Friday, January 05, 2007

When We're Done, You're Gone

On a gray winter Friday, what better to contemplate than twenty ways in which the world could end, like these favorites:

6 Reversal of Earth's magnetic field. Every few hundred thousand years Earth's magnetic field dwindles almost to nothing for perhaps a century, then gradually reappears with the north and south poles flipped. The last such reversal was 780,000 years ago, so we may be overdue. Worse, the strength of our magnetic field has decreased about 5 percent in the past century. Why worry in an age when GPS has made compasses obsolete? Well, the magnetic field deflects particle storms and cosmic rays from the sun, as well as even more energetic subatomic particles from deep space. Without magnetic protection, these particles would strike Earth's atmosphere, eroding the already beleaguered ozone layer (see #5). Also, many creatures navigate by magnetic reckoning. A magnetic reversal might cause serious ecological mischief. One big caveat: "There are no identifiable fossil effects from previous flips," says Sten Odenwald of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. "This is most curious." Still, a disaster that kills a quarter of the population, like the Black Plague in Europe, would hardly register as a blip in fossil records.

17 Mass insanity. While physical health has improved in most parts of the world over the past century, mental health is getting worse. The World Health Organization estimates that 500 million people around the world suffer from a psychological disorder. By 2020, depression will likely be the second leading cause of death and lost productivity, right behind cardiovascular disease. Increasing human life spans may actually intensify the problem, because people have more years to experience the loneliness and infirmity of old age. Americans over 65 already are disproportionately likely to commit suicide. Gregory Stock, a biophysicist at the University of California at Los Angeles, believes medical science will soon allow people to live to be 200 or older. If such an extended life span becomes common, it will pose unfathomable social and psychological challenges. Perhaps 200 years of accumulated sensations will overload the human brain, leading to a new kind of insanity or fostering the spread of doomsday cults, determined to reclaim life's endpoint. Perhaps the current trends of depression and suicide among the elderly will continue. One possible solution— promoting a certain kind of mental well-being with psychoactive drugs such as Prozac— heads into uncharted waters. Researchers have no good data on the long-term effects of taking these medicines.

18 Alien invasion. At the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, a cadre of dedicated scientists sifts through radio static in search of a telltale signal from an alien civilization. So far, nothing. Now suppose the long-sought message arrives. Not only do the aliens exist, they are about to stop by for a visit. And then . . . any science-fiction devotee can tell you what could go wrong. But the history of human exploration and exploitation suggests the most likely danger is not direct conflict. Aliens might want resources from our solar system (Earth's oceans, perhaps, full of hydrogen for refilling a fusion-powered spacecraft) and swat us aside if we get in the way, as we might dismiss mosquitoes or beetles stirred up by the logging of a rain forest. Aliens might unwittingly import pests with a taste for human flesh, much as Dutch colonists reaching Mauritius brought cats, rats, and pigs that quickly did away with the dodo. Or aliens might accidentally upset our planet or solar system while carrying out some grandiose interstellar construction project. The late physicist Gerard O'Neill speculated that contact with extraterrestrial visitors could also be socially disastrous. "Advanced western civilization has had a destructive effect on all primitive civilizations it has come in contact with, even in those cases where every attempt was made to protect and guard the primitive civilization," he said in a 1979 interview. "I don't see any reason why the same thing would not happen to us."
I feel better already, and there are seventeen to go.