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The End of The World [Part I]

Before getting too enthusiastic about predictions of the end of the world, perspective is useful. Let's set aside for the moment the self-proclaimed religious prophets (always present), Nostradamus, Mayan calendar decoders, et al. From the new, post-uniformitarian secular perspective (i.e., the world has a rich history of cataclysms), there is every reason to worry -- if worrying about things you have no control over is your forte.

Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, heat waves, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis could strike at any time and cause a cascade of physical and social events leading to the collapse of society. It would be nothing new. For example, the Minoan eruption on Thera (also called the island of Santorini) in the mid-second millennium B.C.E., covered an area the size of India a mile deep in lava. That was certainly a big deal and the end of the world for many. The terminal cretaceous asteroid generated 56,000 times the destructive power of Thera, created a global winter, and ended the world for the dinosaurs and billions of other creatures.

Here are more scenarios. Huge reservoirs of accumulating methane gas buried in the depths of the oceans could burp to the surface, ignite, and devastate the entire globe. The magnetic pole of the Earth could shift, the rotation reverse, or the axis change, bringing havoc to climate. Solar storms could burn up our protective atmosphere, meteors could bombard us, and the sun could explode or just get a lot hotter or colder. We could sink into a black hole, collide with an annihilating parallel universe, be zapped into oblivion by gamma radiation from an exploding star somewhere in the galaxy, or dead-end the human race because of impotence (the most likely scenario, according to erectile dysfunction drug advertising). Terrible diseases could sweep the globe. A nuclear physicist could make a miscalculation in his lab and we could all disappear into dark matter. We could destroy our environmental life support or kill ourselves with war and terrorism. There is no end to the ghastly and terrifying possibilities.

The universe is inexorably running down, in obedience to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Eventually, Earth will stop spinning, be drawn into a swelling sun and be turned to molten liquid, or be loosened from the sun’s gravitational grip and careen away into frigidly cold space (– 400° F). Our sun-star will also eventually burn out. We so happen to live on the skin -- the thickness of an apple skin if the Earth were an apple -- of a molten planet spinning at 1,000 mph and orbiting a gigantic continuously exploding nuclear bomb (the sun) at 67,000 mph.

We have absolutely no idea where natural laws, matter, or energy came from, what their underlying nature is, or why they remain in existence. There is no reason that gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear forces continue -- things upon which the physical world and we depend for existence moment by moment. From a scientific basis, we have no idea whatsoever why they do. If any of these fundamental forces were to disappear, or vary by the most infinitesimally small measure, the universe as we know it would unravel, taking us along with it. That our reality hangs together is truly a repeating miracle every second of every day.

The intricate balance between plants, animals, and the physical environment is likewise precarious. Life is about proportions, fine-tuning, homeostasis, and millions of speed-of-light chemical interactions per second. Our bodies are comprised of millions of intricate and fragile quantum “pieces” interacting at lightning speed. From there arise endless possibilities for our demise at any second.

Everything is just too improbable, too finely tuned, and too intricate. Disturb any little thing and illness or death results. The more detail we learn, the more unlikely it is that this thing called life exists for a nanosecond, much less for millennia. Every breath we take is a miracle. The end of the world is not a spectacular notion; that we and the world exist at all is what is so stupendously outrageous!

The world will also end for each of us in our lifetimes because we all die. Isn’t that the end of our world?

Although science brought us out of the Dark Ages and helped us understand how a few things work, it has not brought us closer to any understanding of answers to the big questions. The more we have learned, the more bottomless the universe has become and the more tenuous life seems. In the meantime, everything just keeps clicking along in the most intricate and unlikely of ways. Our existence teeters on a knife-edge so thin that the only thing that seems certain is that we should not exist.

The problem with essentially all end-of-the-worlders is that they assume too much. They take for granted existence, effectively denying the fact that there is no logical reason why any of us exist in the first place. We don't need a prophet, a “chosen” person to interpret a “holy” book, or a translator to unravel cuneiform to learn about the end of the world.

Everything about life and every visible and invisible piece of the universe is totally inexplicable, precarious, and most certainly not a given -- since we have no understanding of where it all came from or why it continues to hang together.

The only appropriate attitude toward the end of the world is thankfulness that we exist at all...and then moving on with the true business of life, becoming better people.

Thought: Life saves us from crisis by giving us a bigger one to worry about.

Word: precarious – /priˈke(ə)rēəs/ adjective: 1. Not securely held or in position; dangerously likely to fall or collapse. 2. Dependent on chance; uncertain.

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