February 18, 2013 1:44:59 PM
If someone is throwing rocks at you, it is not a bad assumption that they are out to get you. Only a couple of days ago we were excited that a meteor was coming our way and was even entering the zone in which our satellites zing around our little planet, and then, Bang! a meteor with a booming shock wave exploded in Russia. We escaped with no damage from the first encounter and minor damage from the second, but the universe is going to keep throwing rocks at us and one of them is going to be our doom (unless we really get our act together and develop ways of deflecting every one). "Asteroid Strike" takes up 5 of the 200 pages of The Coffee Table Book of Doom (Plume) by writer Steven Appleby and cartoonist Art Lester. If the asteroids don't get us, there are in these pages over fifty other forms doom could take for us, not all as inevitable as the asteroids, but all just awful. And the authors invite us to have a good laugh over every one. After all, there are sources of doom we might do something about, but even these we are tending not to, so what can you do but enjoy the comedic prospects of a terrestrial wipeout?
In the asteroid section, you will find the sort of insouciant humor to be seen on all of these pages. There is, for example, a scale of asteroid sizes ("Not to scale"): Paperweight, Dog Walker Whacker, Car Cruncher, Species Snuffer, All Life Extinguisher, and Galaxy Hammer. The asteroid isn't the most inevitable pending celestial doom; even if we dodge all the asteroids and the other shocks described in the book, our Sun will get us eventually. It is the "one Doom scenario on the horizon that is certain, total, and will bring about the end of everything we know." Our Sun, after all, is an ordinary star with an ordinary star's life cycle, and in the next few billion years, it will become a supernova, and swallow up the Earth, and become a black hole. Take comfort, if you like, that this will be billions of years from now, and who knows where we will be then, but we won't be on our home planet, and this is certain. Of course, long before that, we may have suffered contagions from space, solar storms, or alien invasion, all described here. Then there is the strangest one, the "False Vacuum Event," based on current ideas in quantum field theory. Space is a void, but there's still a little matter out there; but there are real vacuums, and one could drop by and swallow up our solar system in a jiffy, and we would not even know what had happened; it would be simply as if it had all never been.
If we aren't doomed from above, we are doomed from below. Yellowstone is overdue for another super volcano eruption that will make Mount St. Helens look like a firecracker, depositing ash many feet deep over thousands of miles and bringing on a worldwide long-term winter, with crop failures. A gigantic rock is now teetering on the edge of the Canary Islands, and when it falls, there comes the biggest tsunami you have ever heard of, headed toward the American east coast. Maybe the huge methane deposits below the Arctic permafrost will thaw and get loose in the atmosphere, resulting in extinction of just about everything.
I rather like these cosmic or geological dooms that we can do nothing about. It is less fun thinking of the problems we are inflicting upon ourselves. There's Environmental Degradation, of course, but the authors provide a handy chart of Practical Suggestions, including "Reuse my plastic bags," "Stop using a car and walk everywhere in bare feet," and "Stop buying new technology every few months." (Pessimistic? Who cares: the world is doomed.) The corals are dying, fish stocks are vanishing, and the ozone layer still has holes. Not only is there plenty of extinction going on, we used to have better bananas than we have now but a fungus wiped them out, and now another fungus is coming to get the ones we have left. Microbes might get us, and they are all over and our antibiotics are running out of steam. You can, the authors say, deposit a few million, even a billion bacteria with a touch of your finger. A footnote jauntily informs us, "These figures are disputed by Professor Alan McCarthy, department of microbiology, Liverpool University, who considers them grossly inflated." It doesn't matter; we are coming up with fewer antibiotics, and the bacteria are getting stronger all the time.
Maybe the doom will be technological. Robots are getting smarter, and illustrated here are the waste-paper-basket robots, who, "when linked together, combine into a group intelligence. If one more robot joins they will evolve into a warrior troop. Here we see them performing their sinister dance." Genetic engineering might not just produce designer crops, but designer humans, affordable only to the rich, and thus maybe splitting humans into separate species. Teensy nanomachines might be programmed to self-replicate, and they can't be stopped, resulting in everything turning into a gray goo. A physics article is quoted: "The construction of anything resembling a dangerous self-replicating nanomachine can and should be prohibited." The authors say, "That's a relief then. Nothing to worry about. It will be prohibited. Just like nuclear weapons." Speaking of which, of course there is a section on Nuclear War. It starts, "Remember this one?"
Then there is religious doom. Islam, Christianity, and most of the others know the world is doomed. Righteous Muslims get escorted to heaven by Allah. Elect Christians get taken to a new version of Earth by the Messiah. There are plenty of people who take pleasure in thinking that they are on just the right side of the eschatological us versus them. We have had Holy Wars for as long as we have had holies, but nowadays, "Recipes for poisonous gas and instructions for making explosives are as near as one keyboard click away." A nuclear bomb does not have to be sophisticated to bring doom.
Religious people have been predicting doom for centuries; it is part of what makes at least some of them tick. So far, every date set in the future as a doomsday has, as it ceased being future and became present, been shown to be in error. Also, the Large Hadron Collider did not manufacture a black hole to suck us all up, and the Y2K Bug did almost no one any harm (these are included in the very limited "A Glimmer of Hope" pages here). But we are going to get it sometime. Oh, well, you can find here a guide on doom etiquette, including what to wear and how to spend your last hours on Earth. It is all quite funny as presented here, and it is made all the funnier because it isn't funny at all.
4. A Stone's Throw: Beware COLUMNS