December 8, 2012 – Megacatastrophies – Nine Weird Ways the World Could End: For many Canadians, Americans and Europeans, the threat of global warming might not seem that big a deal. Sorry about the polar bears, of course, but shorter winters? Manitobans and Muscovites probably feel they could cope.
In “Megacatastrophes!: Nine Strange Ways the World Could End,” David Darling and Dirk Schulze-Makuch offer a much more impressive list of lethal possibilities, which they score on a “Catastrophometer,” giving points for probability and potential loss of life. The top of the scale is 10: absolutely certain extinction of the entire species. Fortunately, none of the authors’ scenarios is quite that bad yet.
There are, however, a couple of 3’s, for “total extinction” but “not very likely.” One is a supernova. The really dangerous ones are massive stars that collapse into a black hole, emitting a burst of gamma rays that crams as much energy into a few seconds as the sun releases in billions of years. The good news is that this energy is confined to a tight beam. The bad news is that the binary star system Wolf-Rayet 104 might be pointing at us.
Pictured above, This HST image of SN 1987A shows the brightening ring of supernova debris. The closest supernova explosion seen in almost 400 years, it is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
As for the possibility of something awful being caused by the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, another threat that the authors note, there’s no point in worrying. If the LHC flips us into a “deeper energy minimum” or “true vacuum state,” as one or two physicists speculate could happen, we’ll all just wink out instantly.
It’s the 4’s and 5’s that hold immediate menace. The 4’s are natural events, such as an asteroid strike or supervolcano eruption. Both have happened in the past and are sure to happen again. Whatever the movies may show, there is currently nothing we could do about an asteroid hitting the Earth like a thousand H-bombs. As for volcanoes, Yellowstone is going to blow sometime. It gets an 8 on geologists’ Volcanic Exclusive Index (VEI), compared with the feeble 4 of the 2010 Icelandic eruption, which was enough to darken the skies and blot out summer. At least Yellowstone’s death toll would only be millions.
The 5’s are man-made. One involves nanotechnology getting out of hand. We might release tiny self-replicating gadgets to mop up an oil spill, say, but what if they take an interest in all carbon molecules instead? In no time much of the world would be “gray goo.” Meanwhile, experiments with brain-computer interfacing—”jacking in” to cyberspace, in sci-fi terms—are going well, and experience suggests that anyone with any pretensions to cool will go for it: Why type when you can think? But this assumes that the brain will control the computer, which is doubtful indeed.
Nevertheless, the real danger, say Messrs. Darling and Schulze-Makuch, is pandemics, a threat they rate at 7.5: sure to happen sometime, death toll in the hundreds of millions or even billions. There’s influenza. There’s drug-resistant plague. But what about infectious cancer? Let’s not say it couldn’t happen; transmissible cancer already afflicts some Australian rodents. “Megacatastrophes!” reminds us that the air of reassuring omnipotence that our leaders like to project is mere illusion. We’re always dancing on the edge of a volcano, in a universe not built to human scale. (Tom Shippey for the Wall Street Journal).
The Master of Disaster