If the World Ended, How Would It Happen?
We know the turnover of the Mayan calendar won't kill us, but there is a ghastly array of plausible events that could. We dare you to "have a nice day" after reading all about them.
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Repent, for the end is near. Well, maybe. We all know there is no truth to the whole 2012 Mayan calendar nonsense. It is basically the equivalent of throwing out this year’s calendar on December 31st to make room for a new one.
Last year, there was so much attention paid to this subject when Howard Camping declared May 21, 2011 as the day the Rapture was supposed to begin, that I am surprised by the lack of crazies standing on street corners, handing out leaflets this time around.
The world, like all things, had a beginning, and so it must have an end. Within this space, I will discuss the ways it all could happen. However, there is something to get out of the way first. What does the end of the world actually mean? The end of the human race? The Earth is vaporized? The collapse of the universe? Any of these could potentially qualify, but for the sake of brevity, I will be covering the first two scenarios.
First off, let me congratulate you. You are the result of billions of years of evolution on a small rocky planet, circling an average star, in one arm of an unspectacular galaxy. You are the universe become conscious. Unfortunately, since the time your ancestors stepped out of the primordial ooze, that very same universe won’t stop trying to kill you.
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This first batch is a list of ways the universe could accomplish killing us, through no fault of our own.
Gamma Ray Burst
Discovered in the 1960s by U.S. Military satellites looking for Soviet nuclear detonations, Gamma ray bursts are believed to be the result of massive star explosions, or supernovae. This explosion causes a narrow, focused beam of Gamma radiation, so powerful that it contains as much energy in its few seconds as the Sun will produce in its entire lifetime. And since the Sun is an unfathomably massive star with a roughly ten billion-year lifespan, that is a lot of energy.
These Gamma ray bursts actually originate from billions of light-years away. Billions. With a “B.” Astronomers didn’t believe that could be possible, given the measured energy level of these flashes. Since the energy is so focused, most bursts are never seen from Earth. For the purposes of this article, though, let’s pretend one is aimed at us. The result would be disastrous. The good news is the Gamma rays would not penetrate the atmosphere and reach the surface, but the bad news is they would destroy the precious ozone layer (much faster than CFCs), thus making the surface of the planet vulnerable to cosmic radiation. Photochemical smog would likely appear and block out the sun, causing a nuclear-winter type effect. The result, simply put, would be mass extinctions.
Thankfully, they do not occur that often in our galaxy, probably about once every one hundred thousand to one million years. However, observation satellites have found that these bursts occur about once per day across the universe. That is a ton, universally-speaking. And now for the bad news. Earth may already have a target on its back. The binary star system, WR 104, located about eight thousand light-years from Earth, will go supernova someday. And we may be looking down its barrel. If its explosion does result in a Gamma ray burst, be somewhere else. Good luck getting there.
Hey, at least those Gamma ray bursts are focused, and if one is not aiming at us, we’ll be fine. Well, not out of the proverbial woods yet. As I said, the universe wants you dead, and will stop at nothing to get it done. Enter Magentars. These are a type of neutron star with a massive magnetic field. As this field decays, X and Gamma rays are emitted. Just to blow your mind a little bit: magnetars are usually about twelve miles across, but contain more mass than our Sun. They are so dense that a thimble’s worth of a magnetar core would have a mass of more than one hundred million tons. I’m sorry, but if you thought astronomy was boring, screw you. So, being small and full of shit makes one of these magnetars awfully mad. Occasionally, they have starquakes. (Yep, I know. It’s a cool word.) Those quakes would be equivalent to a 32 on the Richter scale. And remember, that scale is logarithmic.
A 2004 magnetar starquake produced as much energy in 200 milliseconds as the sun does in a quarter million years. This event blinded satellites in orbit, compressed our magnetic field, and ionized the Earth’s upper atmosphere. And this starquake took place more than fifty thousand light-years away. The energy released would have a similar effect as a Gamma ray burst, and would cause serious damage if it were close by. If it were really close, it could blow the atmosphere off our planet. Needless to say, not good. As of right now, scientists believe the closest magnetar is about nine thousand light-years away, so we should be safe. Until we find one in our cosmic backyard, that is.
Forget “Independence Day,” “War of the Worlds,” and “Signs,” if alien invaders sought to conquer Earth, there wouldn’t be much we could do about it. The entire war could be over in a matter of minutes, in fact. If there were a civilization with technology advanced enough to allow them cross the vast expanses between the stars, no amount of Randy Quaid’s heroics could repel them.
The real question here is why would they be invading us to begin with? “For our resources” you might say. Well, which resources exactly? Water? There is supposedly more water on Jupiter’s moon Europa than on Earth and it has the added benefit of lacking an occupying civilization. Why fight for water when you don’t have to. What about our abundant metals? For starters, a lot of those have been used up. And, once again, there is plenty of iron in asteroids strewn about the cosmos. The resources theory holds no water. Maybe these aliens are just sadistic, then, looking to eliminate any other civilization in the galaxy. Possible. But what kind of threat do we really represent to them? Certainly not the kind these advanced creatures would worry about. Frankly, I don’t see a good reason for aliens to invade us. But then again, the 800 pound gorilla sits anywhere it wants to. Some scientists are befuddled as to how this invasion hasn’t already come to pass. If the oldest parts of the universe developed intelligent life, enough time has passed for aliens to have colonized most of it by now. Maybe it is too expensive? Or maybe we are just too stupid to even bother?
The most plausible of these “death by universe” scenarios is an asteroid impact. We know impacts have influenced life on Earth before. See: “Dinosaurs, the.” An asteroid of sufficient size striking the Earth would be disastrous. One needs only to look at the Tunguska incident and the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact on Jupiter to see the kind of damage that can result. Massive tsunamis, tectonic activity, hot ash, and enough debris to block out the Sun for decades would likely end civilization. Fortunately, we are the first species on Earth with the capability, if we tried really hard, of preventing this kind of disaster. Unfortunately, the amount of people on Earth currently researching the technology to repel a space rock wouldn’t be enough to staff a McDonald’s. Not good. On the not-so-bright side of things, there is a possible planet killer headed our way. On Friday the 13th (coincidence?) of April in 2029, the asteroid Apophis will pass Earth within the orbits of our satellites. That is a bit too close for comfort, but recent projections show that we will dodge this bullet. However, if Apophis’ orbit is adjusted in a certain — and possible — way by its first pass of Earth, it will come around again seven years later. We may not be so lucky then. Don’t plan any long-term vacations, folks.
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This next set of disasters, like Godzilla, is caused by humanity’s own hubris. We know what selfish, jerk-faced monkeys we all are. These just prove the point.
Probably the most likely disaster to occur in the next century or two will be the consequences of climate change. We can see the signs around us already. From shrinking ice sheets to shifting seasons to wacky weather, we can all attest to the beginnings of climate change. Things are getting scary, people. This fall I went to do my usual Columbus Day apple-picking session in the Hudson Valley. We went to the local orchard we always go to. (Greig Farm in Red Hook, NY. If everyone isn’t dead by next year, check it out) However, most of the trees were picked dry. We were told by the workers there that the best picking had been weeks earlier…in July. What? Who ever heard of picking apples in July? Granted, this is anecdotal evidence, but the real evidence is there. Hundreds of millions of people will have to up and move inland when the ocean levels rise. Cities along the Eastern seaboard will be underwater (Bad). Also most of the state of Florida (Not so bad). Look, we all know this is a problem, and until something is done, our carbon levels will continue to rise and so will our average temperatures. The science says that for every degree of increase in the planet’s average temperature, we will lose 10% of the yearly global wheat crop. Apparently, it’s going to be very hard to buy bread in the 22nd Century. Unfortunately, we could be too far gone to do anything to stop it now.
Hand-in-hand with climate change comes the issue of ecological collapse. Polar bears are losing more of their habitat every year. Soon, they will become extinct. “Eh,” you might say. But scientists are actually pretty worried about this. Not so much the polar bears, but the sheer number of species on the brink of extinction. As humans replace more and more of the world’s habitat with farmland and condos, the web of biodiversity becomes less complex and more susceptible to shocks. Once one part of the web collapses, the rest will follow suit. A blight of a certain crop could take out the whole population (remember that whole wheat thing?). The same could be true for animals. Just look at Colony Collapse Disorder in bees and White Nose Syndrome in bats. These are not known to be man made, but could screw us just the same. Knowing the role that bees and bats play in pollination, the world’s food supply could be in for a shock of epic proportions.
This one is pretty obvious. There are enough nuclear weapons in existence to kill everyone on Earth, many times over. We don’t have to be worried about dirty bombs or a rogue nuke killing everyone. The real worry is nations that possess nukes. As of right now, the U.S., Russia, France, Great Britain, China, India, Pakistan, (gulp) North Korea, and a few unconfirmed countries (I’m looking at you, Israel and South Africa) have them. But if there were a mistake by one of the nuclear armed nations, or even outright aggression, things could get ugly pretty quickly. Even if you are one of the lucky (or unlucky) ones not to be killed right away, the whole radiation and nuclear winter thing would be quite unpleasant for you.
According to Moore’s Law, computing power doubles roughly every 18 months. That would mean, in short order, we will create a computer with superhuman intelligence. Noted intellectual Ray Kurzweil has predicted this to occur around 2045. This would be quite the problem for humanity. We’ve all seen the movies. “Terminator”…“I, Robot” and about a million others. In all, a good question is raised. Once computers become more intelligent than us, what possible use do we serve? What use does an ant serve a human? As far as I can tell, we would just be in the way, though using us as batteries, “Matrix” style, would be highly ineffective. They are better off using nuclear energy or the Sun to power themselves. We could be useful as parts, however. Humans are made of materials that would be of great use to the machines. In fact, a theory has been put forth that self-replicating nanobots could use everything in the environment, even us, to replicate themselves, turning the Earth into a “grey goo.” Any way you slice it, we are of either no use, or no use we would like, to intelligent machines. Occupying a planet where we are not the dominant life-form is not exactly enviable. I, for one, applaud the machines on their imminent victory. Screw the humans. Who needs ’em? And I love my laptop. Love it. Please don’t kill me, metal overlords…
There have been a rash of antibiotic-resistant diseases in the last few years, MRSA being the most well-known. These seem to be caused by the widespread misuse and overuse of antibiotics. When someone is given an antibiotic for an infection, and he doesn’t finish the required dosage, the bacteria that have not been killed can become resistant. See, South, evolution is real! So, for those of you who toss your Z-Packs without finishing them because you feel better, this is all your fault. Medical experts are convinced it is only a matter of time before a massive pandemic hits. Most cite the Black Death or even the Spanish influenza of 1918. The former killed about one-third of the population and the latter killed roughly 50 million people. A pestilence of that magnitude today would likely wipe out more. Although medicine nowadays is better than it was in either of the previous examples, so is the possibility of communicability. Travel being the way it is now, the chances of catching a bug early and quarantining it are next to nil. The big fear is a bug that jumps across species, a la bird flu and swine flu. A flu that a human’s immune system is unaccustomed to battling is more dangerous. Unfortunately, there is most likely nothing we can do to prevent it until the inevitable outbreak, and by that time, it may be too late to save a lot of people. So, the next time you cough, seemingly innocently, try not to think anything of it.
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With these last two, I decided to put forth two oddball scenarios.
A number of years ago, Oxford professor Nick Bostrom postulated that our world could be an advanced computer simulation. Yes, think “The Matrix.” The only problem with disproving this is that every experiment would take place in the simulation, making it impossible to detect. Using the equation that Bostrom devised, there is a 99.9999966% chance we are living in a simulation. That is pretty freaky, but also irrelevant, since if we are living in a simulation, there is nothing we could do about it anyway. So, life goes on. Until…whoever is simulating us decides “game over.” And why not? To them, it would be like shutting off “Halo.” It’s just that Master Chief doesn’t expire into nothingness. We think. Wouldn’t it be crazy if “Halo” were a simulation inside a simulation? I think my brain just broke.
This one is a favorite of mine. While it is entirely fictional, it was devised by my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut, for his novel, Cat’s Cradle. If you have never read it, I suggest you do. Fantastic stuff. Anyway, Ice-Nine is a crystallized form of water that turns regular water into more Ice-Nine when it is exposed to it. Seeing as how Earth and all its creatures are essentially one big water system, all the water on Earth is quickly turned into ice capable of existing at room temperature. Anyone that ingests Ice-Nine is also killed. Without any water, everything dies in short order. Hey, compared to some of these other possibilities, it could be a cool way to go, in my opinion.
So, there you have it. Any of them is possible, I suppose, but I am rooting for simulation shutdown. Seems the least painful.
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Jerry Galante is a corporate cataloging librarian. He has a BA in History and a Master’s in Library Science and successfully fought the urge to use the word “eschatology” in this article.