Congratulations! You have survived the end of the world on December 21st, 2012. Many of you who never believed it may nevertheless be relieved, thinking that we can now forget about these apocalyptic prophecies. But, you would be wrong, in my opinion. It’s likely that, before too long, the Internet will be abuzz with new or recycled prophecies of doom. In fact, I don’t think these doomsday predictions are newsworthy, and should largely be ignored, because the end of the world happens so frequently. It does, that is, if you believe everything you read online. There is even a handy list on Wikipedia.
Maybe many rational people enjoy these fantastic scares, the same way many people enjoy horror movies, simply as escapist fun. I, too, enjoyed reading about Nostradamus’s supposed predictions as a young boy. Then there are people who are trying to make money – well, it’s a free country. For example, I don’t resent Hollywood for making the movie 2012, although I think there is much to criticize in a viral ad campaign for that movie. For this, the studio created a non-profit sounding website while effectively hiding any affiliation with the movie. I pity the people who thought that website was for real.
Anyway, I thought this might be a good time to make a few general points related to some of these doomsday scenarios, now that one specific, well-publicized end-of-the-world prediction is behind us.
(1) Do we live in a dangerous universe?
Yes, definitely. But nothing has destroyed the Earth for over 4 billion years, and it’s been about 65 million years since the global extinction that killed off the dinosaurs. Many of the things that disaster prophecies mention – alignments of planets, for example – happen far more frequently than that, without any ill effects. If the human civilization can prosper for millions of years, then we may have to worry about space-based threats to the very existence of our race; over much shorter time frame (centuries, or even millennia), the chances of such huge catastrophes are almost negligible.
Toutatis is an asteroid with an orbit that puts it close enough to Earth to be considered a potentially hazardous object. Scientists believe it poses no real threat, and on December 12, 2012 it passed within 18 lunar distances to Earth.
Credit: NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone
We should, nevertheless, worry about lesser but significant dangers from space – say the equivalent of magnitude 9 earthquakes or category 5 hurricanes. Specifically, we need to worry the most about impacts by comets or asteroids, given what we know of various cosmic dangers. For the last 15 years or so, we have made significant investments of resources to try to discover as many potentially hazardous objects in the Solar system, and none that poses an immediate danger has been found. Smaller objects are harder to discover, and they are more commonplace. One could still strike us with little warning, and cause huge (but far from civilization ending) damage. Our ability to spot potential dangers is improving, people have thought about how one might deal with such objects if found, and we should continue to invest in these areas. Rest assured, also, that scientists are happy and eager to study any other potential dangers out there.