3Qs: Doomsday predictions debunked

December 21, 2012 by Linda Ogbevoen
Toyoko Orimoto, an assistant professor of physics, says that we should be more concerned with climate change than judgment day, which the Mayan calendar predicts will take place on Friday. Credit: istockphoto

Some people are not making plans for the New Year. From hiding in bomb shel­ters to sharp­ening their sur­vival skills, doomsday the­o­rists are preparing for judg­ment day, which the Mayan cal­endar pre­dicts will take place on Friday. Toyoko Ori­moto is an assis­tant pro­fessor of physics in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and a member of the Com­pact Muon Sole­noid col­lab­o­ra­tion at the Large Hadron Collider—the world's most pow­erful par­ticle accelerator—at CERN, the Euro­pean Orga­ni­za­tion for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzer­land. Here, she explains what a poten­tial end of days sce­nario would look like and why we should be more con­cerned about cli­mate change.

As a scientist, are you bothered by unscientific claims of apocalyptic events? What is the most far-fetched doomsday scenario that you have heard?

I don't know if "both­ered" is the right word. For the most part, I tend to ignore unsci­en­tific claims about most things, including doomsday events. Per­haps the most far-​​fetched doomsday sce­nario I've encoun­tered is the idea that the Large Hadron Col­lider, would create a black hole, which, in turn, would con­sume the . Of course, we've debunked this far-​​fetched hypoth­esis, as the Large Hadron Col­lider has been oper­ating smoothly for years.

An astrobiologist at NASA has debunked the rumor of the imminent destruction of the world in which a mysterious planet known as Nibiru would collide with the Earth. He said, "There is no true issue here. This is just manufactured fantasy." But pretend for a moment that an end of days scenario were to play out. What would it look like?

A real­istic doomsday sce­nario would be that of an asteroid hit­ting the Earth. Craters on the Earth sug­gest that such inci­dents have in fact occurred in the past. Per­haps the most famous asteroid is the one that hit the Earth 65 mil­lion years ago and is hypoth­e­sized to have trig­gered the extinc­tion of the dinosaurs. The impact of even a small asteroid hit­ting the Earth could be devastating.

I've read for instance that if a two-​​kilometer diam­eter asteroid were to strike the Earth at some­thing like 50,000 kilo­me­ters per hour the energy released in the impact would be equiv­a­lent to that of a 1 mil­lion megaton bomb. Such a large impact would pro­duce huge tsunamis, or bring about a pro­longed period of cold weather (as is spec­u­lated to have brought upon the extinc­tion of the dinosaurs), or both. The gov­ern­ment, of course, has taken steps to ensure we could fore­tell any pos­sible impacts and has devel­oped a pro­gram to avoid such an impact.

Scientists have continued to refute claims that the world will end in 2012, but many doomsday preppers have nonetheless built arks and bomb shelters in case of the planet's catastrophic demise. Why do you think end of days scenarios are so popular among particular contingents of people?

To be honest, I have no idea. I am far more con­cerned about issues, such as cli­mate change, which we can have con­trol over, but without our inter­ven­tion could bring about dis­as­trous consequences.

Cli­mate change is poten­tially dev­as­tating simply because humans have set­tled the Earth in ways that suit what the Earth used to look like. For example, we've built cities by the ocean and farms in places where weather con­di­tions are good for crop growth. But rising sea levels can make existing pop­u­la­tion cen­ters uninhabitable—think New Orleans or New York—and rising tem­per­a­tures can make existing farm­land unpro­duc­tive. The scary thing is that these prob­lems are far more acute in devel­oping coun­tries that don't have U.S.-like resources to adapt to what changes may come, and whose pop­u­la­tions are far more eco­nom­i­cally inse­cure in any case.

Cli­mate change may not seize people's atten­tion in the same way as more implau­sible the­o­ries, because of  its gradual nature. It could be that slow changes taking place over the course of many decades do not grip the imag­i­na­tion of para­noiacs the way sudden cat­a­clysmic events can, never mind the respec­tive sci­en­tific plau­si­bility of each.

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