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1
When you say apocalypse’,
you immediately conjure
visions of an end to the world
as we know it. It’s a part of
our culture, our media and
of course, it is in large part, a
product of both science fiction
AND fact. As in business,
one must be prepared: you
speculate to accumulate.
And so in science, the best
way to be prepared for such
eventualities is to speculate.
What are the ‘global killers’
Apocalypse
in 20 ways
going to be? How, if at all, can
we prepare for those? And
can we safely make some
assumptions about their
possibility, without in actual
fact inducing a premature
panic for their probability?
The danger is clear: don’t
speculate and get caught one
day, unaware! Speculate too
much and one risks inducing
the very panic that said
speculation is designed to
curtail.
But Fear Not!
The team at What is Universe
is here to help. Have some
FUN with us as we begin this
two part overview of scientific
apocalypses that might just be
the end of all things.
Welcome to
the end of the world...
2
We don’t exactly know what
happens to matter when falling
into a black hole though we
can be sure that only due to
the enormous gravitational
force our civilisation ends right
there. And so it is that Earth too
could be vulnerable. Whyever
not? We are, at our ‘core’ (!)
simply a part of
‘space’. A planet; a starry spec
‘out there’.
And if any other star can be
swallowed then it would be
both complacent and indeed
illogical to assume that the
A black hole
visiting and swallowing Earth
Earth is beyond such a fate.
Imagine CERN, the particle
accelerator, simulating the
origins of the Earth: the ‘big
bang’.
Well, it has been legitimately
speculated that a strong
gravitational force could
thereby be generated and in
turn, tear apart the very fabric
of the Earth’s stability. In short:
we could create our own
‘black hole’ and that would
swallow us up. Discovery has
a price and that price could be
an apocalypse!
The strong gravitational force
would tear apart the planet for
sure, so even without knowing
what happens to matter
beyond the Event Horizon of
the black hole, we can be sure
that’s the end of our world as
we know it.
1
3
A gamma ray burst occurs
when a massive star dies
and collapses, causing a
huge explosion known as a
supernova.
The remnant of this supernova
is often a neutron star, quark
star or black hole.
During the supernova a narrow
beam of intense radiation
known as a gamma-ray burst
is sometimes released from
either pole of the star.
A gamma-ray burst is incredibly
powerful, typically releasing
more energy in seconds than
Gamma ray burst
reaching Earth
the sun will in its 10 billion-year
lifetime.
A planet caught in one of
these bursts would lose its
atmosphere instantly and
would be left a burnt cinder,
astronomers say.
In the realm of science fiction,
gamma rays are our friends
rather than foes. Note that the
heroic and altruistic Dr. Bruce
Banner researches the things
for the benefit of mankind;
his expertise on the subject
helping to perfect a super-
soldier serum and repel an
alien invasion. Unfortunately,
it also turns him into a giant
raging monster known as the
HULK. But just think of the
fun we all have in watching
‘HULK SMASH!’. Empirical,
scientific proofs are available,
Marvel comic books, tv series,
cartoon shows and of course
the recent Avengers Assemble
and forthcoming Age of Ultron.
2
4
Ok. This was ALWAYS going to
be a long shot. But it IS possible.
Not probable, granted. But
possible. You cannot rule it out.
Consider this: SOMEWHERE
in our dense universe, there is
at least one planet CAPABLE
of sustaining life in a similar
capacity to that of Earth.
Who is to say that the spark
did not ignite? We may indeed
have alien counterparts.
Granted, they may have
chosen NOT to contact us!
Perhaps they took one look
at the Earth’s aesthetic from
space: pollution; ozone layer;
oceans expanding and ice
caps melting and thought ‘sod
this: back to our leader!’. IE if we
seem primitive and destructive
to a SUPERIOR species, then
WHY would they even venture
into OUR territory? Would
YOU settle in an uninhabitable
Alien invasion
home? No. Neither would
aliens.
The logical alternative is that
the alien life forms in question
are LESS advanced than we.
Therefore, they would have
neither means nor inclination
to contact the Earth. This
is a prominent concern in
science fiction: note that Star
Trek often speaks of ‘‘pre
industrial civilisations’, rather
than having EVERY star and
system populated by God
like beings (Q /Khan et al are
not always the focus; note
Star Trek Generations and
Insurrection both feature
primitive communities).
That said, we just don’t know
yet. The sheer mathematics that
divide us in light years could
prevent a communication
of any meaningful nature to
intercept or prevent the dark
day of an alien war. Indeed,
the way the makers of the
inevitable Independence
Day sequel (20 years after the
original was a box office hit)
explained the delay in those
terms: ‘twenty years could be
five minutes to an alien race’
(relativity, basically).
If these are indeed hostile
aliens, what is the greatest
weapon in warfare? SURPRISE!
So don’t rule out an attack
one day, as you go about
your daily business..( cf: War
of the Worlds) or even just an
outbreak of a virus carried by
one of OUR space explorers
(remember, readers: a ‘virus’ IS
an intelligent life form..and they
do exist in space). ‘In space,
no-one can hear you cough’ .
3
5
Don’t let the title scare you
away. Let us explain..
‘The Standard Model’, that is
our best model of the universe
so far, says that the vacuum
is not devoid of matter.
Instead, it teems with particles
and antiparticles that pop
into existence and run into
one another and annihilate
themselves. This quantum
mechanic process violates no
laws of physics, provided the
particles don’t live longer than
a fleeting instant.
The Standard Model also
says that for the vacuum of
empty space to be stable, we
should be living at a minimum
of potential energy. It is like
living at the bottom of a valley
Vacuum instability
bordered by hills! And the
value of the Higgs potential
would be lowest point of the
valley.
BUT our Universe might
end if our valley really is not
the lowest one around. The
shape of the Higgs potential
is determined precisely by the
Higgs mass. The observed 126
GeV mass seems to imply the
universe does not exist in the
lowest possible energy state.
It is sort of like being in a valley
whose floor is higher than that
of an adjoining valley. If we did
not know that a deep valley
was on the other side of the
hill, we would think we were at
the lowest level we could be. If
we somehow managed to get
to the other side, however, we
could fall much lower.
This situation would normally
not pose a problem, as we
could not travel between
valleys, except in quantum
mechanics, which allows
particles to tunnel through hills
unpredictably. As a result, in
the future our Universe could
spontaneously and randomly
tunnel through to the
deeper one, with potentially
catastrophic consequences.
4
6
Our day begins and ends with
the rise and fall of the Sun.
Should the lifespan of the
Earth itself be any different? IE:
one terrible day..the Sun rises..
and rises..and rises. Until it
explodes. ‘Sundown’ acquires
an horrific and destructive
yet awesomely powerful
connotation. The death of the
Sun would mean the death of
the Earth. And, like it or not, the
sun’s death is inevitable! It is in
effect a ticking time-bomb of
energy from which its heat is
transmitted to us.
Our Sun comes to the end
of its life cycle
But at least we won’t be alone
in the wake. The Sun’s death
would also take out most of
the solar system. Unlikely as
it is for the Sun to turn into a
supernova soon, when it does
reach ‘Red Giant’ phase, it will
swallow the Earth. Think of
the rest of the solar system as
the sweet that follows Earth as
the main course. At least we
go down as the centre of the
Universe in some sense?
If you’d like to simulate the
Sun-death scenario, we
recommend Danny Boyle’s
excellent film, Sunshine.
5
7
Ever had one of those days
where nothing works? Your
Broadband is slow. Your
mobile phone signal is non
existent. Just imagine that,
multiplied by infinity and you’re
not even close to the very real,
very possible nightmare that
is the solar superstorm! When
it comes (and it will), it brings
down all our electric networks
and power grids. The result?
We get catapulted back to the
Solar superstorm
middle age. Good luck with
that! The solar flares are not
just an explosion on the Suns
surface, they actually push
waves of light out in all possible
spectra - including X-Rays,
Gamma Rays and all that
“good” radiation that is deadly
to our human species. But
Solar storms also cause pretty
colorful auroras in the sky, so
at least we will have something
to watch while the electronic
devices of our civilisation are
being wiped out.
6
8
If String Theory and one of
its successors M-Theory
stand, then our Universe
began with two so called
cosmic membranes colliding.
If our brane, that contains
our Universe as we know it,
collides with another one
and a new Universe starts to
emerge our current Universe
may be discontinued.
IE: multiple universes could
be co-existing at this point.
M-Theory
But, to quote the tagline for
the Highlander films, ‘there
can only be one’. A scientific
equivalent of corporate merger
or acquisition in dimensions
would have to happen at some
point.
The smaller of the two
dimensions must fold into
its larger counterpart. And,
since we are at this point only
speculating as to how many
additional dimensions are ‘out
there’, you can make a fairly
safe bet that if one dimension
has to ‘give’, then it’ll be ours.
You have been warned!
7
9
It is very likely that an asteroid
wiped out the dinosaurs that
ruled our planet for 100 million
years. There was the impact
of the asteroid itself (akin to
a thousand nukes hitting the
earth all over) and its explosive
destruction.
And there was the frozen
legacy: an ice age, wiping
out the ecosystems and
sustainability that enables
Asteroid impact
survival at any level. So, even
if one were to survive an
asteroid’s impact with the Earth
in the future, you WILL go ‘the
way of the dinosaur’ in its wake.
For a dramatic dress rehearsal
(with some sound physics,
save the inevitable stretches)
see the films Armageddon and
Deep Impact ( both 1998).
Equally, you can read up on
current research in the area. A
good example would be at the
Dublin Institute for Advanced
Studies and associated
Observatory at Dunsink. One
of our editors has visited both
and met the experts, as his
Grandfather (the late Col. John
P. Duggan) was Registrar at
the Institute. Yes, that’s right:
Ireland is THE place to prepare
for a meteor attack! They have
beer and whiskey!
8
10
We are not a political magazine.
But it has to be broached:
mankind’s decisions in
global security or apparent
lack thereof could wipe us
out. ALL of us. One nuclear
attack taken precipitously
that initiates reprisals; one
biological experiment gone
wrong either in defence from
or offence against an enemy.
One determined maniac with a
‘dirty bomb’.
Mass destruction
True, the world might not
‘explode’ in just one fell swoop.
But civilisation can fall like
dominos: one catastrophe
feeding a chain of successors
that simply expands and
explodes until we have
destroyed ourselves.
Science can be the agent of
that chaos. Or it can engender
the very brand of enlightened
thought and moral
communication that breaks
down boundaries, crosses
borders and thereby prevents
any such doomsday scenario.
Don’t ‘become death’ or a
‘destroyer of worlds’.
9
11
We are right to be brave in our
experimental leaps. But we
must also be cautious.
CERN is designed to explore
the arth’s beginnings with
its Big Bang simulation.
But it could also cause our
end, should it ignite a black
hole enveloping the Earth.
Nanotechnologies are
designed to locate and enable
genetic and other resolutions
Experimental technology
accident
to attacks on the human body.
But just as chemotherapy
destroys cancer yet also,
tragically, takes ‘good’ cells
in its wake, then so could the
nanotechnolog, if unchecked,
go on a rampage..across
the very nerve centres of the
human body.
There are countless other
examples out there: scientific
innovations that have a dark
side, waiting to turn objective
progress into some 1950s B
category Movie nightmare. To
paraphrase Dr Ian Malcolm (the
‘chaotician’ hero of Michael
Crichton’s Jurassic Park novels,
about cloned Dinosaurs going
on the rampage thanks to
a corporation’s ill advised
genetic engineering): the
fact that we could achieve
something does not mean that
we should!
10
Come back next time for our next ten world destroying events. Unless of course something from this list
has already happened by then? In which case, you have our sympathies. But we did warn you and did
our best to prepare you, too.
STAY VIGILANT. But DON’T PANIC. Be CALM AND THINK ABOUT SCIENCE!
STAY TUNED FOR PART II
@whatisuniverse.com

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12.11.2014by James Muprhy, Robert Sugar, Velitchko Filipov

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