If you believe Hollywood, we are all danger of being wiped out by a variety of apocalyptic scenarios, from asteroid strikes, to killer machines and global zombie pandemics.
But just how outlandish are these scenarios? We looked at the science behind Tinseltown’s trashiest disaster flicks and scarily, many of them are more plausible than you’d think.
An asteroid strike
See: ‘Armageddon’, ‘Deep Impact’
Could this wipe us out? “Although the annual probability of a human being killed from an extra-terrestrial impactor is estimated to be about one in a million, if a very large one were to collide with Earth then this is probably the most-likely candidate for a global-changing event,” says Dr. Faure Walker, from the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London.
“However, these are thought to occur less than once every one hundred million years. There are also global collaborations working to identify near-Earth objects and Spaceguard estimates that we have detected over 90% of near-Earth objects over 1km in diameter. It is thought that if such an object were detected early enough, humankind has the technology to shift the path of the potential impactor so as to avoid a collision with Earth.”
She doesn’t say if this ‘technology’ would involve Bruce Willis with a drill…
Computers take over and kill us all
See: The ‘Matrix’ and ‘Terminator’
Could this wipe us out? Stephen Hawking certainly thinks so, warning the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
However Dr. Peter Bentley, head of the Digital Biology unit at University College London is a bit more circumspect. While his team are researching the use of ferrofluid – nano-particles suspended in fluid which can be manipulated by magnets and looks kind of like the T-1000 – he says the levels of intelligence required to emulate Arnie in ‘Terminator’ won’t happen soon.
“There are labs in Japan that are very good at producing lifelike human robots,” he admits. “If you’re thinking in terms of a ‘Terminator 1’ robot, could that exist in the future, yes it could, but not for a very long time.” Phew!
A global pandemic, possibly involving zombies
See: ‘Contagion’, ‘Outbreak’, ‘Dawn of the Dead’
Could this wipe us out? A disease pandemic is always one of the most terrifying film apocalypses because, when bird flu and EBOLA are making headlines in real life, it seems so plausible.
However Dr. Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, argues that a natural disease that wipes out all of mankind (like in so many movies) is unlikely, since there are always people resistant to pathogens, a resistance which would increase through the generations.
“Evolution also does not favour parasites that wipe out their hosts, which is why syphilis went from a virulent killer to a chronic disease as it spread in Europe,” he wrote on The Conversation.
Instead it’s man-made diseases that pose the greater risk to humanity, according to Sandberg. “There are always some people who might want to do things because they can… And as technology gets more powerful in the future nastier pathogens become easier to design.”
See: ‘Independence Day’, ‘Transformers’, etc.
Could this wipe us out? Stephen Hawking (doom-monger that he is) has suggested, “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, which searches for extra-terrestrial life, also answered questions on Reddit about the subject. While he didn’t make any apocalyptic predictions, he did reveal that scientists now believe that the chances of planets capable of hosting life are far more numerous than we thought.
He said: We now know two things that we didn’t know 20 years ago. First that planets, including ones that might be like Earth, are incredibly plentiful in the visible universe.”
While the immediate response to discovering alien intelligence won’t be Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum jumping into an abandoned spaceship at Area 51 (we don’t think), Shostak admitted we’re relying on ET’s sense of community to avoid destruction. “We have no idea what would interest them, but destroying us seems a bit too self-centred,” he said.
See: ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, ‘Dante’s Peak’, ‘Volcano’, ‘San Andreas’
Could this wipe us out? According to UCL’s Dr. Faure Walker, the most likely way Mother Nature will get her revenge on mankind is the plot of the Tommy Lee Jones movie ‘Volcano’.
“Another candidate for a global population-changing event is a mega-volcanic eruption,” she says, worryingly. “The Toba eruption around 75,000 years ago has been linked to a bottleneck in human evolution. For both the extra-terrestrial impactor and mega-volcano, it is the ensuring climate changes resulting from these event that is likely to cause extinctions.”
She adds, “Although I am personally not worried about a global extinction as the probability is so low, many in the disaster science world do believe that we will experience a disaster that kills a million people this century.”
Photos: 20th Century Fox/TriStar Pictures/Touchstone Pictures/Moviestore/ Rex_Shutterstock/Everett