Friday, February 8, 2013

Welcome To Weirdsville: ON DESTROYING THE EARTH

Since the world is about to end ... or maybe not ... here's a piece from my new book, Welcome To Weirdsville on some experiments that actually, really, might destroy us all.

Have Fun!


We like scientists. We really do. After all, without them – and the scientific method – we’d still think lightning was Zeus hurling thunderbolts, the sun was an enormous campfire, and the earth itself was balancing on huge turtles. Without science we’d be ignorant troglodytes – too stupid to even know that we’d evolved from even simpler life forms.

Yep, we love science – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t scare us. After all, when you’re dedicated to cracking the secrets of the universe it’s kind of expected that sometimes, not often, you might crack open something a tiny bit … shall we say … dangerous?

The poster child for the fear that science and engineering can give us – beyond Shelley’s fictitious Frankenstien, of course -- was born on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico. Not one to miss something so obvious, its daddy, the one and only J. Robert Oppenheimer (‘Oppy’ to his pals) thought “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” from the Bhagavad Gita – but Kenneth Bainbridge, the Test Director, said it even better: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

Sure, the Trinity Atomic Bomb Test -- the event that began the so-called atomic age, leading to our now-constant terror that one day the missiles may start to fly and the bombs begin to fall -- was the first, but since then there have been all kinds of new, if not as flashy, scientific investigations that could be ten times more destructive. In other words, we could be one beaker drop from the destruction of the earth.

Naturally this is an exaggeration, but it’s still fun – in a shudder-inducing kind of way – to think about all these wildly hypothetical doomsdays. Putting aside the already overly publicized fears over the Large Hadron Collider creating a mini black hole that immediately falls to the core of the earth – eventually consuming the entire globe – some researchers have expressed concern that some day we may create, or unleash, a subatomic nightmare. The hunt for the so-called God particle (also called a Higgs boson), for instance, has made some folks nervous: one wrong move, one missing plus or minus sign, and we could do something as esoteric and disastrous as discovering that we exist in a metastable vacuum – a discovery made when one of our particle accelerators creates a cascade that basically would … um, no one is quite sure but it’s safe to say it would be very, very strange and very, very destructive. Confusing? Yep. But that’s the wild, weird world of particle physics. It's sometimes scary. Very, very scary.

A new threat to everyone on the planet is the idea of developing nanotechnology. If you've been napping for the last decade or so, nanotech is basically machines the size of large molecules: machines that can create (pretty much) anything on a atomic level. The question – and the concern – is what might happen if a batch of these microscopic devices gets loose. The common description of this Armageddon is "grey goo." The little machines would dissemble the entire world, and everything and everyone on it, until all that would be left is a spinning ball of, you guessed it, goo.

Another concern for some folks is that, for the first time, we’ve begun to seriously tinker with genetics. We’ve always fooled with animals (just look at a Chihuahua) but now we can REALLY fool with one. It doesn’t take a scientist to imagine – and worry about – what happens when we tinker with something like ebola or, perhaps even worse, create something that affects the reproduction of food staples like corn or wheat. Spreading from one farm to another, carried perhaps on the wind, this rogue genetic tweak could kill billions via starvation.

And then there’s us. What happens if the tweak – carried by a virus or bacteria – screws not with our food but where we’re the most sensitive: reproduction? Unable to procreate we’d be extinct as few as a hundred years.

While it’s become a staple of bad science fiction, some scientists see it as a natural progression: whether we like it or not, one day we will create a form of artificial intelligence that will surpass and replace us. Even putting aside the idea that our creations might be hostile, the fact that they could be better than us at everything means that it would simply be a matter of time before they go out into the universe – and leave us poor throwbacks behind.

There are frightening possibilities but keep this in mind: if something does happen and it looks like it’s going to be the End Of The World As We Know It, there is going to be one, and only one, place to turn to for help: the world of observation, hypothesis, prediction and experiment.

In other words, we’d have to turn to science. They would have gotten us into it, and only they will be able to get us out.

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