Nasa / Space optimize

Five extinction events more likely than the Mayan Apocalypse

If you're in the market for a rational cause for crippling, existential fear about the extinction of all human life, read this terrifying list.

Okay, so the (ahem) more credulous amongst us are all in a tizzy because Dec. 21, 2012 is the supposed date of the "Mayan Apocalypse," which is really just one drastically overhyped misinterpretation of one of several ancient Mesoamerican calendars. The odds of the Mayan Apocalypse being anything other than a New Age pseudo-science bunk are about as high as Michael Bay directing a movie with a cogent plot and no gratuitous explosions. (Read: zero.)

That said, if you're in the market for a rational cause for crippling, existential fear about the extinction of all human life, science has some wonderful new concepts with which you should become familiar. The five most terrifying are listed below.

1: Asteroid impact

Odds of killing you: 1 in 700,000

Let's kick off our little nightmare parade with the Torino Impact Hazard Scale, a metric named for a stylish Italian burg but which actually quantifies the level of threat posed by known asteroids. A Torino 0 means the rock ain't worth a mention, because it won't ever intersect Earth. A Torino 10 means make peace with your preferred deity as it's about to rain inexorable rocky death from the skies, likely taking human civilization down in a tsunamic pyre of thunder and ash. The fact that we need a scale that goes to 10 is less than comforting. Luckily, we are aware of exactly two asteroids that rate above zero on the Torino scale -- 2007 VK184 and 2011 AG5 -- both of which merit a measly Torino 1. Stand down, Bruce Willis; we don't need any asteroid drillers today.

2: Near-earth supernova

Odds of killing you: 1 in 10,000,000

There was an exceedingly dim and disingenuous attempt recently to suggest that the Mayan Apocalypse was actually a prediction that the star Betelgeuse would go supernova in 2012, but the science of that is so bad as to be laughable. Don't get me wrong, supernovae put out a lot of energy and having one go up near the human homeworld would be bad, but it would have to be pretty near us to matter -- within about 30 light-years or so, a radius that doesn't contain that many stars, let alone likely candidates to flame on supernova. (Betelgeuse is over 600 light-years distant.) And even then, what we're talking about is a stripping of the ozone layer from supernova-emitted gamma radiation output, rather than some sci-fi-esque shockwave ripping Earth apart. It wouldn't be quick or colorful, other than some nifty aurorae. You're more likely to die at the hands of Beetlejuice (or any other deranged mime and/or Tim Burton character cosplayer) than Betelgeuse or a similar supernova.

3: Gamma-ray burst

Odds of killing you: 1 in 14,000,000

The good news is no gamma-ray burst (GRB) has ever been observed within our own galaxy. The bad news is GRBs are so powerful that they are easily observed in other galaxies, and we don't know what causes them. We think they might be products of hypernovae, the supersized cousins of supernovae, but we can't really be sure. But the fact that giant bursts of deadly radiation that dwarf supernovae can literally appear out of apparent nothingness doesn't leave us feeling all warm and cozy. If a GRB were to appear in the vicinity and direction of earth, the best case scenario is we all turn into giant green rage monsters of the Bruce Banner variety. The more likely outcome is earth is scoured clean of surface lifeforms in a blast of high-energy radiation -- as we think happened 450 million years ago. Of course, since most galaxies only generate one GRB per million years, and the odds of a Milky Way GRB being aimed directly at earth are incredibly slim, there's no need for the radiation suits (or anger management classes) just yet.

4: Nuclear war

Odds of killing you: 1 in 10

The figure above is not a typo; it was the headline-grabbing 2009 statistic from Stanford professor Martin Hellman, who has spent his career modeling the likelihood of nuclear conflict. Bottom line, there are a lot of nukes lying around, and lot of countries that could build a crude nuclear weapon should they want to -- some of them less than reputable. (Looking at you, North Korea and Iran.) Worst of all, once somebody sets off a nuclear weapon, the odds of a nuclear response increase dramatically, and the dominoes of mutually assured destruction start to fall -- snuffing a huge swath of humanity in the process. I don't have a joke here; this one is legitimately terrifying.

5: Robot uprising

Odds of killing you: Unknown

You laugh now, but Cambridge University has set up the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk specifically to study the increasing likelihood of human extinction, and a cybernetic revolt is right at the top of their list. We already have killer robots wandering the skies, self-driving cars cruising the highways outside Las Vegas, and phones smart enough to turn our idle mutterings into dinner reservations. We're one Google darknet glitch and a Johnny Five lightning strike away from a full blown Skynet singularity. I can't tell you the odds of it happening, only that it gets more likely every day. Let that thought keep you warm at night.

Got a favorite existential threat you like to ponder on those nights when sleep comes far too easily, or just want to wrestle with the numbing dread of our own harrowing selections? Fear and loathing await in the comments section.

Editor's note: TechRepublic's Geekend blog is coming to an end this year in order for us to focus all of our resources on business technology topics. The Geekend blog has had a great run, thanks to our wonderful contributors and our loyal readers. We would love to hear which Geekend posts and/or discussions are your favorites.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

107 comments
Velocitydreamer
Velocitydreamer

... I see this as good a reason as any before. Don't stop Geekend. Seriously, most tech sites are as dry and dull as the next one, but these articles give a much needed comic relief that, though my clients tend to give plenty of, is still much, much needed! So for the sake of the loud, whiny few... keep it! :)

Dknopp
Dknopp

.... I go as well, and I can only assume a lot of other people too. There is no actual reason for geekend to be shutdown and I for one am tired of the race to the bottom that just about every American corporation - including Techrepublic it seems, is engaged in.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

Losing Geekend sucks big time. Sorry to see it go. Didn't they fire you once already Jay?

alvin.padayachee
alvin.padayachee

If you believe in Ancient Astronaut theory - then there is a possibility that human genetic modification did occur and that our alien buddies may return.

johndesd
johndesd

The less menacing and less popular ancient Aztec prediction of a 3rd Fiscal Cliff proposal?

techrepublic
techrepublic

Imaging a world where you insert a couple slices of bread into the toaster, only to have the bread molecules somehow commanded to line up, enabling the toaster to communicate with other toasters letting them know that you are attempting to eat breakfast. Suddenly the Rebellion is in full swing, and OUR BREAKFAST IS CANCELLED!! NOOOO!!!!!! Trust me, it could happen. Once, my blender attacked my right foot and it really hurt.

Ocie3
Ocie3

Apparently, you do not consider either (1) eventually, unsustainable population, AKA overpopulation, or (2) global warming with consequent climate changes and sea-level rise, to be existential threats. Those seem far more likely to me than any of the others and we are about as hapless to prevent either one. Of course, either condition could lead to nuclear warfare, although I believe that a rage for revenge and/or fantasies of glorious martyrdom are more likley to lead to some religious fanatic using a nuclear bomb. What then? --- Ocie3

Andrew Robertson
Andrew Robertson

I believe the ancient Mayans were predicting the end, not of the world, but of 'Geekend', which is only slightly less catastrophic. And they were only a few days out! Farewell Jay and thank you for the enjoyment your weekly column has given me for so long. All the best. Andrew Robertson Wellington, New Zealand

NerdHerder
NerdHerder

Just as every newspaper needs a comic section, this site needs GeekEnd. Keep it.

neilb
neilb

Nanotechnology gets out of control and turns the surface of the Earth (and us) into grey gunk. Prince Charles warned of that in 2004 and every one knows that the jug-eared Royal's 2.2 BA from Cambridge in anthropology, archaeology, and history qualifies him for authoritative pronouncements on science. Odds: Royal Seal of Approval. Gonna happen!

przh
przh

Don't forget the zombie-like ending.!

al
al

5+pb Jackpot 1 in 175,223,510 Gamma Ray 1 in 14,000,000 Super Nova 1 in 10,000,000 5 $1,000,000 1 in 5,153,632 Asteroid Impact 1 in 700,000 4+pb $10,000 1 in 648,975 4 $100 1 in 19,087 3+pb $100 1 in 12,244 3 $7 1 in 360 2+pb $7 1 in 706 1+pb $4 1 in 110 pb $4 1 in 55 Nuclear War 1 in 10

Seeker532
Seeker532

The super volcano in Yellowstone. The shift of the continents all over the world. That baby elephant found in Siberia has fresh vegetation in it's stomach which means it was in at least a mild climate if not tropical.

Kansan52
Kansan52

Waiting for Geekend. Wow, how pitiful things must be at TR that you need to drop the thing that makes you unique, not just another PR handout spewing machine.

TrajMag
TrajMag

Is this verse 2 of the let's get rid of Jay song? I have been considering bailing out on all of CBS Interactive because of obvious biases, lousy blog flame wars etc but now may be the final straw. Geekend is the only remaining blog in the system that has any hope of relevancy. ;-) Malware de jour, who suing who for some stupid thing like "I own rounded edges." how tiring! Give us visions of advanced times and exotic lands to explore. It's time for massive invasion to Louisville to demand CONTINUANCE not the end! Long Live Jay and GEEKEND..

lestertrad
lestertrad

It's legitimately terrifying, all right. But in saying that Iran and No. Korea "could build a crude nuclear weapon if they wanted to," you're opening a can of worms. Most people would say, and could prove to you, that that simply isn't true. You're also reflecting the standard party line in the US - that Iran and North Korea are major threats to "our security." I won't address the issue of whether they are or not. But I'd just like to say that if they are threats, we should all think very hard about who created those threats. In both cases it was the US itself. As a matter of fact, a lot of people, and more than likely a majority of people around the world, think that the US, not Iran or No. Korea, is THE major threat to everybody's security. After all, what country that possesses nukes (and that does not include No. Korea and Iran, but it does include Israel and of course the US) has ever actually dropped them on other human beings? And has seriously planned - not only since the end of the Cold War, but very recently - to actually use them again?

Long shadoW
Long shadoW

"focus all our resources" !! using pictures of screen shots in a painful powerpoint procession, slow as molossas and twice as exciting? And regurgitating the same articles over and over again in the different newsletters ? Come on, let the kids have a bit of creative downtime; a small laugh in a large busy work-a-day world and you can still sell the air space all around the articles Guess there won't be any need to look at "the tech' on fridays.

Hal_9001
Hal_9001

There are to camps here ... 1) "They come in peace" and the more likely 2) They're here for something. It may not be total annihilation of mankind but it would certainly take us down a notch.

alvin.padayachee
alvin.padayachee

Definitely must survive. Its the only newsletter I never delete and I've read every single issue since I registered a couple of years ago on TR.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

And our "alien buddies" do return, there's a strong possibility they take one look at the results of their experiment, conclude it was a failure, eradicate their work, and start over.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I find it difficult to believe an intelligent race would travel several light years just to conduct the cosmic equivalent of some high school pranks and to pee in our gene pool.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Which is constantly asking can it cook you some toast because that is what it was Created to do. When it's not making you toast it doesn't have a reason for it's existence. ;) Col

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

release the bubonic plague on the world again.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't think anyone else in SF has tackled Yellowstone.

xangpow
xangpow

Since the possibility of a robotic uprising is "unknown" which would be more likely? An alien invasion or a robotic uprising? Keep in mind that aliens could have technology that can hide thier presence OR they could just be flying around and " Hey look, A new fresh planet with lot of resources. Lets go git em, boss." ;)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... it was a success, they extract the alien version of antibiotic that the planet produced and toss the rest.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

There's your earworm for the New Year's weekend.

alvin.padayachee
alvin.padayachee

So you're saying that transforming cro magnon's into humans is the equivalent of peeing in our gene pool? Well I don't want to argue with your notion, however I will assume that you do atleast believe in alien life.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

he'll toast your tootsies on you to give you toasted toes.

neilb
neilb

I think, therefore I toast...

neilb
neilb

that took place in the near future. Nice little VEI-8 that stopped just short of mass extinction. One thing was the Mexicans closing the border for refugees from the US! The CGI was just about good enough. It's on YouTube, Supervolcano. Cheesy in parts and a bit of spurious Brit love interest but good enough.

TreePapa
TreePapa

I have often said: Any alien race advanced enough to reach Earth is smart enough NOT to.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Commander Zog, the human has discovered our presence.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

The Patent on Dehydrated Cans of Water. It's absolutely brilliant all you need do is just add water after you rip the top off the can. Bottles are out because the Plastics used to make them require Raw Materials best converted to pumping the CO2 into the Atmosphere. Instead of making plastics we could make much more CO2 if we used the Oil used in Plastic Manufacture to drive Internal Combustion Engines. While we could make Glass Bottles they are way too fragile and the people buying them are likely to cut themselves on the broken bottles and sue me for their injuries. ;) Col

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

They just suck up the CO2 and leave the O2 behind. Of course, once they do then we lose the insulation value of the CO2, radiate more heat into space, and enter another little ice age. We probably don't have enough fossil fuels left to pump enough CO2 back into the atmosphere to drive the temperature back up. We'll be forced to burn the remaining forests to keep warm, assuming they haven't already died due to CO2 rates lower than they've adapted to. The resulting unsecured soils will shortly erode; combined with the lower temperatures, agricultural yields drop below what's necessary to support the population. Food riots soon compensate, but by then Western Civ as we know it has been reduced to levels where Eskimos are able to leverage their cold weather skills to the point they are regarded as gods. I've said too much already; Lucas has already optioned this and will be upset that I've ruined the trailers.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

as selling bottled water is very profitable, so canned scented air should be great.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

When they remove the CO2 they are also removing twice as much Oxygen as Carbon and that's not replaceable? Of course maybe they could dump their rubbish both Carbon and Oxygen into the Biosphere and that would be OK but simply removing the CO2 is going to hurt us all very quickly. It reminds me of Spaceballs the Movie where they are selling Canned Air. ;) Col

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The solution to global warming is for the BEMs to siphon off the CO2. Just keep spewing it and don't worry, folks; our overlords will be here soon.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

if the object was to produce CO2, the experiment is an admirable success...

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I hope this wasn't about producing oil. They should have kept a closer eye on us.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

experiments with Petri dishes etc where you leave them along for a long time to see how they go? Also, who says they aren't watching us all the time and the reports we get about aliens is just additional stimuli they apply? I'm not saying that's the case, just that it could be.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

While we may be involved in Short Term Observations it's also possible that others are involved in Long Term Observations. There are many experiments here which involve requiring quite a few generations of a life form to be produced and then checked for changes which are not apparent with each individual generation. In a case like that Close Observation can and does cause problems of changes not being recognized as those involved in making the observations don't see any change because the changes are so gradual and those observing them are to closely involved to see what is actually happening. Col

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

But let's look at that. We study various small life forms with lifespans much shorter than ours. We don't examine them based on our lifespan, we check them based on theirs.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

The White Mice are here and are easily seen. They not only traveled Light Years but they had the planet made to their Specification especially for this experiment. It did however take them a very long time to recover from those Telephone Sanitizers and Add people crashing into the planet and Peeing in our Gene Pool early on in the life of the planet and as yet all of the damage that they did has yet to be undone. Just because so many people don't realize that they are part of the experiment and that they are being observed doesn't mean it's not happening. Like it's so hard to believe that the Experiment wasn't designed to make the Observers seem to be part of the experiment to those involved in it is it? Col

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't 'believe' in much, and not in anything that has neither scientifically verifiable evidence nor personal experience. No, I'm not saying 'transforming' cro magnon's in to humans is peeing in our gene pool. I'm saying I find it difficult to accept the notion that anyone traveled light years to perform that 'transformation', especially without following up regularly; or that said 'transformation' occurred outside the processes of Darwinian evolution. If indeed there is life out there, and it had no reason to visit us other than crop circles and pyramids every 2000 years, then we're better off without such practical jokers.

alvin.padayachee
alvin.padayachee

And why exactly is that? Does being extremely intelligent make you less curious as an explorer? I thought that you only get smarter through investigation. Your statement seems contradictory.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

each supply ship to Mawson Base. At the least they could be useful stacked around the building as extra insulation.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

had emergency vessels with all sorts of special gear to help them. Once the aliens got close they'd take to the emergency ships and then use the gear in them to recover what they can from the wreck and use all they can, and their knowledge, to do what they felt they had to do to survive as individuals and as a race. That's all it'll take and there's a lot of good sci-fi stories along that basis.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

They Sanitize Telephones and ask is it available in any other colors. So if the Aliens where Telephone Sanitizers and Marketers they may very well not have know what it is that they where being sent away from as they where destroying that society. In a case like that the Society sending them away under any circumstances would think that it was for the best if they never saw them again and wouldn't necessarily worry about what happened to where they where sent. ;) Col

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

isn't going to be much help either. Now they're limited to the same technologies available at the time of their landing / crash. If Stonehenge could be built or the South American countryside get painted up without high-tech help, then there's no need to introduce aliens into the equation in the first place.