The End of the World Is Real

We are suckers for The End. It fascinates us.

On the evening of October 30, 1938, anyone tuning in to CBS’s radio station would’ve encountered what at first was an unremarkable broadcast—a weather report, some news, then a live band performance. But then the broadcast was interrupted by a disquieting bulletin; astronomers had just observed strange explosive flashes on the planet Mars featuring “jets of flame” pointed directly toward Earth. The broadcast eventually returned to the band, but CBS cut in again with an interview of Princeton astronomy professor Richard Pierson discussing the Mars event. As Pierson spoke, he was handed a note: a “huge flaming object” from the heavens had crashed into a nearby field. Pierson and a CBS reporter immediately went to investigate. Upon arriving the reporter described a massive cylinder lying in the bottom of a large crater. The cylinder began to hum. Then it opened. Screams were heard, then the line went dead. The invasion had begun.

Orson Welles’ (playing “Richard Pierson”) radio adaptation of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds caused widespread panic. Listeners, duped by the ostensible veracity of the reports, thought the world was coming to an end. Mr. Welles—and Mr. Wells—had found humanity’s soft spot for the apocalypse and gleefully squeezed.
We are suckers for The End. It fascinates us. Our favorite entertainment delivers fictionalized versions from a variety of perpetrators: zombies, aliens, angels and demons, natural disasters with and without scientific merit. Some folks make earnest predictions of Doomsday (78 or so since Orson’s broadcast) though none have been right. The prediction du jour of course comes with the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21. Rest assured, December 22 will arrive. Any rumors of Earth’s impending death have been greatly exaggerated.
Exaggerated, but not necessarily untrue. These are several ways in which our world can end. Some ways require our involvement; some do not. And one is inevitable.
Let’s start small. Viruses, despite their murderous efficiency, are usually species-specific. A global pandemic of Zaire Ebolavirus, with a case-fatality rate of 90 percent and astonishing transmission capacity, would devastate humans but not much else. Total war involving the 19,000 nuclear weapons currently available would again devastate humanity and many other species, but even a harsh nuclear winter wouldn’t extinguish all life. You’d need something with a bigger punch.
Perhaps a Chicxulub. You’ve heard of it, though likely not by that name. The dinosaurs could tell you more about it if it hadn’t have killed them all. It was the six-mile wide meteorite that slammed into the Yucatan peninsula at 50,000 mph around 65 million years ago. Events like Chicxulub occur on average every 100 million years, and release the energy equivalent of 300 million nuclear bombs. The destruction and atmospheric changes would devastate the food chain and lead to mass extinctions, including perhaps our own, but life would recover. To kill all life, you’d need a different approach. A slower one.
Global warming is familiar to all of us, both conceptually and first-hand. But it carries a more sinister fate than rising sea levels. It’s capable of producing a cataclysmic positive feedback loop. As CO2 levels rise, the planet becomes warmer, which releases more CO2, and so on. Unchecked, the heat would build, the oceans would boil, and that’d be that. If that sounds sensationalist, look at Venus. Identical to Earth but for one important difference: It ended up too close to the sun. Its atmosphere is 90 percent carbon dioxide and so thick it exerts a surface pressure 92 times greater than ours, equivalent to an ocean depth of over 3,000 feet. This creates a temperature in the balmy 900s. A Russian spacecraft landed on Venus without a parachute or retro-rockets—that’s how dense the atmosphere is—and lasted 127 minutes before succumbing to the conditions. If this were to occur on Earth, it would surely eradicate all life. The planet, however, would remain.
But one day, it won’t remain. It will be destroyed. While we can only ballpark when this will happen, we know that it will begin with a very specific moment. Many years from now, as Carl Sagan wrote, there will be a last perfect day on Earth. Then there will come a moment when the sun will stop living and start dying.
Hundreds of thousands of miles beneath the sun’s surface lies a crucible possessing the rarest conditions of heat and pressure. It’s here that the sun creates nuclear fusion, the energy responsible for life on Earth. It’s here too that the moment will occur, when the last two hydrogen atoms in the sun’s core fuse together to produce the final spark of stable energy. That instant marks the beginning of an inescapable cascade of events, a swan song in which each cadence is more hopeless and violent than the last. The sun will contract to keep her elements burning. These desperate gasps will cause her to simultaneously expand, engulfing first Mercury, then Venus, and eventually a lifeless, molten Earth. Finally, exhausted by the fight, the sun will detonate its outer body and collapse on itself, leaving a faint ember nearly indistinguishable from the distant stars. It will be night forever. Any record of our beloved planet and our existence upon it will have long been vaporized.
This is how the true end will happen: murdered by our own creator. Good news is we’ve got a few billion years. What would be truly tragic is if we destroyed our civilization—now in its tenuous and volatile adolescence—beforehand. Preventing that fate undoubtedly deserves our attention more than the Rapture or the calendar of a long-dead civilization.
Image via (cc) flickr user eduard43\n
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