News - December 9, 2009

The end of the world

A good end-of-the-world story contains a bit of science, is nice and vague and takes place in the fairly near future. Scientific journalist Maarten Keulemans entertained students at the Studium Generale in Wageningen on 8 December with his vision of the Apocalypse.

Top six doom scenarios
1. Nonsense: The end of the Maya calendar
The Mayas had four calendars. For the first time in 25 thousand years they will coincide on 21 December 2012. The end of time. But scientific research has revealed that it will only be in 2220 that the four calendars come together.
2. In progress: Climate change
Predictions about the rising sea levels vary a lot. But extra warming stopped ten years ago. Petr Chylek concluded in 2008 that in his earlier estimates of the influence of CO2 were three times too high. And what is more, if we look at the history of the earth, the climate is constantly changing.
3. Slowly but surely... Meteorites
Meteorites 400 to 500 kilometres in diameter will smash into the earth. They will cause tsunamis tens of kilometres high, and flying debris. The impact will create flashes of light brighter than the sun. It will be a sterilization exercise that will wipe out all the species on earth.
The idea is going round that NASA will save us by blowing up the meteorite. Unfortunately, most of them are undetectable. And what is more, job insecurity is too great to undertake expensive projects.
4. Possible: Men become extinct
Men have an X and a Y chromosome. The X is big and strong, but the Y is the wimp of the chromosome world, small and vulnerable. The Y could give up the ghost, and then no more men would be born.
5. Certain: Supervolcano
An underground ball of magma will come to the surfaces and erupt at various places. It will rain volcanic cement dust, so we'll all suffocate in cement. Sunlight won't get through to the earth and a new ice age will start.
The cone of one such supervolcano, which erupted 680 thousand years ago, is in Yellowstone National Park in America. The earth's surface has been rising by seven centimetres a year recently. But we haven't been measuring it all that long. So perhaps we'll last another couple of million years.
6. Speculative: Robots and computers
Computers and robots get faster and cleverer and more and more embedded in our bodies. But everything technical can be hacked. So we could be controlled from one mainframe computer. Alternatively, computers will get a rudimentary memory themselves. Computers will take us over.
Keulemans himself is most afraid of the robot. But he puts that danger in perspective" 99.9% of all the species that have ever lived are extinct. And after all, the human being has only been around a short while and we worry so much. Wherever there is the most religion, there is the most fear of the end of the world. Every culture has its own version of the apocalypse, and that goes for us too. So is science our religion? Keulemans says it is. Scientists are the new priests.