Sure hope this “gadget” doesn’t ignite the atmosphere!
Trinity Atomic Bomb Test, July 16, 1945:
An idea was floated among the Manhattan Project physicists that a nuclear reaction could ignite the atmosphere. Fortunately, other scientists on the team were clever enough to argue that a fission reaction (like those used at Trinity, and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) could never create a fusion reaction in the atmosphere, and so there was no need to worry about a world-ending catastrophe.
Assessment: The “disproved” fusion reaction went on to serve as the basis of second generation “thermonuclear” weapons (a.k.a. the
hydrogen bomb) after a successful U.S. demonstration of a 10.4 megaton test weapon in 1952. But they were correct that the composition of Earth’s atmosphere cannot sustain a fusion reaction triggered by an atomic bomb.
Y2K (Year 2000 Computer Bug), January 1, 2000:
Due to thrifty machine coding from earlier decades, many computers stored year data as a two-numeral code, for example “99″ to represent “1999.” The fear was that computers running everything from banks to power stations would suddenly think it was the year 1900 instead of 2000 after midnight December 31, 1999, throwing off all time-based calculations and schedules, and plunging the industrialized world into chaos.
Assessment: Many highly computer-dependent countries invested in backup systems and upgrades designed to avert disaster. In the end, errors and disruptions were extremely minor–even in places that were not well prepared.
Large Hadron Collider, September 10, 2008:
Some scientists had considered the possibility that particles racing around at near the speed of light at the unprecedented energy of several TeVs (tera electron volts) may create tiny black holes that, if sustained, could swallow up the Earth and its neighbors.
Assessment: Though several lawsuits were filed to halt the LHC startup for fear of global annihilation, LHC physicists assured the world that because so little energy is involved, any tiny black holes that could form would disappear in an infinitesimally small amount of time, posing no danger. If this phenomenon could happen, they argue, it would be occurring from cosmic rays colliding with our atmosphere (with no world-swallowing results) all the time. The LHC was turned on on Wednesday, and so far, so good.
Modern inoculations and coordinated rapid responses try to minimize potential disease outbreaks.
The Black Plague outbreaks of the Middle Ages killed one third of the population of Europe. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed 50 million people. With drug-resistant tuberculosis and staph infections, and high-mortality, communicable diseases like ebola virus and bird flu popping up, some people fear it’s only a matter of time before a globe-spanning deadly superbug wipes out billions of people.
Assessment: With no germ theory and poor healthcare, Europe still managed to survive many waves of the Plague. And the Spanish Flu, while devastating, left at least 95% of the world alive to sally forth. However, the exponential rise of travel and mobility in the past 100 years makes local diseases like SARS into global threats virtually overnight. The UN, WHO, and many governments around the world all take this threat extremely seriously.
Every day the Earth gets pelted with meteorites, and once every few million years, we get a big one. An asteroid the size of the dinosaur-extinguishing one that landed in the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago would probably have a similar effect on us mammals today. Local impact devastation, fires, earthquakes, volcanoes, then darkening of the skies with debris could drastically diminish plant growth and lead to starvation and a serious case of seasonal affective disorder.
Assessment: NASA runs a Near Earth Object Project working with other countries to catalogue and track all near-Earth asteroids greater than 1 km in diameter in our neighborhood. There are a handful of close approaches that would fit into the “PAST” section. Still, with NEOs, it’s not a matter of if, but when something big will impact the planet, so scientists are working on several strategies to deflect or otherwise render harmless something headed our way.
World War II left in its wake two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Over the course of several decades, these two countries accumulated more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy every major population center on Earth, and on more than one occasion during the Cold War, came close to direct conflict.
Assessment: After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, tensions gradually eased between the superpowers. The world still maintains a nuclear arsenal (most of which is in the U.S. an Russia) that could be unleashed with the press of a few buttons. Despite the relative peace between the U.S. and other nuclear powers, and a reluctance to use nuclear weapons, this is still the “easiest” and quickest way we have to end humanity.
Watching huge ice shelves calve off the Antarctic continent drives home the reality that global temperatures are now rising at more than 1ºC per century. While that makes for more pleasant weather in Canada, it is already changing animal migration patterns, distribution of rainfall, and some say frequency and severity of hurricanes. Other possibilities are swamping of coastal cities, shutting down global ocean circulation, and massive change and destruction of plant and animal habitats. The doomsday trifecta of famine, epidemics, and loss of habitable land spells disaster. Inevitable wars over remaining resources only add to the damage.
In 1992, a chunk of Antarctica the size of Rhode Island called the Larson B ice shelf broke off and disintegrated, signaling that global warming was happening faster than predicted.
Assessment: Since the industrial revolution, fossil fuel combustion and other human activities have produced unprecedented CO2 and other greenhouse gases emissions, which are thought to be a major contributor to global warming. Countries are slowly coming around to curbing production of greenhouse gases, but the tide is high. Currently, alternative energy infrastructure and emission reductions are progressing too slowly to keep pace with increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Here comes the Sun. Time to put on
While you won’t be around to see it, about 5 billion years from now our sun will expand into a red giant and boil off all the world’s oceans. Talk about global warming!
Assessment: Inevitable, but a long way off. Let’s hope we’ve colonized some other solar systems by then.
Orson Wells’ 1938 broadcast of the “War of the Worlds” radio play caused mass hysteria when people thought there was an actual alien invasion. While there’s always the possibility of cute, friendly
aliens like E.T., many of our stories depict aliens visiting Earth for conquest, human experimentation, or to rob our natural resources.
Artist’s rendering of an alien as described by people who claim they were abducted.
Assessment: Some scientists estimate that there could be countless other intelligent civilizations in the universe. However, we have no direct evidence of that, and if they’re so intelligent, why haven’t they come already? And since distances in space are unfathomably large, they would have to use space travel technology far beyond anything we’ve come up with to stop by for some Reese’s Pieces…or a global invasion.
Robots today are dumb, but good at welding joints in cars and vacuuming. In the future, they may be smart enough to autonomously fly search and destroy missions, administer health services, and coordinate movement of all the cars on the highway. They may also reach a point where they will be able to improve their own design and self-replicate, become self-aware, and then decide that they would be better off without us.
Assessment: Scientists argue about whether sentience, self-awareness, and Machiavellian self-preservation could spontaneously appear in a machine intelligence. But if it’s achievable, and computers are entrusted to autonomously manage our infrastructure, it could certainly be a risk.Share Post: | Stumble | Share on Facebook | Tweet This |