Question of the Week Podcast

Question of the Week episode

Mon, 27th Oct 2014

How will life end on Earth?

Artists illustration of a gamma ray burst (c) NASA/Swift/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith and John Jones

Will we cause our own demise by burning the candle at both ends? Or will it be something like the giant impact that caused the dinosaurs to go extinct? What do you think?

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Honestly... either some biological disease from acts of war... or flesh eating cats. no really though... if there is anything we've seen from the past.. its diseases that have done the most harm in the history of humans. Oceanbliss, Tue, 16th Dec 2014

I think we can put up a parasol for the Earth to get another few billion years out of her. David Cooper, Tue, 16th Dec 2014

Humans are irrelevant. Life will continue until there is no water left for the last cell to divide. alancalverd, Tue, 16th Dec 2014

I sometimes think Green peace who say "make peace not war" have got it the wrong way around it would be better for the world if humans killed themselves off.
syhprum, Wed, 17th Dec 2014

There are a lot of bad genes in people because rape and pillage was a major part in our evolutionary history with the bad guys winning repeatedly. It's really quite remarkable that so many people are nice and civilised despite that. What we need to do is reprogram all the bad stuff out of our species so that we no longer have any abusive individuals spoiling it for the rest. Once that's done, we have billions of years ahead of us here where we are no longer a negative thing. David Cooper, Wed, 17th Dec 2014

If I had to bet I'd say that someday in the very distant future some insane person will figure out how to destroy the earth in a major nuclear detonation and that same person will do it for the hatred he has for all or most people. And there's plenty of reason to do it. Almost every single day we bump into people who act rude, mean or will act violently or threaten you. There are plenty of cops who are power hungry and love to toss their authority around to make themselves feel good. There are doctors who let their patients suffer so they don't get into trouble with the FDA or the DEA. The list goes on and on. If this same person was abused as child and has grown up with a hatred for mankind in their heart then I can easily imagine it happening. So in, say, 100,000,000 years I can see it being possible for the average physicist to figure it out. PmbPhy, Thu, 18th Dec 2014

I don't know if we will make it. too many things going wrong at the same time.

1. We're living in a mass extinction
2. We're ignoring global warming
3. We will most probably be choosing non renewable sources of energy as we get closer to a panic.
4. We've built a economic religion based on the concept of 'infinite resources, and needing a constant economical growth.
5. We're over breeding, the last hundred years we went from approximately one billion people to 7, and counting.
6. and the last one is that we refuse to question ourselves, our motives and our stupidity.

then of course, with acidity of the oceans, one of the first food chains we have and use should disappear.

That has nothing to do with the prospect of continuing life on this planet though. I'm sure there will be life even if we became a extinct species. Just not us. yor_on, Tue, 23rd Dec 2014

We pause for a moment of optimism in response to yor_on's post.

1. We're living in a mass extinction - But unlike the bolide that took out the dinosaurs the cause of this mass extinction is conscious and capable of doing something about it.
2. We're ignoring global warming - We are not yet doing enough, but we are doing a considerable amount and as the indicators become clearer even the naysayers will back off.
3. We will most probably be choosing non renewable sources of energy as we get closer to a panic. - The evidence is to the contrary on this point. The panic reaction, if renewables are insufficient will be nuclear.
4. We've built a economic religion based on the concept of 'infinite resources, and needing a constant economical growth -  This point I concede. Never trust an economist. Their place in hell is only one level above bankers.
5. We're over breeding, the last hundred years we went from approximately one billion people to 7, and counting. - And yet the projections show that the rate of growth is falling and in some countries reversing. 10 billion will still be too many, but it is just manageable.
6. and the last one is that we refuse to question ourselves, our motives and our stupidity Ophiolite, Wed, 24th Dec 2014

Yeah Ophiolite :)

I could be more optimistic, couldn't I? In a way I am, It's a mystery this life, and each one of us are on a journey of discovery. Then again, we also kill, torture, imprison and enslave each other, over pieces of nature and 'ideals'. That one hasn't changed in my view, even though many of us nowadays consider themselves 'democratic' and 'progressive'.

We also seem to believe we're the crown of creation, so expecting ourselves to be able to terraform a whole Earth, if needed and at short notice. That is what I would call hubris, to me we're just a part of a complex web of life, us now running wild, killing of each other as well as other species, not by wars solely, but by blind faith. Maybe not so unlike other population of predatory species, getting opportunities to dominate, but we know about it, and where it lead, and that's our problem. That doesn't change that each one of us are born equal, and die equal. Death doesn't care for money. Neither does Earth.

It's going to be a rude awakening. yor_on, Wed, 24th Dec 2014

Once I thought we could something about it, but as it is today I've started to doubt it. It's like a bad soap opera, in where you see the actors doing the same mistakes over and over again. That doesn't necessarily mean that we can't find a new balance with life and our earth. But those days I guess that the 'forces' that correct us will be way out of our voluntary, individual, control. Some of the reasons to why it looks like it does for us has to lie in the way we're (hard) wired, no matter what color or language one have. And to change those is the same as expecting every human to voluntary start to question himself, and then act on it. I don't expect that to happen, it hasn't so far. yor_on, Wed, 24th Dec 2014

Okay, new years eve, well somewhere, somewhat :)

Fair is fair Ophiolite.

Now I will :) pompous as ever, put up dreams.


It can change your world, and mine, but most of all, our kids. It's the way we talk today, and using it positively we will be able to change our thinking, and when we do that, we will change our world.


As long as we read something more than just physics.

Behavioral sciences.

We definitely need it, but we need to be able to take that step outside our comfort zone. We need to use ethics. yor_on, Fri, 2nd Jan 2015

In essence.

Can we still dream?

Because when you look at it, and I do. It's not the way people disappear from me, by age or other circumstances, it's our dreams. What do we want? Do we really want to sit in some (as compared to the Earth we left) small rocket, leaving all our birthrights and our kids, waiting for some miracle, somewhere else?

Or are we what I think we are?
Dreamers, that will make a change? yor_on, Fri, 2nd Jan 2015

Diseases are the usual way great civilizations have ended. But in all likely hood it would be water radiation poisoning from Fukushima or any others that may occur. AnotherView, Wed, 14th Jan 2015

Fukishima may have looked serious, but the radiation risk was local, and relatively minor for Japan as a whole.  To have globally toxic radiation levels, you'd need many times the full amount of radionuclides that Fukushima could have released. The oceans and atmosphere together provide enormous volumes for dilution. dlorde, Wed, 14th Jan 2015

I think it is worthwhile to remember that nuclear fuel was mined from the Earth and concentrated for use. In this concentrated form it is quite dangerous, but if returned to the dilution it was originally found in, not likely to be much more hazardous that it was at the outset. I remember reading somewhere that the levels of radiation naturally found in the Andes is significantly higher than those currently found on the Bikini Atoll (where the US did much of its nuclear weapons testing...)

Of course there are some radioisotopes with shorter half-lives that are produced in the reactor that would not have necessarily formed naturally... chiralSPO, Wed, 14th Jan 2015

I think that the nuclear accidents in the Ukraine and Japan caused very little damage on a worldwide scale but the minor accident at Three mile island will be the cause of an untold number of deaths due to delaying the introduction of nuclear power with the contamination caused by fossil fuel continuing. syhprum, Wed, 14th Jan 2015

I'm told that the burning of fossil fuels releases many times more radioactivity into the atmosphere than nuclear plants, leakages and all. dlorde, Wed, 14th Jan 2015

Yes there is far more radioactive metals (and other heavy metals) pollution from coal mining, and  radon release during oil and natural gas extraction. chiralSPO, Thu, 15th Jan 2015

I think there are several questions.
What will be the end of humanity?
What will be the end of all large animals on Earth?
What will be the end of all life on Earth?

Certainly the death of our sun will be traumatic for life on Earth, although assuming advanced spacefaring technology by then, there would be a mass exodus to the outer planets and moons, followed by an attempt to build close orbital platforms around the dying sun, which could potentially provide power for an extended period of time.  However, undoubtedly over the next few billion years, everything we know today will change.

I think you're right, even a large meltdown of a nuclear plant will have mostly local effects.  There could, however, be problems if dozens of nuclear accidents occur contaminating large swatches of land over time.  Still, it is not that life doesn't exist around Chernobyl.  It is just deemed not safe for humans.  Other animals are plentiful. 

Global Nuclear War is always a possibility of massive destruction, potentially killing most, if not all humanity, and many of the larger species.  However, I still hope the powers that control the nuclear arsenals start having a bit of sense.

Disease?  It is possible that one species would be wiped out, but unlikely to be the end of all life.  However, with 7 billion people, there is a very diverse gene pool.  Even with diseases like AIDS. there are a number of people who are naturally immune.  Perhaps one would have to be hit with multiple simultaneous very devistating plagues.  And, even so, it is possible that small pockets of humanity such as the Hawaiian Islands would be able to enforce a strict quarantine protocol, and ride out the storm.

An asteroid or large comet impact is a very real risk, but it would either have to be very large, or have multiple impacts over several days to cause global devastation.  However, over the next few billion years before our sun dies, one would expect Earth to be pummeled by several large asteroids or comets. CliffordK, Mon, 19th Jan 2015

As the expansion of the universe, the earth will also expand until it explode and there couldn't hold any life. Waaah, I'm not so lucky  to see this spectacle.
diethyl, Thu, 22nd Jan 2015

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