The living have always had a strange fascination with the end of the world. From drawings on cave walls depicting the end of days to Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in a movie entitled End of Days, an obsession with all things dystopian seems to be coded into our DNA.
End of the world scenarios have always been popular with Sci-Fi junkies and fantasy magazines, but the concept of the apocalypse has taken a hold on pop culture like never before. From the continued success of The Walking Dead—both the television series and the comic that the show is based on—to the first ever "End of the World Conference" that took place last year, there seems to be no end to the evidence that people are consuming ideas about a world-ending cataclysm at an alarming rate.
World War Z made more than $200 million at the box office. When the aforementioned Walking Dead returned for a fourth season on AMC, the first episode smashed all expectations when 16 million people tuned in. Cormac McCarthy's grizzly and personal book about the end of days—entitled The Road—won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007.
As a society, we seem to be hooked on this spectacular and peculiar subject. Hollywood has done a great job depicting the end of the world on the silver screen, and various authors have tackled the subject with varying rates of success in stories told across every sort of medium. Not surprisingly, the concept takes on a totally different tone when analysed by scientists instead of entertainers.
Zombies are fun, when it all comes down to it. The sorts that are depicted in entertainment aren't real and won't ever be real, so we are able to witness the End from a safe, not-too-familiar distance. We can jump when a hand smashes up against a door and take a sigh of relief when it's only a zombie because we know they aren't a part of our reality. Science isn't worried about keeping you up at night though, and the scientific world's very real theories on apocalyptic scenarios are certainly enough to have you tossing and turning in your bed.
The following are five apocalyptic scenarios that wouldn't be out of place in even the most bizarre apocalyptic movie. The difference? These aren't Hollywood fantasies; they've been penned by respected scientists. And they could very well be real....
5 Fred Hoyle and the "Finely Tuned Universe"
Some people are simply grateful and accepting that the Universe seems to support life so well. Fred Hoyle isn't among those folks; the fact that the world (seemingly) fell into place so perfectly made him wonder...
The British cosmologist was an open and active atheist at the beginning of his illustrious career. Over time he began to contemplate just how unlikely a perfectly set up universe was, and he called this "life-friendly fine tuning." There are various examples of this, but the most famous one centers around the abundance of carbon in the Universe. Hoyle determined that there had to be some form of intelligent design because all the levers and knobs that make up the cosmos are perfectly set to allow life to form as we know it today.
To him, this was proof that God exists. Scientists have never been down with settling things through religion, though, so they took the idea a bit further and came to a startling conclusion. Maybe there is intelligent design, but perhaps we're all just part of another species' virtual reality simulation. Or, even stranger: the idea that we're all simply part of a computer simulation written by a programmer from the future.
Maybe it sounds ridiculous and silly. Rich Terrile doesn't think so though, and he's made some stunning progress on this theory. At the heart of Terrile's idea is Moore's Law, which states that raw computing power doubles every two years. Roll that around for a moment, consider Google's rapid progress in the technology field, and suddenly the concept doesn't seem so outlandish.
At some juncture, it won't be a big deal for a computer to simultaneously simulate billions and billions of actions. Think about the enormous scope of the worlds in games like Grand Theft Auto 5 or The Witcher 3; and then multiply that several hundred times. Are we living in the Matrix, and could we simply be "shut down" by an invisible programmer's hand? Who knows for sure, but it's a radical theory to say the least. Imagine the universe fading away around you, pixel by pixel and you'll gain a whole new understanding of the phrase "GAME OVER."
4 Gliese 710
One of Hollywood's favorite apocalypse tropes is the giant space rock that comes hurtling towards Earth out of nowhere. If you've ever cried while watching Armageddon, then you've cried over this doomsday scenario.
Yet our planet is pelted with more than 40 tons of meteoroids per day. Most of that simply burns up in the atmosphere and we're none the wiser, but it really makes you think about how out there Earth is and how often it's hit by something big and fast.
Gliese 710 puts those pebbles to shame. The boringly named red dwarf probably isn't on your radar. After all, it's around 1.5 million years away from Earth. The scary part is that the star has an 86% of entering our solar system eventually. Why would that be a bad thing for us on the blue and green planet we call home?
GL-710 would plow through the Oort cloud that reportedly surrounds our humble little group of planets, sending meteors flying in all directions at high velocities. We're talking planet-sized rocks getting pushed out of orbit and into our backyard, so to speak. This meteor assault would carry on for tens of thousands of years.
If Earth wasn't annihilated directly, there's always the chance of something crazy happening, like a meteor exploding near the sun and blocking it out, forcing us into an ice age that would probably wipe out life as we know it.
Good luck topping that explosion sequence, Michael Bay.
3 Grey Goo Scenario/Nightmare
There will come a day when nanotechnology saves lives. A lot of lives. These microscopic robots will be able to (hypothetically) target specific cells in the body and replace them with something non-cancerous, for example. The possibilities are endless. Almost too endless, in the eyes of some in the science community.
The purpose of these tiny machines is simple: convert one form of matter into something else at the molecular level. Eventually, scientists hope that they'll be able to create tech that can manipulate individual molecules—and even atoms.
Whenever science advances, there always seems to be a military hovering near by, trying to figure out how to weaponize the tech. Here in the United States we're still struggling to legislate the Internet, and the government has had plenty of time to take care of that. It stands to reason they'd be asleep at the wheel on nanotechnology as well.
If nanotechnology has the potential to save lives, it also carries with it the potential to wipe out all matter on Earth. That's because in theory, nanomachines would be programmed to reproduce perfectly and identically. They're going to cost a ton of money, so the idea is to make a few in a lab, and then program them to rearrange matter to make copies of itself.
In a controlled environment, that's not an issue. What would happen if a single machine somehow escaped though? Or worse: what if a nation or terrorist organization released one with the intent of wiping out an entire city? The nanomachine would still use its programming, except it'd be reproducing uncontrollably, ripping through all forms of atoms to make copies of itself.
Thus reducing the planet into nothing but grey goo. A lifeless planet consumed by microscopic machines that are only programmed to replicate.
2 The Big Rip Theory
Unless you skipped out on going to school all together, you're at least mildly familiar with the Big Bang theory. Not the television show. The theory itself. For a long while, scientists believed that the Universe would eventually do one of two things:
Expand endlessly into the horizon, or collapse back into itself in a "big crunch".
It turns out that there's a third, mildly more terrifying scenario than option No. 2. Instead of a big crunch, there's now evidence that suggests that the Universe might eventually rip itself apart. There's a strange trend that physicists have noticed: the expansion of the Universe is actually speeding up over time, not slowing down.
That's not a problem today. Twenty-two billion years from now though? If nanomachines haven't wiped us out, the video game we're in hasn't been unplugged and we're not dealing with a intolerably long ice age, then we'll need to worry about the big rip. It all comes down to a mysterious forced known as phantom energy—it even sounds like it's from Hollywood.
In this doomsday scenario, the Universe continues to aggressively expand and phantom energy's power would grow. Since it's a repulsive force, eventually it would begin to tear all bound systems apart at the seam.
That includes solar systems, stars, meteors and yes, Earth.
1 Something Goes Wrong With the Large Hadron Collider
The four theories mentioned above are just that: theories. Things that could go wrong. Kind of like how you might get sick if you drink milk that is two days expired. If you're reading this right now, you can rest easy and know that the possibility of these scenarios happening is slim, at least during your lifetime.
That isn't the case with the Large Hadron Collider, however. Scientists are doing crazy stuff there right this instant, and when you hear about what they're testing, the accidental end of the World almost seems inevitable.
For instance, there was that one time back in 2010 when they recreated a smaller version of the Big Bang. What could possibly go wrong when they're creating temperatures millions of times hotter than the center of the Sun right here on Earth?
The LHC basically exists to ram particles into one another at ridiculously high speeds. You know, just to see what happens. One possible occurrence is the creation of Strange matter. The stuff has never been observed before, so again, there are two possibilities for the tiny matter that is made up of quarks:
- The Strange matter dissipates within an instant of being created
- The Strange matter turns everything it touches into more Strange matter
The gap there is pretty big, no? Some scientists think that there are stars out there made entirely of Strange matter—all because one tiny little piece of it bumped into something out in outer space.
We'll let you draw the conclusions about what would happen if a similar scenario took place here on earth.