Archives For doomsday

end of the world

Well ladies and germs, it’s now Saturday, December 22nd and we’re all still here just as science told us we would be. This means three things. First, New Age devotees cannot follow the Mayan calendar since they would’ve known that this winter solstice was supposed to be a big New Year type event, not a bringer world-ending cataclysm. Second, it means that Weird Things and all of its readers have now successfully lived through their second projected apocalypse. And third, it means I’m now married. Yes, you read that right, there’s now a Mrs. Fish. Let’s just get married when the world ends she said, you’ll be married for like what, 15 hours? We can figure out what to do if the world is still there the next day when that happens, she said. That’s how they get you guys. They cozy up to you about the end of the world.

But in all seriousness, I’ll be taking some time off from posting on the semi-regular basis I just so happened to sink into and will return closer to the end of the year. And just in case you started wondering, we’re both skeptics but we sure had fun playing with the doomsday theme, watching enough Doomsday Preppers episodes to start wondering if we should prep to escape from the preppers should a real disaster strike, and jotting down a myriad of ideas for decor and subtle touches referring to the end of the world as we know it. And zombies. Hey, you can’t have a real apocalypse without some zombies nowadays, now can you? So I’ll catch you all towards the end of next week. Have fun and stay safe this holiday season. Should be easy without a doomsday looming over your heads, right?

[ illustration by Damien Malinvaud ]

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When it comes to the current doomsday craze of 2012, the latest in a long history of apocalyptic predictions, we’re been hit with just about ever scenario for how the world should end. There are solar flares, alignments of celestial objects that suddenly turn deadly, rampaging planets, rogue brown dwarfs knocking us into our parent star, tectonic upheavals, and if all else fails, some bizarre manifestation of New Age Consciousness that will change the world as we know it. And now, add to that an alien invasion as highlighted by one of the many ufologists at that sprawling network of localized online tabloids called the Examiner. We’ve gotten more than our fair of gems from the Examiner’s staff of conspiracy theorists before, including another warning of a looming invasion from the dark side of the Moon, and promises that the government would reveal its long, secretive history of working with alien creatures, but whereas the past ufological tall tales just pounded on the conspiracy drum, this contribution to web-based nonsense manages to work in the 2012 angle. I’ll give it points for creativity, but that’s about the extent of anything positive I have to say about this slice of inanity.

Now, of course, there’s no law of physics that would prevent a space faring alien species from building a few huge interstellar spaceships and making their way to Earth either by design or by chance. However, since we were given the coordinates of the supposed trio of alien ships, we know that if this really is the invading army of extraterrestrial marauders that will exterminate humanity, they’re the slowest alien armada ever assembled and sent to another world. After running the relevant numbers, the Bad Astronomer tells us that to really be a fleet of spacecraft, these objects would’ve been about 100,000 kilometers away in the mid-1990s when they were captured on film for the NASA image archive. To arrive on December 21, 2012 as per the article, our new alien overlords have to be moving at just over 0.67 km per hour, also known as the blazing pace of a lethargic snail on sodium pentothal. Since they’re only 11,764 kilometers away, you could spot them yourself using just about any telescope. Or not, since the mysterious spacecraft only showed up on one filter plate and vanished on the others. That’s right. We got an oblong, mysterious shape on a blue filter, but the red and infrared plates applied to the same patch of sky yield absolutely nothing at all. Must be their cloaking devices at work. Or just some lint and dust on a plate that wasn’t caught when the image was being uploaded to the repository.

So I guess we’re either facing a small fleet of invisible alien warships struggling to cover just a little less than a quarter of the average American’s daily commute to work in the same time span while our satellites whiz by at 27,400 km per hour in low Earth orbit below and 11,068 km per hour in geosynchronous orbit overhead, or the Examiner gave column space to an astoundingly ignorant twit who quotes a fictional SETI astrophysicist who no one at SETI knows, and who doesn’t seem to exist at any university or publish any papers, for proof of an impending alien invasion. You know what? I’m going to go with the latter since I really don’t think it’s even a remote possibility that an object could be traveling at 670 meters per hour in medium Earth orbit. Our planet’s gravity should be pulling it down at thousands of miles an hour, even if it’s just a rock. And this really isn’t the only thing that Andrew Wozny, Examiner’s ufology "expert" who brought us this 2012 alien invasion story, has been peddling. In the usual half-hushed hints and JAQ-ing around favored by so many fans of dark alien and New World Order conspiracies, he also talks about Phobos being an abandoned alien spacecraft carrying some sort of mysterious monolith made by another civilization, with undated and out-of-context clip of Buzz Aldrin on a news show talking about an odd image of Phobos as his key source. Do I even need to explain all the problems with using fuzzy, raw images and selective clips from news shows as proof of anything? Then again, that’s usually all the conspiracy theorists tend to have…

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One of the truisms we’ve taken for granted since the height of the Cold War was that if all the nuclear weapons in the world were detonated at once, civilization would collapse. How could it not? The energy these warheads produce can wipe out an average city in less than a minute and there are thousands of them laying around the world at any given time, with just over 90% of the planet’s nuclear arsenal located in the U.S. and Russia. But I recently stumbled across an interesting proposition from visual journalist David McCandless, who decided to crunch the numbers and found that the worlds’ nuclear arsenal is less than 1% of what’s required to reduce every populated area in the world to radioactive rubble. Pretty assuring finding, isn’t it? Unfortunately, there are a few very serious issues with the assumptions McCandless made in his visualization, issues that could very easily bring back the notion of a nuclear apocalypse caused by generals with awfully itchy trigger fingers.

Before we dive into the technical details, let’s review how the finding in question was reached. We identify the surface area of the world populated by humans and the destructive radius of the biggest and most powerful nuclear weapons in our stockpiles. Then, we divide the former by the latter and compare the number to all the nuclear weapons officially accounted for or estimated and find that it’s just 0.83% of the result. But there’s a bit of a problem with taking the 20 megaton warheads as a standard nuke. In reality, the average nuclear bomb is far less powerful and is probably closer to about 1 megaton* in yield. That might seem like good news at first, but we need to consider the area affected not just by the blast itself, but by the lethal radioactive fallout, up to a staggering 90 miles away over a seven day period. The gives us a total affected area of some 65,869 km², a lot more than the 14.9 km² used by McCandless. Divide the total inhabited area by the lethal reach of a fallout plume and you end up just shy of 283 bombs. Granted, we’re using an area more than 4,390 times larger for our result, but considering how much damage nuclear warheads cause with their fallout, we have to account for the total affected area, not just the zone of immediate destruction from the blast’s hypocenter.

So when we take radiation into account, it seems that the given total of 10,225 bombs is about 36 times more than we will ever need to destroy or poison every square centimeter of inhabited land on Earth. Even the least affected territory in this scenario would send Geiger counters to 900 rem, more than enough to trigger a slow and very painful death about two weeks after exposure. Without very quick and very intensive medical care, an emergency bone marrow transplant, and extensive work on repairing the severe damage to intestinal tissues, the poisoned person doesn’t even have a glimmer of a chance of surviving past 14 days after exposure. Areas closer to the blast would almost instantly deliver a far more than lethal dose of radiation to survivors. Only the toughest bacteria and insects would survive past a few months in these conditions. But of course, since there are over 10,000 warheads, a simultaneous firing of even 30% would be enough to wipe out almost every city with a population exceeding 500,000 people so any sort of medical care or surviving infrastructure is totally out of the question and even those who survive the blast and beat the fallout to currently uninhabited land would have little in the way of help. Hospitals aren’t usually built in the wilderness.

Far from being just a simple truism born of fear, the notion of a nuclear apocalypse that could destroy modern civilization and even trigger a mass extinction in its wake due to radioactive fallout, is probably a very accurate description of what would happen should a full scale global nuclear war break out. While there would be quite a few survivors, they would have virtually no infrastructure to power their homes, deliver water to farms, or fuel their cars, and the electromagnetic pulses generated by the blasts would take out virtually all communication networks. Cut off from the world at large and the basic services we consider the hallmarks of modern society, they would be living in a radioactive world with few supplies, an uncertain future and almost feral rules. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not a good idea to stop worrying and learn to love the bomb…

update 04.20.2010: It’s been brought to my attention that an average nuclear yield of 1 megaton was probably too high and a more accurate figure would be closer to 350 kilotons. The fallout cloud from that blast could be lethal over an area of roughly 5,000 km² and considering this adjustment, the total number of warheads we’d need for the scenario detailed in the post is 3,724, about a third of the total nuclear stockpile. So we could say that it would take only 283 megaton warheads and 3,724 average nukes to end civilization as we know it.

[ illustration by Ryan Kelly for Wired Magazine ]

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Think you’ve seen devastation, destruction and disaster on a global scale? Well, hold on, there’s more from a show on National Geographic concerned chiefly with showing how horrible things could be when the world as we know it ends. While the past editions which explored a world without humans and what would happen if petroleum dried up without an alternative fuel to replace it had an interesting ring of plausibility to them, the latest episode was just an exercise in disaster porn. While humans might not be around forever and we may find ourselves facing epic fuel shortages in the future, there is no way our planet would stop spinning around its axis without an apocalyptic impact preceding this sudden halt. Nevertheless, the producers at NatGeo are very happy to show you how slowly but surely, humans would virtually vanish in a stationary alien world…

Here are a few numbers to consider. Our planet weighs 5.97 × 1024 kg and generates 2.57 × 1029 J of kinetic energy as it rotates around its axis, the equivalent of well over a trillion of the most powerful nuclear warheads ever detonated going off at once. The amount of force required to stop Earth from spinning, even over a period of five years, would require nothing less than an impact from a planet sized object at just the right angle. But of course if that were to actually happen, our immediate concern wouldn’t be to come up with a plan to cope with the effects of a planet that will no longer spin around its axis. No, the human species would go extinct in just a few hours. Much of the population would die from the geological upheaval as the planet would be warped and kneaded by the approaching planet-sized object, and whoever managed to survive would be killed by the heat and the shockwaves from the actual impact. Considering that the last time such collisions were common was about 4.5 billion years ago, something like this happening anytime in the future are incredibly, astronomically remote. To sum it up, Aftermath’s newest premise is wildly implausible, making it very hard to take the show’s dramatic portrayals of economic, social, geological and biological upheaval seriously.

That’s probably the biggest problem with where this show decided to head. It sounds like an infomercial that offers you more and more doom, carnage and tragedy at every commercial break, almost like a 2012 special and just as scientifically invalid. In previous episodes, the goal was to educate and provoke viewers to think in very global and very existential terms. Now, the goal seems to be to show a short doomsday flick but without a real cast of characters, storylines, or actual interpersonal drama we’d expect. And at certain points, several big problems in their hypothetical, slowing world are exaggerated beyond reasonable bounds. Stock markets go under and electrical grids are described as all but shut down with no explanation. For some reason, experts are completely unable to adjust GPS satellites to the longer days, and the atmosphere is pictured as sloshing around the Earth and becoming lethally thin at higher altitudes after supposedly leaking off from the planet’s equator. But as you’re watching all this hypothetical chaos unfold, you find yourself yawning and wondering if the producers will just decide to crash the Moon into Eurasia next, just to add to their ever-growing laundry lists of gloom and doom. Maybe next time, we’ll be treated to a slightly more plausible scenario…

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Maybe it’s just me, but does it seem like a whole lot of people seem to have a death wish of some sort? Over the last several thousand years, they’ve been waiting for the world to end in horrible ways and every time that we happen to survive, they just edge the date of doomsday forward whether it’s the good, old apocalypse of the Book of Revelations, a panicked conspiracy theory about bio-weapons or a one world government, or in today’s popular New Age doctrines, the 2012 doomsday prophecy. Why they want the world to end is beyond me since last I checked, being alive is usually not a bad thing. But regardless of the facts, the klaxons of our doomsday scenarios have infested the web and pop culture with tales of terror and woe about to befall us.

cataclysm

Now here’s the funny thing about the rumors of our imminent demise. Whatever plague you pick, chances are that we’ve already dealt with it and came out very much alive. Horrible diseases that have the potential to wipe out the human population? How about the Black Plague and the Spanish Flu? Both were devastating, one to humans in Dark Age and Medieval societies for over a millennium and the other caused a pretty comparable number of deaths in an age with sanitation, quarantines and a solid grasp of germ theory. And yet, we and the rest of the world are still here. Volcanic nightmares? How about the Toba event some 73,000 years ago which is thought to have reduced human populations to a mere 10,000 individuals? That was pretty scary and we’ve been able to survive with nothing more than our brains and stone tools. And this is not to mention all the huge natural disasters and Ice Ages we’ve had to live with.

When we take into account the fact that we’ve been putting up with some of the worst nature can dish out over very long periods of time and not just surviving but thriving, all those doomsday prophecies seem to be a lot less impressive. Even less impressive is the long history of doomsayers constantly setting dates for the end of the world or the human species, their predicted doomsday never coming true and another date set with the same exact underwhelming result. So after unsuccessfully predicting our demise for century after century, do we really think there’s anything more to this prophecy thing than random guessing? From reading holy texts or occult manuals, to harebrained algorithms and computer numerology that assigns arbitrary statistical values to internet activity, it’s all just reading the tea leaves in the grand scale of things. Whoever tries to pick patterns out of the noise might end up with little more than slightly refined noise which yields absolutely nothing of real substance. And the same principle applies to the 2012 craze.

First off, it’s based on the end of the Mayan calendar which, according to the Mayans themselves, just means that someone has to start another set of calendar cycles. Basically, 2012 marks an anniversary of creation according to Mayan mythology and temple ruins have inscriptions with mention of the year 4772 according to the Georgian calendar we use today. Pardon the obvious question but why would Mayans be making plans for a few millennia after the end of the world? It’s sort of like making dinner plans after being warned that you’ll get hit by a runaway truck on the highway on your way to work that morning. And let’s not forget that all the terrifying predictions about magnetic pole reversals, celestial alignments or tectonic and volcanic activity, simply take a set of natural cycles and paint them as something bizarre and sinister. We’ll always have quakes, volcanism, and our planet will always be aligned with something. There’s nothing dangerous or spectacular about that in the very least. And as for rampaging brown dwarfs in our solar system? I seriously suggest a middle school astronomy class to those who seriously advocate this notion for the reasons outlined in the link.

To be fair, there is one threat that 2012 doomsayers may be right about and that’s massive solar flares hitting the Earth. Still, we should note that massive solar flares won’t necessarily happen in 2012, nor are they strictly a phenomenon related to any calendar or prophecy. They’re a constant menace from the Sun and without any serious measures to minimize the damage they could cause, we could be looking at a world without modern power grids or communication. A truly monstrous solar flare would overwhelm our magnetosphere and cut off radio signals while it fries the sprawling systems of power lines that fuel the industrial world. The result? No internet, no power, no heat, no air conditioning, no cell phones and vast swaths of damaged infrastructure to rebuild over a span of several years. And just because it won’t happen in 2012, doesn’t mean that we’re in the clear. A huge flare could hit the Earth with only a few days warning in 2025 or 2030. It’s just one of the dangers nature could throw at us and for which we can prepare by recognizing the danger, doing more solar research, and acting to reduce the potential damage a flare could do.

[ matte painting by CG artist Tobias Roetsch ]

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Yesterday, a Wired article tried to give readers a glimpse into a potentially terrifying Cold War relic created by the Soviet military in top secrecy and rarely mentioned to this day. It’s a system which seems to come out of an apocalyptic science fiction story and it has the theoretical potential to be a doomsday device, though if it’s still truly active and functioning could very well be debatable. This complex military network is called Perimeter, but it’s aficionados like to call it by the nefarious moniker Мертвая Рука, or the Dead Hand. Why? Because it’s an ingenious system of computers, sensors and missile silos designed to deliver a full blown nuclear retaliation if an enemy ICBM manages to destroy or incapacitate central command. It would be like the hand of the dead generals pushing the launch button in a final act of vengeance as expected by the infamous M.A.D. doctrine.

hand of death

Oddly enough, for such a seemingly important system, Perimeter is rarely mentioned, although it does show up in Russian language sources. Earlier this month, it got a rather ominous write-up in the Russian version of Popular Mechanics under the title “Weapon of Revenge.” The article proclaimed it as the only system of its kind and presented it as a sort of controllable Skynet from the Terminator movies, seeking revenge on behalf of its fallen masters. A number of commenters were highly skeptical and rightfully so. What kind of super top secret project gets detailed write-ups in the media and has its own, detailed Wikipedia page? Then again, all we really have in the way of evidence are confessions of a few former Soviet officers and random blog posts from people who say they’ve either worked with the system or saw its specifications. Officials don’t talk about Perimeter and there’s no confirmation that it was ever really completed or tested, much less activated. And if it really is an active, classified project, there’s no reason to confirm or deny any details.

From a technical standpoint, it seems relatively easy to build and as the Wired article points out, there was the very real incentive for assembling the system as the United States took a harder and harder line, trying to push the limits of M.A.D. as far as it could without actually starting a nuclear war. However, creating a hair trigger for a doomsday device is rather dangerous and according to some of the reports, Perimeter had so many checks and balances that it might never actually be used. At every level, the decision comes down to a human and in the absence of an absolutely certain way to be sure that this apocalyptic device should actually be fired, there are far too many reasons not to press the button, pull the switch, enter the code or whatever sets the system off. Additionally, the system would require an awful lot of money to update, maintain, repair and keep primed and ready, maybe too much money against an now non-existent enemy. It could be that just the rumors of the device possibly existing and still being looked after, would be enough to act as a deterrent by themselves…

[ illustration by Ryan Kelly for Wired Magazine ]

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Imagine a habitable planet with vast blue oceans and tens of thousands of square miles of vegetation which helps support an entire biosphere of complex life. Floating in its orbit is a giant spaceship built by a creative and intelligent species to explore nearby stars, and designed to travel faster than light with the use of a warp drive. As the ship’s crew fires the main engines, one question they should probably ask themselves is if their planet will be there if and when they get back. They might be accidentally turning on a very effective doomsday device which will either completely obliterate their world or knock it out of its stable, life-supporting orbit.

distant planet

In a previous post about warp drive technology, we found out that the power output required to warp space and time into an asymmetric bubble, roughly equals the mass of Jupiter converted into raw energy. That’s like turning our world into heat, light and radiation some 318 times over. While physicists focus on what happens inside the warp bubble and how stable it would be, one question that doesn’t seem to appear very often in an astrophysical paper is what happens to the bubble’s surroundings when all that energy is released. Could it generate a powerful shockwave that would wreak havoc on a planetary scale? Would it send a wake through the very fabric of space and time, knocking planets out of orbit?

The closest thing we have to witnessing the effects of serious warping of space and time is black holes. They form after the core of a very heavy star collapses so quickly, it overcomes the degeneracy pressure of a heavy supernova remnant and distort the surrounding space-time plane. The black hole’s birth also creates a huge blast of gamma rays and generates powerful shockwaves as the energy of the collapse pushes some of the surrounding matter out. Of course warp drives aren’t going to be anywhere as powerful as that, but they would be putting out enough energy to harm multiple planets. Not only that, but they would have to release all of this energy quickly so it doesn’t simply dissipate before it can bend space. And what would happen if a warp drive misfires and essentially blows up with incredible force in all directions?

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space fleet

Objectively speaking the world is a dangerous and violent place. Terrorism, genocide, wars, nuclear warheads on constant standby, dictatorships and corruption all leave us longing for someone or something to step up to the challenge, wave a magic wand and fix this mess. It’s no wonder that doomsday cults are always in season and Left Behind books are embraced as a Biblical appendix by Evangelical Christians convinced they’re living in the end times. But what if you can’t believe in the Apocalypse of John or just plain don’t like the tribulation and bloodshed it would take for the world to be reborn?

Never fear, there’s an alternative to how everything will get better. Our magical peacemaker will come from another planet. Though according to ufologists, he got here in 1947, crash landing in Roswell, New Mexico. His arrival was soon after the Trinity test, Hiroshima and Nagasaki so is it a coincidence that he landed near the home of the world’s first nuclear bombing squadron? Actually, yes it is.

If you listen to a number of ufologists, the reason why flying saucers appeared over our skies soon after WW2 was because weve opened a major can of worms. We learned how to split the atom and very quickly after that, how to combine them for even more oomph. We have become Death, the Destroyers of Worlds and weve been trying to figure out what to do with this power ever since. Foreseeing our dilemma after detecting the first nuclear blasts on Earth, the aliens rushed right over to help, but wouldnt you know it? An electrical storm brought them down.

I call this the Good Samaritan theory. To many UFO believers, its a soothing explanation that makes them feel at ease with the world. Soon the aliens will come and fix our our mess. Theyll share their wisdom from beyond the stars and all war, poverty and hate would be gone. But as much as I hate to be a buzzkill (ah, who am I kidding, if I really hated it that much, I wouldnt be writing this), why? Why would an alien species that spent thousands of years advancing itself suddenly want to run around giving out wisdom to another species thats clearly violent and still getting its bearings? What do they have to gain? What would they want? The old adage of the only free cheese is in a mousetrap definitely applies here.

The second problem with this theory is that its core idea is physically impossible. If the Trinity test, Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place in 1945 and the aliens showed up just two years later, they wouldn’t have time to detect the blasts. And they wouldn’t be able to detect them simply because to an alien, our solar system shows up as the sun and the four gas giants. Our planet would be less than a pixel in size at best. Additionally, the energy and the light from the nuclear explosions can only travel as fast as light. According to ufologists, the Grays (the alien species that visits us) live in the Zeta Riticuli system, 39 light years away which means that it would take up to 39 years for the energy from the blasts to reach them. Of course, by then the 20 kiloton fission burps would be easily overshadowed by stellar events that are literally trillions of times greater in magnitude. Our nuclear tests are not visible to the universe at large.

If the Grays are here, they’re not here to save us from our ICBMs and fusion bombs. If that was truly their mission, they would’ve done it by now. Whatever they have in mind is probably far from helping us. Like Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson puts it:

We aren’t nice even to each other. So what makes us think that the aliens will be nice to us? I have no confidence that the aliens will treat us better than we treat ourselves.

Indeed. This doesn’t mean that we immediately have to assume the worst if we’re contacted by an alien species, but we shouldn’t welcome them with open hearts and assume they’re going to save us from all our demons. A healthy dose of skepticism is a very good thing when you don’t know with what you’re dealing.

[ illustration by CG artist Sylvain Lorgeou ]

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when humans disappear

October 6, 2008

Call me morose, but I really enjoy watching the National Geographic show Aftermath: Population Zero which chronicles the systematic collapse of everything humans built after our species disappears from the face of the Earth. It was created during a sort of mini doomsday craze sparked by the book The World Without Us in which author Alan Wiesman lays out what would happen if humanity were to suddenly vanish. The press coverage for the book generated a flood of investigative articles and two television specials about what would happen to the planet us and Aftermath has been rerun again and again which seems to indicate good ratings for the show.

Watching Aftermath, I learned something new for myself. I never knew what would happen after nuclear reactors ran out of power. I naively assumed that they would just shut down and all the spent fuel and waste would quietly decay in concrete walls with an occasional radiation leak in a few plants here and there. Nope, no such luck as this teaser kindly explains.

So why the fascination with what will happen to the planet after were gone? All of us know that almost no trace of us will be left if any. But yet we watch how our ruins decay in graphic detail, taking in every detail of a macabre doomsday erotica. Could it be a manifestation of our unique ability to realize our own mortality and think about what will happen after were dead and gone?

After watching the show again, its final note struck me as very odd. Weve spent about 60,000 years on planet Earth as a species, but the only place capable of preserving our creative and technological legacy for millions, if not hundreds of millions of years, is the Moon. If we vanish tomorrow, our greatest legacy will be what was once deemed as a multi-billion dollar publicity stunt of the Space Race. Isnt that something?

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