangers of industrial pollutants. But the poisoning continues. In major cities around the world, the air is thick with diesel particulates, which the National Institutes of Health now considers a carcinogen. Heavy metals from industrial smokestacks circle the globe, even settling in the pristine snows of Antarctica.
Intensive use of pesticides in farming guarantees runoff into rivers and lakes. In high doses, dioxins can disrupt fetal development and impair reproductive function- and dioxins are everywhere. Your house may contain polyvinyl chloride pipes, wallpaper, and siding, which belch dioxins if they catch fire or are incinerated. There are also the unknown risks to think about
Together, the United States and Russia still have almost 19,000 active nuclear warheads. Nuclear war seems unlikely today, but a dozen years ago the demise of the Soviet Union also seemed rather unlikely. Political situations evolve; the bombs remain deadly. There is also the possibility of an accidental nuclear exchange. And a ballistic missile defense system, given current technology, will catch only a handful of stray missiles- assuming it works at all. Other types of weaponry could have global effects as well. Japan began experimenting with biological weapons after World War I, and both the United States and the Soviet Union experimented with killer germs during the cold war. Compared with atomic bombs, bioweapons are cheap, simple to produce, and easy to conceal. They are also hard to control, although that unpredictability could appeal to a terrorist organization. John Leslie, a philosopher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, points out that genetic engineering might permit the creation of “ethnic” biological weapons that are tailored to attack primarily one ethnic group.
Robots take over
People create smart robots, which turn against us and take over the world. Yawn. We’ve seen this in movies, TV, and comic books for decades. After all these years, look around and still- no smart robots.
Yet Hans Moravec, one of the founders of the robotics department of Carnegie Mellon University, he predicts, By 2040 machines will match human intelligence, and perhaps human consciousness. Then they’ll get even better. He envisions an eventual symbiotic relationship between human and machine, with the two merging into “postbiologicals” capable of vastly expanding their intellectual power.
Marvin Minsky, an artificial-intelligence expert at MIT, foresees a similar future: People will download their brains into computer-enhanced mechanical surrogates and log into nearly boundless files of information and experience. Whether this counts as the end of humanity or the next stage in evolution depends on your point of view. Minsky’s vision might sound vaguely familiar. After the first virtual-reality machines hit the marketplace around 1989, feverish journalists hailed them as electronic LSD, trippy illusion machines that might entice the user in and then never let him out. Sociologists fretted that our culture, maybe even our species, would whither away. When the actual experience of virtual reality turned out to be more like trying to play Pac-Man with a bowling ball taped to your head, the talk died down. To his credit, Minsky recognizes that the merger of human and machine lies quite a few years away.
A Greater Force Is Directed Against Us
At the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, a cadre of dedicated scientists sifts through radio static in search of a telltale signal from an alien civilization. So far, nothing. Now suppose the long-sought message arrives. Not only do the aliens exist, they are about to stop by for a visit. And then . . . any science-fiction devotee can tell you what could go wrong.
But the history of human exploration and exploitation suggests the most likely danger is not direct conflict. Aliens might want resources from our solar system (Earth’s oceans, perhaps, full of hydrogen for refilling a fusion-powered spacecraft) and swat us aside if we get in the way, as we might dismiss mosquitoes or beetles stirred up by the logging of a rain forest. Aliens might unwittingly import pests with a taste for human flesh, much as Dutch colonists reaching Mauritius brought cats, rats, and pigs that quickly did away with the dodo.
Or aliens might accidentally upset our planet or solar system while carrying out some grandiose interstellar construction project. The late physicist Gerard O’Neill speculated that contact with extraterrestrial visitors could also be socially disastrous. “Advanced western civilization has had a destructive effect on all primitive civilizations it has come in contact with, even in those cases where every attempt was made to protect and guard the primitive civilization,” he said in a 1979 interview. “I don’t see any reason why the same thing would not happen to us.”
Judaism has the Book of Daniel; Christianity has the Book of Revelation; Islam has the coming of the Mahdi; Zoroastrianism has the countdown to the arrival of the third son of Zoroaster. The stories and their interpretations vary widely, but the underlying concept is similar: God intervenes in the world, bringing history to an end and ushering in a new moral order.
Apocalyptic thinking runs at least back to Egyptian mythology and right up to Heaven’s Gate and Y2K mania. More worrisome, to the nonbelievers at least, are the doomsday cults that prefer to take holy retribution into their own hands.
In 1995, members of the Aum Shinri Kyo sect unleashed sarin nerve gas in a Tokyo subway station, killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000. Had things gone as intended, the death toll would have been hundreds of times greater. A more determined group armed with a more lethal weapon- nuclear, biological, nanotechnological even- could have done far more damage.
As always, these revised warnings will find an eager audience.
And, as always, the scientific reality will take a back seat.
- Asteroid zipping past Earth, dragging its own moon (edition.cnn.com)
- Large asteroid zipping past Earth, dragging its own moon along (cnn.com)
- Asteroid Impact (regentsmaths.com)
- Interesting & Important Info on Four Imminent Comets (elenin, Honda, Levy, Yu55) (lunaticoutpost.com)
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