Asteroids,Mayan doomsday prophecies and black holes why are we so obsessed with the end of the world?
Ive developed a debilitating case of cosmophobia. The truth is out there,sure. But so is a lot of other scary,and potentially fatal,stuff. Perturbed astronomers say that fear of the universe has been growing in the past decade. Im worried about those two small asteroids that buzzed the earth this week,those two big earthquakes in Italy and the countdown to doomsday on December 21,supposedly prophesied in the Mayan calendar. Will Planet X,or Nibiru,collide with the earth before Christmas? Will a black hole swallow us up?
It looks to be the hottest spring on record. Its been so boiling,with people getting treated for heat stroke,that its redolent of that Twilight Zone episode where the earth spins out of its orbit and moves closer to the sun and everyones burning to death.
Maybe my eschatological tizzy started with Melancholia,Lars von Triers gorgeous but weird meditation on the annihilation of the earth by a passing planet. Or seeing the trailer for Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,an end-of-days romantic comedy with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.
But my cataclysmic creeps ratcheted up when I read a book due out next month called The Age of Miracles,a debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker that makes you look around more warily as you walk down the street.
Walker has written a tender coming-of-age novel set at the toxic end of the world. The earths rotation slows and days and nights stretch the length of weeks. The magnetic field shielding the earth from the suns radiation withers,gravity goes kerflooey and the temperature is either boiling or freezing. The former book editor got the idea after reading that the 2004 earthquake in Indonesia was so powerful that it changed the shape of the earth,sped up its rotation and shaved 3 microseconds off each day.
Feeling a little jittery,I called David Morrison,the senior scientist at NASAs Ames Research Centre in California,who answers questions online. Even before archaeologists discovered an extended Mayan calendar in Guatemala earlier this month that debunked the idea that the world is ending in December,Morrison thought the Mayan prophecy was bunk. People trying to make money are ginning up the hoax,he said. The worst thing is they really do frighten children,and its evil to make up lies to scare children, he said. He reassured me that the premises in Walkers novel and The Twilight Zone could not happen. We can do horrible things to the planet with global warming or nuclear war, he said. But we cant shift the distance to the sun or slow the rotation.
Noting the growing cases of cosmophobia,Morrison asked impatiently,Why is our society so focused on potential disasters? Just as I was starting to calm down,he mentioned that the Andromeda galaxy is going to crash into the Milky Way in two billion years. Hearing me keening over the strain of Andromeda,he explained that it would just be two great big fuzzy balls of stars and mostly empty space passing through each other harmlessly over the course of millions of years. Well just have twice as many stars, he said. The end of the world is a really silly concept. Its been here for four billion years. I can imagine us blowing ourselves up as a civilisation,but the planet wouldnt care. How can he be sure?
I have a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard, he replied.