Thursday, May 04, 2006

How the world will end

Live Science with Sam Hughes has a pop-science ridden, excessive click requiring top 10 list of the ways to destroy the Earth. If possible, his pop science approach over-sensationalizes an already sensational topic. The author seems to have read only a few popular science fiction novels by English authors, and owns a calculator and a physics textbook. Here is the short list, with some comments:

#10 Total existence failure of the Earth
#9 Earth gobbled up by stranglets
#8 The earth sucked into microscopic black hole
(He references "The Dark Side Of The Sun," by Terry Pratchett, but I encountered this idea first in a great short story written in 1974, The Hole Man by Larry Niven, where they accidentally drop one into the middle of Mars.)
#7 The earth blown up by matter/antimatter reaction
#6 Earth destroyed by vacuum energy detonation
#5 Earth sucked into a giant black hole
#4 The earth is meticulously and systematically deconstructed
(Perhaps to build something else useful, like a Ringworld, Dyson sphere or Matrioshka brain)
#3 Earth pulverized by impact with blunt instrument
#2 Earth eaten by von Neumann machines.
#1 Earth hurled into the Sun (with this list)
Sam, you may remember, did give us this helpful button. Current Earth-Destruction Status If the sign is green, things are fine. Sam is trying to be scientific so he is not referring to the religious or Rapture type end of the world, or even a scientific treatment of the rapture, like the Rapture index.

There is actually a body of scientific work which does address the end of the world as we know it. The Carter Catastrophe, proposed by Brandon Carter and elaborated on by John Leslie (best explained in Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter, the one with the squids and Cruithne), states that it is highly unlikely that we would be among the first humans to ever have lived, considering that the number of humans will continue to build (to trillions?) and we will go on to colonize the galaxy and then the universe. To remove the seemingly improbable situation of being among the first humans ever to have lived suggests that some catastrophe is coming to reduce the population and prevent this spread. See further explanation and refutation of this idea under Doomsday Argument.

John Leslie's book The End of the World systematically lists possible end of the world scenarios and actually attempts to predict their probability to determine when the Carter Catastrophe might be. His list contains items from the mundane, nuclear or biological war, environmental catastrophes and disease, to the fantastic, extinction by extraterrestrials, a nanotechnological runaway, or accidental production of a big bang in a laboratory, to the esoteric, risks from philosophy, we decide to stop living, we decide to destroy ourselves. Stephen Baxter has a character in his novel predict the catastrophe at between 150 and 200 years away. Scientific though their arguments may be, the whole thing seems to have a repent-the-end-is-near with a rational age-of-enlightenment slant.

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1 comment:

EHRydberg said...

To me, the Carter Catastrophe reads like wishful Christian thinking wrapped in statistical pseudoscience. It's based on the assumption that we, ie: you or me or anyone alive today, has the equal (or in fact, much greater) probability of living in a time of greater population (hence, a possible distant future). Statistically speaking it is sound...if one completely ignores reality (as, unfortunately, so many of these type of arguments do).

The reality it is ignoring is simply this...I'm alive now (or you are alive now, or my wife is alive now...) because there is no other time that any of us could be alive.

That almost sounds circular or anthropic in nature, but I assure you it's not. Rather, I call it the [B]Bio-historical rebuttal[/B].

What I mean is this: who I am is a product of my precise biology--beginning, most fundamentally, with my genetics, which forms the foundation of 'me'. From that, of course, follows the environmental factors that fine-tuned my personality. But the genetics, the precise combination of that one sperm and egg are the ONLY combination that could have produced 'me'. Any other combination, even from my biological parents (as those of you with siblings clearly know) would not and could not produce 'me'. Obvious, my parents are also the results of similar events as were their's, back through time. From this it is trivial to see that, not only could I only be born to those parents through that particular combination of genetic material but, therefore, 'I' could only be born in this particular time.

With this understanding, the foundation of the Carter Catastrophe completely crumbles because there is 0% chance of 'me' (or anyone else alive today) being born at any other time, regardless of how many more generations yet may live.

Thus, our place in the timestream is not random in the manner implied by Carter.