(Non-zombie) apocalypse

Aditya Rengaswamy, Weird Science

I’ve heard a number of prophecies stating the world is going to end. Prophets, scientists, and the ancient Mayans have speculated when humanity will end as we know it. I honestly don’t know when (or if) this might happen in the next million years, but as I examine some of the more scientific ideas that point toward an end of humanity, a few seem worth noting.

Some scientists fear that a giant solar flare that happens every 150 years or so could make developed nations with large power grids like the United States revert to the Stone Age for a while. A solar flare is a massive expulsion of energy from the sun that messes with electromagnetic waves, shutting off power lines. Imagine living in America without lights, internet, or anything electronic. The societal implications and time needed to repair the damage could put the electricity-dependent parts of Earth on a path toward chaos.

Another possibility is that natural disasters like earthquakes intensify over time. One phenomenon to watch in particular is flooding, as the factors for this calamity include not only earthquakes, but the moon.

The moon is actually moving away from the earth at a rate of 3.8 centimeters per year. This doesn’t seem like much, considering the size of the earth and the moon, but if the moon moves completely away from the earth over time, or by the force of another object, it could mean massive flooding. The moon currently stabilizes the poles; according to Stephen Hawking, loss of the moon would cause the poles to re-adjust to be around the equator, resulting in water movement on a colossal scale.

Then there are the typical cinematic predictions of the end of the world – our planet could be struck by an asteroid, or annihilated by aliens. These are actually more preventable apocalyptic events with advances in sciences and defenses.

One final possibility is a supernova, or giant exploding star. If the energy of the supernova of a giant star were to reach Earth, we would vanish in seconds. Our sun itself should eventually become a supernova, but before it even reaches the supernova stage it can expand and swallow the earth as a red giant within the next five to eight billion years.

But the very theory of a red giant swallowing the earth is still up in the air. Jonathon Fortney, a NASA scientist who has published in Nature magazine, is studying a planet in the Pegasus constellation dubbed V391 Pegasi B. This planet is in a solar system similar to ours, and had a star of comparable size to the sun. When this star expanded to be a red giant, V391 Pegasi B traveled away from its expanding star and ended up almost twice as far from it original orbital location. It wasn’t swallowed or burned up.

All these theories are the best speculations that scientists can muster. Personally, I see value in learning and understanding science, but not in worrying about its implications. I take Joan Benz’s words to heart: “You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die, or when. You can only decide how you’re going to live now.”