Ever since the first atom bomb was detonated people became aware of our capacity to bring about our own extinction. One of the big fears spawning from the splitting of the atom was the likelihood of scientific accidents bringing about our downfall. Being that we’re so prone to making mistakes, it’s easy to worry that such destructive power has fallen on our clumsy hands.
Doomsday Scenario No. 2: Accidents Happen
The idea of a loaded gun given to a child is an apt metaphor of this doomsday scenario. Many people feel that we as a species are developing way too fast in terms of science and technology before we’re ready to truly understand the implications of new discoveries. By that concern, they point to our recent history with nuclear power.
One of humanity’s deepest fears is that of an accidental nuclear weapons exchange. While it’s true the world powers that possess nuclear weapons have stringent safeguards there are the nagging doubt about their reliability. Back in the 1990s after the Cold War ended it became notoriously easy to acquire nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union. The thought of such WMDs in the wrong hands is horrifying. But there is the possibility of failed safeguards. This was seen in the film and book Fail-Safe where U.S. bombers are mistakenly sent to bomb the Soviet Union. Despite all efforts, Moscow is destroyed and to avert World War III, the U.S. president arranges to restore the balance by having New York City nuked. A similar situation happened in the Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove but to a more comedic effect. Accidental nuclear war has also been the subjects of many songs like Nena’s “99 Luftballons” (“99 Red Balloons”) or Men At Work’s “It’s A Mistake”. But what is deeply chilling is that many times military personnel and governments almost used nuclear weapons by mistake. One such incident happened in the mid 1990s when a rocket test launched in Europe was mistaken by Russia to be a nuclear first strike against them and Russian leader Boris Yeltsin was urged by his military to launch a nuclear counter-attack.
Then there are the problems with nuclear fission used as an energy source. For the most part, nuclear power plants are safe but the idea of a meltdown and the environmental impact is enough to keep most people leery about them. There was the Three Mile Island incident which thankfully ended well, but on the other hand we’ve had a nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl and most recently there was the Fukushima disaster in Japan. With Chernobyl that disaster left that city abandoned and uninhabitable to this day, while the impact of the Fukushima meltdown is still ongoing with an untold number of people having been exposed to deadly radiation.
In the world of science fiction, wondrous discoveries and promising experiments often turn into worldwide disasters. In the film The Quiet Earth, a scientist working for a company worked on a global energy grid. What happens next is that the experiment makes all the people, except for the scientist and two other persons, disappear without a trace. At the end of The Quiet Earth, the scientist tries to undo the effect of his experiment but the result leaves him stranded in another reality by himself.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle, there is an artificial substance called ice-nine which is a type of water that is solid at room temperature. By the novel’s end, ice-nine is accidently released into the ocean which turns practically all the water in the world into solid ice and nearly all life on the planet ends a few days later.
Some scientific experiments and discoveries aren’t as world devastating as those found in The Quiet Earth and Cat’s Cradle, but they come close. In the book FlashForward, an experiment at CERN (European Organization For Nuclear Research) regarding Higgs boson particles unleashes a side effect wherein the entire world population briefly loses consciousness and experiences a few moments of the future. In the TV show based on the book, CERN isn’t responsible for the blackouts but rather a consortium of sinister scientists.
Then there are the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. In the books and films, dinosaurs are brought back to life through cloning and chaos erupts. The humans are unable to control the dinosaurs in the upcoming Jurassic Park theme park, and this results with the unhindered dinosaurs driving out humans from the park. In the sequel book The Lost World and the film Jurassic Park III dinosaurs are multiplying and beginning to move past their island boundaries. This was dramatically shown at the end of Jurassic Park III when several pteranodons are shown flying out of their island. If dinosaurs were to invade other territories, they would decimate local flora and threaten humanity. Basically our world could turn into a monster film where humanity is at war with giant creatures.
Sometimes the plot lines in these tales has it that the military is secretly testing new weapons or devices with unexpected results. The urban legend about the Philadelphia Experiment details how supposedly during World War II the U.S. Navy performed an experiment onboard the U.S.S. Eldridge to render it invisible but harmed the sailors onboard. A film based on the incident also called The Philadelphia Experiment took the premise a step further and the experiment threatened the Earth when it created a vortex.
The military is also responsible for the catastrophes that ravage the world in the movie The Core. It turns out that after testing a seismic weapon by the U.S. military, the Earth’s core stops rotating, which begins to collapse the protective electromagnetic field surrounding the world. As the heroes in The Core journey to the Earth’s center to explode nukes that will restart the core’s rotation (!), electromagnetic storms raze the world and structures like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Roman Coliseum are destroyed.
This fear about the military experimenting with secret weapons and technology is influenced by their secretive nature and the fact that so little is known about them. Take the H.A.A.R.P. (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) project for example. Reportedly, its purpose is to study the ionosphere for applications in advanced communications and surveillance. A lot of conspiracy theorists are convinced that H.A.A.R.P. is being used to create natural disasters like superstorms and earthquakes. Some even claim that it was used a week before the recent U.S. presidential election to create Superstorm Sandy so that the president had an opportunity to appear presidential and win the election. H.A.A.R.P. has also been used in fiction like The X-Files and in several Marvel comics.
Mini Holes and Goo
Some worry that uncontrolled or careless science experiments could lead to the decimation of food, water and oil supplies (in the case of water, this was presented in Cat’s Cradle). But two dominant concerns have arisen about consequential scientific research.
In addition to Jurassic Park, author Michael Crichton also penned a book called Prey which was also about technology run amok. In Prey’s case, it was nanotechnology which worries many scientists. Nanobots are recognized as the next step in medical technology. Tiny self-multiplying robots that are invisible to the naked eye can be injected into patients to treat them for cancers and other ailments more effectively than with conventional methods. The same nanotechnology also has other applications but all of this is in the research phase.
One drawback with nanobots is that people may lose control over the self-replicating machines. This would result in out-of-control and rapid propagation. The nanobots will then consume all matter to self-multiply which results in the grey goo phenomenon. In that case unhindered, runaway nanobots will turn everything on Earth into shapeless masses. Grey goo has also covered in other novels like Wil McCarthy’s Bloom and Greg Bear’s The Forge Of God.
Another developing concern has to do with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which is the world’s largest particle accelerator. Many fear that the Collider can create mini black holes in the Earth as it collides protons together at near light speeds. Once the miniature black holes are created, they will grow and consume the Earth. However, this hasn’t happened and probably won’t. Scientists believe that any micro black holes will dissipate and actually these proton collisions take place naturally in our atmosphere and we’re still here.
These micro black holes have plagued several science fiction stories and books like the novel Earth by David Brin is about an artificially created black hole that burrows itself in the planet’s interior which threatens the Earth. Other examples include Larry Niven’s The Hole Man and The Borderland Of Sol, Dan Simmons’ books Ilium and Olympos, and Martin Caidin’s Star Bright.
It was also feared that the Collider would also create strangelets or strange matter. This subatomic matter is largely theoretical but if they were to be formed they would tear holes on our planet. The novel Impact by Douglas Preston has an alien machine that creates strangelets and the TV special End Day featured a scenario where a created strangelet destroyed the Earth.