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GOODBYE TO ALL THAT: Doomsdays for the 21st century

Published Aug. 27, 2005

The century opened with Bill Joy's April 2000 Wired article, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," which predicted human annihilation through nanotechnology, and an Australian team's invention of a 100 percent lethal mousepox virus. (Doomsday for mice if not for man?) Meanwhile, old Doomsday scenarios are being dusted off and made new, buffed up for 21st century consumption. Everybody's doing it _ Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees in his much-ballyhooed book, Our Final Hour, and a splashy feature in the July 2003 Wired, owing much to Discover's October 2000 "20 Ways the World Could End."

The good news? Colliding Doomsdays. New Scientist reports that researchers at Uppsala University are confident Earth will run out of oil and gas before man can burn enough fossil fuels to produce irreversible global warming (August 2, 2003).

We know the century's young, but herewith its Doomsday list so far, shoved into seven life-threatening categories:

Apocalypse. This is the original, the wellspring _ where the ideas of megadeath and megadisaster got their start, the creative fount to which all other Doomsdays owe so much. Apocalypse is now appearing in modern dress (with modern marketing) in the form of the Left Behind series _ Christian fundamentalists' stories of a post-Rapture, pre-Second Coming world. There will be 14 novels in all _ more than 40-million copies sold so far. Armageddon, No. 11, has just been published. This is not just a golden oldie _ it's the Golden Oldie.

Germs, mousepox, and bioweapons, a.k.a. "What if it gets out?" It all started nearly 30 years ago, when citizens of Cambridge, Mass., proposed the outlawing of recombinant DNA research within city limits. Were they afraid that Harvard's _ or MIT's _ Dr. Frankensteins would produce little cloned babies with three ears and giant eyes in the middle of their foreheads? No matter _ the birth of the 21st century gave us all an even bigger reason to worry: The January 2001 Journal of Virology reported an experiment by an Australian team that inserted interleukin 4 into mousepox, producing a variant virus with 100 percent lethality _ a result the researchers had good reason to expect, their editor later noted.

Nanotechnology, or the attack of "gray goo" _ "green goo," too. It's the quantum effect that'll get you. At the molecular level, substances may have different qualities than they do at a larger scale. As yet, though, the proliferation of Doomsday scenarios resulting from the ability to manipulate substances on the molecular level has outpaced real-life "nanotech." Today, paints, coatings and skin creams feature enhancing nanoparticles; tomorrow, tiny self-replicating "nanobots" could reproduce until the environment is filled with nothing but gray goo. As for green goo, produced by biologically based machines that also self-replicate, don't even ask. Wait for the movie.

This angry Earth. Ever get the feeling you're walking on a ticking time bomb? Well, you kind of are. Earth scientists maintain that we're due, or overdue, for all sorts of catastrophic natural disasters. For example, the Earth's magnetic field is bound to reverse itself again, as it has done hundreds of times before. Also overdue: major episodes of flood-basalt eruptions, or "supervolcanoes," believed to cause mass extinctions, including one about 250-million years ago that may have wiped out 95 percent of all life. It's unlikely that some natural disaster will kill us all off. But what if global warming melted the polar ice caps, raising the sea levels, triggering mass flooding that was exacerbated by a super-tsunami caused by a mega-earthquake that led to massive landslides? What then, huh?

We have seen the enemy, and he is us. Maybe only five mass extinctions have occurred. But, some say, we're in the middle of No. 6. The difference is, this one's manmade. Species are disappearing as much as 1,000 times faster than the natural rate, accelerated by overhunting, overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, and so on. This could have a calamitous effect on biodiversity's balance, upsetting the food chain and driving humans toward the brink of extinction. (Of course, there's always Soylent Green ...)

Nuclear holocaust. The post-Cold War world has seen significant reductions in nuclear arsenals, but there's still enough nuclear firepower in global stockpiles to destroy civilization many times over. Even if some life survived a global nuclear holocaust, the ensuing nuclear winter _ the day after _ would be a harsh time. Potassium iodide pills and fallout shelters wouldn't do much good.

It came from outer space! Killer asteroids and other external events. But maybe human foolishness won't be our ultimate undoing, after all. The end of the world as we know it could be of extraplanetary origin. We know for sure that asteroids will collide with Earth. What's uncertain is when, where, and how big they'll be. Or maybe the sun's enormous solar flare belches _ coronal mass ejections _ will somehow cause our demise. Or most exciting of all _ alien attack. The end of the world, but without the guilt.