Dr Strangelove Two? -Cambridge Astrophysicist Gives Earthlings a 50/50 Chance of Making it Through the Century
That’s right, Sir Martin Rees, Great Britain's Astronomer Royal and respected professor of astrophysics at Cambridge University claims in his book 'Our Final Century' that humans have only a 50-50 shot of making it through the 21st century. In some of his proposed scenarios not everyone dies, but either way the odds don’t sound that good.
Also, I’d like to personally apologize to Stephen Hawking for criticizing his idea that we need to get off the planet ASAP in an earlier post. Sorry professor! I’m converted. Let’s get out of here.
Rees explains why stargazers like he and Hawking have the “big picture” when it comes to life on Earth.
“Astronomers have a special perspective to see ourselves as just a part of a process that is just beginning rather than having achieved its end," he says. "And perhaps this gives an extra motive to be concerned about what happens here on Earth in this century."
At the risk of sounding like Debbie Downer—here’s a sampling of the top 10 proposed scenarios of how we’re all going to die by this time next century.
1) Death by Comet
Pound for pound, comets are much more dangerous than asteroids, which have nonetheless gotten more media attention. Comets travel a lot faster through space than Asteroids, which travel at about 25-30 km per second. The speed of a comet approaches a much faster 70 km per second. The kinetic energy of an incoming object from space follows the equation: Kinetic Energy = 1/2 the mass of the object x (velocity) ^ 2. A relatively small object of just one and a half km in diameter hitting the Earth would release more energy than all the atomic bombs ever detonated and then some. An object of 20 km or more would likely cause mass extinction. But hey, at least we’d go out with a bang.
2) Self-Replicating Nanobots
Another risk is nanobots turning the world in to grey sludge. Self-replicating, nanometer-size robots could theoretically get out of control and chew through organic matter and turn the into a lifeless "gray goo," a term coined by nanotech pioneer K. Eric Drexler. Drexler describes grey goo in Chapter 11 Engines Of Destruction:
"...early assembler-based replicators could beat the most advanced modern organisms. 'Plants' with 'leaves' no more efficient than today's solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the with an inedible foliage. Tough, omnivorous 'bacteria' could out-compete real bacteria: they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop - at least if we made no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies."
3) Germ Warfare (or Germ “Accident”)
Innovation is changing things fast and furiously. Scientists are now creating synthetic life that will allow the possibility of creating biological weapons. Weaponized germs are a real risk. Rees has morbidly placed a bet for $1,000 that a biological incident will claim one million lives by 2020. Most terrifying is that this already almost happened a couple years ago in Canberra. Scientists at the Pest Animal Control Co-operative Research Centre were fiddling with the mousepox virus when they inadvertently created a strain that killed mice, including those that had been vaccinated. Rees asks if scientists could do the same thing with smallpox. The answer is “yes” and nothing stands between humanity and such a disaster other than "a sense of responsibility among individual biologists".
4) Global Warming
There’s still plenty of argument on whether global warming is man-made, a natural solar phenomenon, or just something Al Gore came up with in his free time. But if it does turn out to be as bad as some experts claim, the worldwide temperature may rise as much as 2 degrees Celsius, basically hotter than anything in the last one and a half million years. That would lead to famine on a scale never before seen, mass migration, and fighting over the scant resources still available. It probably wouldn't completely wipe man off of the Earth, but the conditions would make you wonder who got the better end of the stick—the dead or the survivors. But at least it would absolve the next concern…
This could be the biggest threat to continued life on the planet, because as more people need to be fed, it puts even greater pressure on our rapidly shrinking resources. The growth is now exponentially frightening. Some experts say that with wise resource management our Earth could comfortably host everyone, but when have humans ever been good at resource management? Many of our present global problems can be linked to population growth and wasteful resource management. By 2050, the population of Earth will reach 9 billion humans. That's two and a half billion more people competing for limited resources, and they will be here in less than fifty years. Where will we all live and what are we going to eat? Let me guess, soylent green? Tastes like chicken!
6) Death by Man-Made Black Hole
While this particular scenario is somewhat unlikely, it’s theoretically possible. The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) recently built at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York is the first machine in the world capable of colliding heavy ions. It is theorized that a state of 'dense matter' could be formed. Scientists wonder if this could create a small 'black hole', which would suck matter from everything around it, until the entire Earth was gone. It is doubtful that the Brookhaven will create such a hole, but if they keep building bigger accelerators in the future…who knows? Actually, being sucked into a black hole sounds like a cool way to go and who knows—maybe it’d be a wormhole and take us to an alien planet where everyone is hot and wears tight revealing clothes like on the planets the Star Trek crew kept running into.
7) Natural Pandemic
This scenario is actually highly likely to occur this century. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 killed over 20 million people in about a year and that was BEFORE commercial airlines brought us mass international travel. The biggest threat is that a virus such as HIV or smallpox could naturally mutate until it spreads as easily as a common cold. In this scenario not everyone would die, since some people would be resistant or immune to certain viruses. But it could dramatically thin out the population, perhaps by billions.
8) A Robot Take-Over
This is by far my favorite scenario. I actually have a sick desire for man to be annihilated by robots, as evident by my many posts on the subject. However, on this one Rees backs me up! It’s not too far-fetched. Processing power doubles every year or two. By mid-century, many experts predict that robots will catch up to man in the ability to perform abstract thinking and may take over many functions presently performed by humans, including diagnosis of medical problems, scientific research, and much more, until they get tired of being our slaves and kill us all. Of course humans may find immortality first by uploading ourselves into advanced robots. Of course, then we’d still have to deal with computer virus pandemics. At any rate, if we do become robots ourselves, I have first dibs on being called Optimus Prime—remember that.
9) Gamma Ray Burst
These are a relatively new hotly debated discovery, but if an intense GRB of at least thirty seconds duration occurred within 6,000 light years of Earth, it would wipe out most forms of life on the planet. Fortunately, if a nearby star did emit a GRB, we would have a few years to prepare before it reached us. We could repent and say our goodbyes. Currently, astronomers record an average of one or two a day anywhere in the known universe.
10) Nuclear Holocaust
Here’s the good news…sort of. This last threat is (according to Rees) now less serious than a half-century ago. International controls on the spread and use of nuclear weapons have been arguably effective. Although a rogue state could still cause severe damage to a few specific targets—the possibility of a widespread simultaneous launch of thousands of nukes is an unlikely risk.
That leads me to speculate that maybe, just maybe, humankind will use it’s ingenuity and “can do” attitude to get us out of these current messes. Call me Pollyanna, but I believe in us. Astrophysicists also say that the fact that life ever developed on Earth was virtually impossible, but here we are. Maybe we’ll see the 22nd Century after all.
Related Galaxy Posts:
Past as Prelude -Asteroids & the Origins of Life