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The end of the world is nigh, again

Now that we have a firm date for the end of the world, should we focus on more practical things?
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First Published: Tue, Jul 09 2013. 02 48 PM IST
Just a billion years more. And then it’ll be back to creatures which can be seen only through microscopes, and there won’t be anyone to peer through the microspores, will there? Photo: AFP
Just a billion years more. And then it’ll be back to creatures which can be seen only through microscopes, and there won’t be anyone to peer through the microspores, will there? Photo: AFP
Updated: Tue, Jul 09 2013. 09 07 PM IST
Andy Murray has won then Wimbledon, Brazil has won the Confederation Cup, and latest scientific research suggests that we have two billion years left to enjoy this earth. In other words, happiness and joy should percolate the world.
Conspiracy theorists may, of course, question the timing of the two-billion-year announcement. Why, they can ask, was it made the day that the Scotsman Murray won the men’s singles final? Is this something Dan Brown should investigate? But we are not conspiracy theorists. That two-billion figure is doubtlessly built on a bedrock of immensely complicated math involving vast amounts of data all characterized by 10 raised to the power of some number, whether positive or negative. Plus equations longer than classic soliloquies using more variables than the Greek, Sanskrit and Sumerian alphabets can accommodate. Computations that made supercomputers sweat.
Or, of course, they may have decided to use simple and robust arithmetic projection, or throw darts in the pub, which, so the story goes, helped Crick (or was it Watson?) get a sudden blinding brainwave and he rushed off and collared his partner (the other one, depending on whether it was C or W) and built the double helix which is the structure of DNA.
The end of the world. That is a pretty powerful concept by any definition. It is made all the more powerful because many religions predict a generally awful end—much gnashing of teeth and being boiled in oil being sort of leitmotifs. Except for a few Eastern faiths, whose views hover between a) birth and death, creation and destruction are contained in every moment of the present which is anyway the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip, and b) it’s all a cycle, and every big bang will lead to a gnab gib and then to another big bang, and, you, know, like, easy come easy go?
To get back to the science. It is generally believed (with the help of half the Greek alphabet) that given the sun’s radius, it will, in five billion years, run out of hydrogen to burn at its core and expand to become a red giant—a colder, incredibly obese and fatally ill star—that could suck the earth into itself. But the scientists at St Andrew’s, as they explained a couple of days ago, think life on the earth will die much sooner. As the sun will age, it will keep getting hotter, and one of the effects of this will be that it will consume more and more carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere.
Now that’s a dampener for the global warmists, since they have been crying hoarse about carbon emissions for years now. So a disclaimer may be in order. Of course, I know that we could melt the polar ice caps, cause terrible heat waves and nuclear winters, and either blow up the world or give everyone a nagging and fatal emphysema, and we don’t need two billion years to do that. Two billion years is what the sun needs to finish us off. We can do it much faster than the sun, we’re big boys. I just find it hilarious—the knowledge that we have two damn billion years more!
I find it hilarious because throughout human history, thousands of people—if not hundreds of thousands—have either made utter fools of themselves or indulged in much rasher acts, expecting the apocalypse to happen the day after tomorrow, according to their own strange visions and beliefs. A substantial chunk of humanity, for example, believed that the world would end at the turn of the millennium (the funny thing is, all of them got the date wrong; we celebrated the millennium on 1 January 2000, whereas the 1,000-year era began actually on 1 January 2001). The fear that the world would end in 2012 according to some ancient Mayan calculations was so widespread and serious that it forced governments, including those of Argentina and France, to officially announce measures to prevent mass suicides. (The best comment I read on that one was by a British columnist whose name I unfortunately cannot recall now, which went something like, the Mayan calculations were so intricate and ambiguous that if you went by them, you would be likely to miss tomorrow’s dinner date by about three months).
But now that we have a firm date—OK, give or take a few million years this way or that, should we focus on more practical things. Like, should we brood over questions like have I wasted all that money on anti-ageing creams or should I put all my investable funds in really long-term bonds, or where can I find out more about this cryogenics thing, and do they take post-dated cheques?
While humanity works these knotty matters out, let’s see what the new end-of-the-world thesis is. Within a billion years, there will be so little of carbon dioxide left that plants will not be able to photosynthesise any more. They will die, and the herbivorous animals will starve to death, and then, naturally, the carnivores too will go. Only microbes will remain, the first life on earth and the last.
The shortest poem is English is generally supposed to be one titled On the Antiquity of Microbes, which goes: Adam/ Had ‘em. The authorship of the poem is disputed.
As the creation and destruction of earth will be. But the words of that poem can’t be, can they?
By the way, as I was going over what I had written, I realized that I have been giving you false hopes. It’s one billion years before human beings disappear, not two billion. Two billion is for those tiny creatures who were there much before us. They are at least two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: pestilence and death, and have definitely sometimes fuelled a third one, famine. The fourth one, war, we managed by ourselves, thank you.
Just a billion years more. And then it’ll be back to creatures which can be seen only through microscopes, and there won’t be anyone to peer through the microspores, will there? Just a billion years more. Time to build a collection of all those apocalyptic novels and films—there must be hundreds of them—and watch them at leisure. Come easy, go easy.
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First Published: Tue, Jul 09 2013. 02 48 PM IST
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