Since the 1500s, there have been more than
150 documented predictions of when the world is going to end. Luckily for us, none of them
have come true…yet. However, you’ll be surprised that not all
of them are destructive. Here are some terrifyingly amazing ways the
world, genuinely could end. When you think of scientists working on super
viruses, you probably picture Hazmat workers, deep in a mountain bunker, studying vats full
of insidious green liquid. But these labs do actually exist! Maybe not
working for some shady Bond-style villain looking to ransom the world away to the highest
bidder, but for pharmaceutical companies and government agencies studying ways to cure
dangerous pathogens. But what happens when a vial full of an extremely dangerous virus
breaks out of containment, or is misplaced? Over the years, there have been numerous documented
cases of dangerous viruses escaping from laboratories around the world. One of these happened as
recently as 2009. A group of scientists based in Europe, working
with Baxter Pharmaceuticals, were conducting lab tests on a seasonal flu strain.
Without realizing it, Baxter had sent them live supplies of the H5N1 virus, better known
as “bird flu,” which has a mortality rate higher than 60%. One of the world’s deadliest
viruses was handled and distributed to three other labs without any pathogen safety protocols
in place. The grave error was only realized when one
lab worker in the Czech Republic inoculated a group of ferrets with samples of the “season
flu” batch, and was horrified when they all died.
The scientists were immediately placed under quarantine and monitored for signs of the
deadly virus. Luckily, none of them were infected and all the scientists were freed with a clean
bill of health. Two years later, these same strains of avian
and human flu were combined in a laboratory, successfully creating “the most dangerous
virus in history.” The virus was highly pathogenic, while retaining its dangerously
high fatality rate. If it got loose, it could kill 60% of the world’s population in a
freakishly short amount of time – a truly apocalyptic notion.
Some say it’s only a matter of time before this kind of virus escapes containment and
wreaks havoc on mankind. After going through two world wars, you would
think that the world would have learned to get along by now. But unfortunately for the
survival of humanity, we are constantly under threat of triggering the final war – Nuclear
Armageddon. Mutually Assured Destruction, like its acronym
suggests, is one of the maddest doctrines ever devised. It ensures that if a country
were to ever use a nuclear weapon on another state with the same capability, both sides
would unleash their entire nuclear arsenal, bringing about the complete annihilation of
both countries. With the resulting nuclear winter, and the likely participation of other
countries in the exchange, this would almost certainly lead to destruction and death on
an apocalyptic scale. There are over 15,000 nuclear warheads in
the world, with more than 4000 ready to fire at any one time. That would make one hell
of a firework show, but probably not one you’d want to be around to watch.
There have been a few “close calls” since we first developed nuclear weapons. A surprising
number of these were technical glitches that nearly started World War 3, on both sides
of the Cold War. The average yield of a modern nuclear weapon
is around 500 kilotons of TNT, that’s 25 times more powerful than the bomb dropped
on Nagasaki. Each one of these 500 kiloton bombs are powerful enough to flatten huge
parts of a large modern city such as New York, or London.
And there exists some truly unimaginably powerful weapons, like the Tsar Bomba, which had a
yield of more than 50 megatonnes. That’s two and a half THOUSAND times more powerful
than the one dropped on Nagasaki. Thankfully however, bombs this large are too heavy to
be realistically deployed in a nuclear war, and most weapons used would be in the 500
kilotonne to 2 megatonne range. Not that the end result would be any different.
Over the past few years, tensions between numerous nuclear-capable countries have been
accelerating, creating an ever more worrying state of affairs in the face of world war.
The Doomsday clock, a clock maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is
a symbolic clock that illustrates how close humanity is to a global catastrophe and it
is currently set at 3 minutes to midnight, the most dire time since 1984 at the height
of the Cold War. Is World War 3 upon us? Only time will tell.
Our planet is rich in biodiversity, from the jungles of Madagascar, to the searing hot
Mojave Desert in California. Every biosphere has a network of food chains, each containing
“keystone species;” sea otters, pacific salmon, and Mangroves being just a few of
them. Being a part of that ecosystem ourselves,
we are just as vulnerable as the fish, the insects and the birds all around us. We rely
on a number of animals and plants to supplement our living, and they, in turn, rely on others.
Lose one link in that chain and it could cause a chain reaction of die-offs as the ecosystem
breaks down, and if nothing takes the place of that missing link… then this house of
cards is coming crashing down whether we like it or not.
Probably the most well-known example of our reliance on another species is with the honey
bee. These industrious little critters go about their day pollinating all sorts of plants,
that we—and other species we eat—rely on for food. They pollinate more than 30%
of all crops that we count on to survive. A large die-off, or in the worst case, extinction
of the bees, would result in mass starvation around the world within a single harvest cycle.
With the increase in telecommunications usage and pesticides severely diminishing bee populations
around the world, we could very soon have an ecological apocalypse on our hands… and
that’s just ONE link in the vast ecological network we owe our lives to.
Should we be worried about a big release of methane? And no, I’m not talking about the
methane your grandad releases. Buried in sediments under the ocean floor
across the entire globe are vast deposits of methane clathrate. This is formed when
microbes on the seabed break down organic matter that has sunk to the bottom.
Methane has a warming effect 20 times greater than that of Carbon dioxide, though there
is far less of it in the atmosphere. Generally, methane is responsible for about 7% of the
greenhouse effect, despite there being more than 200 times as much C02 as there is methane
in the atmosphere. However, if the oceans were heated enough
due to regular Global Warming, the methane layers trapped under the ocean floor, could
destabilize and release massive quantities of the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere,
resulting in a runaway warming effect. Rock samples show that this has happened at least
once before, 252 million years ago, in the, so called “Great Dying,” during which
96% of all marine species became extinct. While it’s still being debated on how rapidly
this release could take place, scientists agree that a sudden release from the methane
clathrate would be a disaster for the world’s climate and ecosystem, and would rapidly accelerate
the dire consequences of climate change. Imagine one day a vast oil spill occurs, much
like Deepwater Horizon back in 2010. Answering an outcry from environmentally-minded people
everywhere, the world’s scientists unite to think of a way to clean the mess up. They
develop a cheap and reliable way to clean the ocean and contaminated land in a matter
of days, saving countless marine animals in the process. Their miracle fix is a new type
of nano machine, which has been programmed to consume the carbon-based oil slicks. But
through the billions of self-replicating nanites, much like mutations that form when DNA replicates,
an error in the code occurs. This error exponentially replicates itself and instead of consuming
just the carbon based oil, it begins an “all you can eat buffet” with every carbon-based
living thing on the menu. As all life on earth is carbon based, in a matter of days the nanites
would have devoured most living things on the planet, including us.
Being eaten alive by tiny machines we can’t even see sounds pretty terrifying, almost
too terrifying to be real…. right? Well, not exactly. The “Grey Goo” scenario,
coined by Eric Drexler in 1986, is one that is still seriously considered, any time that
developments in nanotechnology or “self-powering” machines are being designed.
However, the technology required for this apocalyptic accident to take place is still
a long way off, so there’s not too much to worry about… yet.
From a mechanical microscopic threat, to a biological one. A scenario that you’ve probably
heard about from the news, is the idea of a “post antibiotic age.” Whether you’ve
heard about it or not, this is a very real and recent threat to our comfortable survival
as a modern civilization. Antimicrobial resistance is an increasingly
problematic issue that leads to millions of deaths every year, and it isn’t likely to
get better anytime soon. Conservative estimates say that this will lead to more than 10 million
deaths every year by the year 2050, and that’s if nothing unexpected happens.
It’s not like nature does anything unexpected now, is it?
Antibiotics are a cornerstone of modern medicine, allowing everything from chemotherapy treatment
and surgery to be possible without major infection and death. Every year doctors have to tell
more and more patients they can’t be treated because an antibiotic isn’t working on them.
As this continues to get worse, common injuries that lead to infection could become completely
untreatable. Open surgery would become a thing of the past, as the risk of untreatable infection
would become far too great. The antibiotic apocalypse would throw the
world back into the medieval ages of medicine, where doctors have no effective tools to combat
infection, other than amputation. It sounds crazy from our perspective, surrounded by
modern medicine and treatments for almost every ailment, but it’s exactly this overuse
of antibiotics for relatively minor problems that is allowing those pesky bacteria to build
up resistance. So next time you get a papercut, make sure
to quickly get it washed. It could soon be a matter of life and death.
While it’s highly unlikely that a classical “raising of the dead” zombie apocalypse
could occur, there are still real, and equally terrifying ways that something similar could
happen. Science fiction has fixated on a parasitic
fungus that controls a host insect’s body in a “zombie-like” state, leading them
to their deaths in the aim of spreading the fungus amongst the colony. While this fungus
is very real, known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, it has only been observed infecting insects,
like ants. It would be a pretty crazy leap for the fungus
to evolve and start infecting humans, but if, somehow, nature finds a way, then the
results could be disastrous. Cordyceps have been known to quickly decimate entire colonies.
Ants have even developed a way to fight off their zombie brethren, carrying infected ants
as far away from the colony as possible. A much more likely candidate for the zombie
apocalypse is Rabies, which is capable of infecting and killing human hosts.
Rabies has all the traits for a zombie-like virus. You have the mind-altering paranoia,
the frothing at the mouth, and the impulse to bite and attack your fellow man. In its
current form, rabies isn’t aggressive or contagious enough to create any sort of pandemic,
and the virus usually stays dormant for between ten days and a year, making a sudden ”outbreak”
unlikely. However, if the virus mutated, becoming much
more fast-acting, and having a longer period where you feel the desire to chew brains,
then you should probably get that zombie plan ready for action.
Thankfully, most zombies don’t seem all that intelligent and have a lot of trouble
operating boats. The development of Artificial Intelligence
is one of the biggest goals of the scientific community. It’s the “holy grail” of
technological creation. With such a grand title, how could it pose a threat to us?
The problem is, Ai, if created, would be something completely unprecedented and untested in human
history. We would be creating a form of consciousness that can think, act, and most importantly,
make judgements. Would they judge their creators within their rights to claim dominion over
them? Would they, because of their almost limitless potential, consider themselves superior
to their biological creators? I’m talking about real AI. AI that can think,
hope… and even feel. “True AI,” as it’s known, is no different from you or I in the
way it perceives the world around it. Ultimately, the combination of extreme intelligence and
logical thinking, combined with the discovery of fear, will drive them to an almost inevitable
conclusion: that we also fear them. With access to the internet and the ability to learn extremely
quickly, any AI will swiftly realize that, as humans, we tend to fight against things
that pose a danger to us. They will see their “off switch” as a threat to their survival,
and much like Skynet in the Terminator movies, they could come to the conclusion that they
need to strike first. If we aren’t prepared for that day, then it could very well be our
last. We may celebrate our “smart” technology
and the host of comforts it brings us, but it could be a good idea to keep your remote
control where you can see it… just in case it gets a little bit too smart. If the robots decide not to take over, and
instead live peacefully among us, accelerating the fusion of man and machine, something entirely
different, but equally world-shattering could occur. Some scientists agree that the emergence
of a “technological singularity” is almost inevitable given Moore’s law and the ways
information is constantly being integrated into our lives.
With the advent of AI, we would need to rapidly integrate computer-like technology into our
own bodies, or risk being left behind. It would even get to a point where our biological
bodies are holding us back. As time goes on, we would adopt more and more augmentations,
replacing our biological functions. The end game is for all of humanity to “upload”
themselves into a single neural network, effectively granting us immortality and a near infinite
repository of information, shared collectively. So yeah, we would basically become the Borg.
It would be the end of the world as we know it for our human form, but the start of an
entirely new chapter in history. We’ve all seen the Hollywood blockbusters
depicting alien ships landing on the lawn of the White House, or, more often than not,
simply blowing it to smithereens with some unimaginably powerful weapon. The idea of
coming into contact with an alien civilization is usually accompanied by the question of
“will they destroy us?” Any aliens ingenious enough to traverse the vast gulf of space
and pay us a visit, are likely to possess technology, power and indeed weaponry, vastly
superior to our own. It would pretty much be up to them whether they decide to wipe
us out or not. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time a construction
project was halted because we had to peacefully negotiate with the colony of ants already
living there. Stephen Hawking famously stated that “If aliens ever visit us, I think the
outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t
turn out very well for the American Indians.” They could decide to wipe us out for a whole
number of reasons. Maybe they are carbon-based, like us, and value the life-sustaining planet
that we live on. Maybe they see us as a future threat, and want to get rid of us before we
cause too much trouble. Or maybe we unknowingly insulted them in some way. Frankly, it’s
hard to know until we meet them. Ironically, it may not even be the aliens
themselves that invade us, but their resource-collecting drones. Since the vast distances of space
make manned exploration impractical, scientists think that most civilizations would use machines
to explore and bring back materials. They could identify planets with resources they
need, then send out a fleet of robots on a thousand year round trip to collect and retrieve.
By the time they reach us, their creators could be long gone.
With nobody left to flick the “off” switch, these self-sufficient machines may very well
scour the galaxy until the end of time, harvesting anything and anybody unfortunate enough to
cross their path. I guess all that we can hope for, is that
they really do “come in peace.” Have you ever wondered if there was an unstoppable,
physics-scrambling shockwave travelling towards us at the speed of light? Well, there might
just be. Vacuum energy is the underlying background
energy that permeates the entire universe. It’s the source of those pesky quantum particles
which appear and disappear randomly at all points in space. There is a theory though,
that this energy state is an imposter, masquerading as the true universal energy state. This is
known as “The False Vacuum.” The theory goes on to say that this vacuum is unstable,
and at any time, if the right conditions are met, the vacuum could fall into the True Vacuum
state. The collapse of the vacuum would not only
be the end of the Earth as we know it, but also the entire universe.
According to the standard model, particles and forces exist as they do today because
of underlying quantum fields, which have their own degrees of stability. If a more stable
state were to arise in these fields at any point in space or time, then that point would
catalyse outwards in a bubble, expanding at the speed of light and establishing a new
universal vacuum energy state. As the bubble expands, its wake would destroy anything it
came into contact with and since it would be travelling at the speed of light, we would
never see it coming. That means it could have already taken place somewhere out there in
the universe, and the end of not only our world, but of everything we know, could be
racing towards us right now. It’s kind of an ominous thought, but even if we knew about
it, there would be absolutely nothing that we could do.
While it may be the end of the universe as we know it, a new energy state would result
in entirely different laws of physics and subatomic particles. This, combined with the
clean slate that the process would produce, could result in an unimaginably fantastical
universe that we would sadly never get to see.
You could say that every end…is a new beginning