It wasn’t the end of the world as we know it…

Well, the world didn’t end yesterday like it was meant to. Pity, there was a live band at an outdoor venue about 200 yards from my house last evening who were getting quite irritating.

A completely fictional planetary scene constructed with the help of Celestia. Cool science software (cooler still because it's free).
A completely fictional planetary scene constructed with the help of Celestia. Cool science software (cooler still because it’s free).

Alas, Niburu didn’t show up. The sun didn’t spew out a giant solar flare. None of the things happened that were allegedly going to.Of course doomsday didn’t happen the last time it was predicted. Or the time before that. Or the 483,000 times before that, including the time a hen in Leeds began laying eggs that predicted armageddon. Still, I’m sure the end has only been re-scheduled. As New Scientist points out, the end is always nigh.

I don’t lose sleep over external phenomena. Earth certainly won’t be blasted out of existence. To destroy Earth you have to overcome the gravitational binding energy – equivalent to accelerating every particle to escape velocity. For Earth, specifically, it’s 2.25 x 10 (exp) 36 joules, about the energy released by 57,000,000,000,000 one-megaton atomic bombs. Some British physicists think the Death Star might cut it.  Personally I doubt it. I prefer ‘Doc’ Smith’s method of whamming two planets together, head on, at light-speed. Splut. Planets? What planets. Lots of hard radiation (don’t ask where you get the energy from to accelerate the planets).

Joking aside, we’ve discovered gas giant planets so close to their stars their atmosphere is boiling off, but even that takes millions of years, and the rocky kernel seems able to survive.

Barring close encounter with another stellar system, which will disrupt the orbits of the planets, or some catastrophe (chaos theory suggests Mercury’s orbit might go ape, if the right combination of circumstance occur) Earth’s going to keep orbiting the Sun for the next four billion years, much as now. The day length will change. Eventually we’ll end up tidally locked to the Moon. It’ll be further away (conservation of angular momentum in the system).

At that stage the Sun will have fused all the hydrogen in its core and start fusing helium, puffing into a red giant. It’s going to get warm on Earth. The last life, if it’s survived at all, will be high-temperature bacteria in boiling pools.

But we won’t need to worry about it, humanity will be long gone. As a writer, and a historian, and an anthropologist who started off doing geek hard science, I have spent a lot of time looking at the human condition. And as I look across our historical track record, and at the world today with all the wars and troubles that defy our best efforts to stop them, I think we carry the seeds of our own destruction with us.

What do you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


14 thoughts on “It wasn’t the end of the world as we know it…

    1. Have to admit the bigger worry I had was the idiots pouring out of a live venue about 200 yards from my house, which didn’t exist when we moved into the place. Yelling, screaming and being general yahoos in a quiet residential street. Neat.

    1. Thank you. Apropos the music…no such luck, I’m afraid. It was a kind of mutant country folk-rock. I would have quite liked some “Rush” covers, great band & they’ve always been under-rated!

  1. I agree with you completely, Matthew. In the US, the rather tumultuous holiday season of 2012 is revealing much about ourselves that we knew but ignored and may continue to do so. I believe I read somewhere on some Mayan calendar site about the solstice marking the end of the time of separation and the beginning of the time of unity. One can only hope.

    Wonderful opening to this post and from what you describe, I am not surprised their choice of music was geared toward sleep deprivation as opposed to world ending. Do you know the next date for the end of the earth? Mainly, I was thinking of your sleep.

    Best to you and yours this holiday season.


    1. Thank you. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the holidays show up the strains in our lives, especially Christmas. I don’t know how the US goes, given it’s winter, but here in NZ everybody takes off on their summer holidays for Christmas, with the result that there is a mad ‘Christmas rush’ in December to get every outstanding work project completed before the whole country shuts down for three weeks. People stagger out of workplaces on 23-24 December, utterly exhausted, stressed and angry. Then they have Christmas. There has to be a better way.

      That venue didn’t exist when we moved into the street a few years ago. Then it was a quiet suburban street with a handy restaurant-and-bar just around the corner. The restaurant owners got ideas. Sometimes the music is OK. But not often…though I do recall listening to ‘Shihad’, probably NZ’s top ‘exported’ band, from my own living room, not too long ago. To give them their due, they do adhere to noise control regulations, which are pretty strict in terms of shut-down times in a suburban area.

      Hope you have a great Christmas and New Year! And thank you for your interest and support through the year in my little corner of the blog-o-sphere, very much appreciated.

  2. When I was about seven, we lived near a SAC base. Every time those B-52s came over I was sure the world was about to end. THAT was an apocalypse that could’ve been. All this other stuff just seems kind of tired to me, like we can’t think of anything better to do with our time.

    Or maybe Immanuel Velikovksy had it right and thousands of years ago the Earth really was visited by something like apocalyptic fury — comets or whatever smashing into the planet. Maybe we got so used to it that now, like victims of some repetitive trauma, we just have to keep reliving it.

    Maybe. But it just makes me tired.

    1. There’s no doubt that we were staring down the barrel of a self-made apocalypse back in the twentieth century – what did Einstein say? ‘Nuclear weapons have changed everything, except the way we think’. Something like that. Those things can’t be un-invented, and there are at least two nations I can think of right now which seem to be trying to invent them again. Pity.

  3. I like to think that humanity won’t destroy itself. I feel that we will spread out through the solar system and then to other systems due to capitalism and greed, but that once we get more spread out, we’ll start to become more insular societies and learn to treat each other better. Galactic peace and all that. Will it happen? Probably not. But that’s what I like to think 🙂

    1. It would be great to think that we could spread out through the solar system and near stars. But I agree that it probably won’t happen; too expensive, the laws of physics are restrictive, and I fear the rate at which we’re filling and polluting our own planet means we’ll choke to death before we get far off Earth. But it would be a wonderful future if we did. Asimov pivoted a fair number of his novels on the idea of cultural diversification between star systems, pretty cool I thought.

  4. I thought the moon was already tidally locked with the Earth? What’s the difference between that and the Earth being tidally locked with the moon?

    Also I think we’ll destroy ourselves way before outer space phenomenon will. How’s that for cheery opinions? 😛

    1. The Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, meaning its rotation on its axis and its orbital period are the same, so it shows mostly the same face to Earth – there is a wobbling effect dubbed ‘libration’ which means we actually get to see about 55 percent of the lunar surface. Patrick Moore (who died last week) did his serious astronomical work surveying that edge-view. However, Earth doesn’t yet show the same face permanently to the Moon and rotates about 30 times for every orbit the Moon makes of us. The Moon locked to us first because Earth’s mass is 81 times that of the Moon…but it’ll happen one day.

      There’s work been done, too, on why one side of the Moon looks very different to the other, and why we got the ‘maria’ side – it’s related to lunar mass-distribution, which isn’t symmetrical, and I guess the twin probes they crashed into the Moon last week will tell us more when they finally sort out the data.

      All of which I find pretty cool & exciting, and makes me very glad to live in this day and age… though I guess the future will hold even more awesome discoveries.

      I agree – we’ll probably deal to ourselves first. Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’ is worth a read for his view of it, I don’t agree entirely with his approach (too deterministic for my liking), but he’s a smart guy and certainly thought-provoking, if depressing!

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