The Big Question July/August 2013

How and When Will the World End?

Giant meteors, an expanding sun, the retirement of Barbara Walters, and more
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Graham Roumieu

Q: How and when will the world end?


Stephen King, novelist

Scientists estimate that the Tunguska meteor, which leveled 80 million trees in Siberia in 1908 and generated an explosive force 1,000 times greater than that of the Hiroshima bomb, may have been 130 feet in diameter. It’s not impossible that we might someday be impacted by a much bigger meteor.


Gerta Keller, paleontologist, Princeton 

Four of the five mass extinctions in history were driven by volcanic eruptions that flooded entire continents. Our world could quite possibly end with the explosive eruption of Yellowstone, which is past due.


Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering, Google

In the (unlikely) event that we decide to end it.


Nathaniel Rich, author, Odds Against Tomorrow

During this century, odds are that we’ll see a global pandemic, the destruction of Seattle and San Francisco by earthquakes, the catastrophic flooding of New York City, and the assassination of a sitting U.S. president. But most dangerous would be an exchange of nuclear weapons. Probability tables suggest that this is likely to occur by 2082.


Deepak Chopra, author, What Are You Hungry For? (out in November)

The end of the world will come about as a result of the misunderstanding that we and the world are separate. Tidal waves will flood coastal landmasses, resulting in millions of refugees, violence, warfare, and chaos. The Earth will become a boiling cauldron. The human experiment will have failed.


Don Yeomans, planetary scientist, NASA

Although extremely unlikely, the world as we know it could end with the impact of a large asteroid or comet. When it will happen is not yet known, so NASA needs to continue to find these asteroids and comets before they find us.


Max Brooks, author, World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide

Earbuds. We’ll have our own specifically chosen world at our own comfortably blaring volume, and we’ll never hear what’s creeping up behind us.


Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History

The world will be here, with or without us, until the sun dies, 5 billion years hence. At that point, the sun’s atmosphere will have expanded to engulf the entire orbits of Mercury, Venus, and Earth, which will have become charred embers spiraling, one by one, to the crucible that is the sun’s core. Have a nice day.


Bruce Sterling, science-fiction author

Since the sun is likely to behave as stars of its kind normally do, increasing solar radiation should render this world entirely lifeless in about 1 billion years. After 8 billion years, the Earth will conclusively disappear into the expanding atmosphere of a red, giant sun.


Craig Hamilton-Parker, psychic and medium

By the time the sun becomes a red giant and eats the Earth, mankind will have evolved to realize that the only reality is consciousness, and that consciousness is rooted in the quantum world. This will give us miraculous spiritual power over the objective world and transform us into super-beings capable of bending the laws of physics and living within the sun itself.


Taylor Wilson, nuclear scientist

I think it’ll be what we don’t see coming—a killer asteroid, a nearby gamma-ray burst, or a solar event. All the better reason to become a spacefaring species!


Sandra Tsing Loh, Atlantic contributing editor and host of The Loh Down on Science

The world—or at least my sense of an outside world—will end next year, when Barbara Walters finally goes off the air. I’m just old and cranky enough to not want to deal with any of it anymore when the great diva is no longer around to soothingly concierge my news, or newslike substances.


Natalie Angier, science writer, The New York Times

Life has persisted on Earth for nearly 4 billion years. The average mammalian species lasts just 1 million years before going extinct; Homo sapiens are a fifth of the way there. Of course, the sad truth for you, me, and our 7 billion living compatriots is that it will all be over by 2120 at the latest.


Bill McKibben, journalist and environmentalist

In a sense, the world as we knew it is already over. We have heated the Earth, melted the Arctic, and turned seawater 30 percent more acidic. The only question left is how much more fossil fuel we’ll burn, and hence how unfamiliar and inhospitable we’ll make our home planet.


Aubrey Plaza, actress, Parks and Recreation (April Ludgate)

Tomorrow, a giant asteroid will wipe us all out mid-text. Or not. But maybe we should all throw our phones away just in case.


Joyce Carol Oates, novelist

Oates answered with an original poem:

Apocalypso

Something thrill-
ing in cata-
clysm &
in the col-
lapse of Empires.

Irrevocable, ir-
remediable, 
Apocalypso
& this myriad
bloom-
ing buzz
in which,
we'd hoped,
we might
have steered
more bravely,
sensibly & 
to more pur-
pose, the
effort of be-
ing human,
& "moral"
& "good"
coming, 
at last,
finally
terribly
& simply
to
The End


This is an expanded version of July/August 2013’s Big QuestionSubmit your own answer—or suggest a future question—by emailing bigquestion@theatlantic.com.


 

A brief history of apocalypse theories that didn't stand the test of time, from NowThis News
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