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Bangs & Whimpers: A Look at the Top Five Doomsday Scenarios

From 1945 to 1991, Americans woke up every morning to coffee, cereal, and the threat of a Ruskie-style, nuclear holocaust. But ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the only thing we’ve had to fear is undocumented fruit pickers and people named Abdul.

Sure, terrorism is a threat, but it’s not the kind of bowel-weakening specter of doom we know in our hearts we ought to be worrying about. Luckily, science fiction is a rich source of improbable worst-case scenarios, any one of which is bound to suit all you paranoiacs out there who just can’t go to bed at night without the comfort of knowing that something, somewhere, somehow is going to get you.

Here are a few of our favorite end-of-world scenarios:

BIG ASTEROID STRIKE

Asteroids are so threatening that scientists have created the Torino Scale to measure the damage a possible impact event could inflict. The scale runs from 0 to 10 with 0 being no chance of collision and 10 being a Michael Bay film.

The asteroid that ended the Cretaceous period was a definite 10. Even the largest of dinosaurs didn’t stand a chance against a massive flaming rock slamming into the Yucatan and kicking up more sunlight-blocking dust than the last night at Burning Man.

According to people much smarter than you, large asteroids hit the earth every ten million years, which means, of course, that we’re probably due. So when that day does finally come (and you know it will), kiss it all goodbye, baby: your life, your family, your friends and that meticulously color-coded and cross-referenced porn collection we know you’ve got stashed in your basement.

IN REALITY

Given that the oldest human, Jeanne Calment, lived 122 years and was never hit by a single space rock, chances are pretty good that you’ll make it from cradle to grave completely asteroid free. And since, statistically, you aren’t likely to live as long as Jean, it means your odds are even better.

Oh, and that Torino scale we mentioned? In the almost three hundred known asteroids with the potential to smack Earth upside the head, all but one are rated as 0, and only one is rated 1, which means, “extremely unlikely, with no cause for public attention or concern.”

Or as they say in internet-speak, “Meh.”

ALIEN TAKEOVER

Well over a thousand people claim to have been abducted by aliens, and millions—millions!—believe that aliens have visited this planet. Toward that end, over four thousand people have purchased alien abduction insurance, because they really, truly believe that the aliens are coming to get them.

And what if they’re right?

Despite BP’s piddling in the Gulf, this is a cozy little planet we got here: water, oxygen, American Idol. Who wouldn’t want to be our overlords?

So tomorrow morning when you wake up to find the Plutons have parked their Superdome-sized spaceship over the Empire State Building and are blowing us all to kingdom come, remember it’s not personal. They’re just here for the resources.

Or maybe it’s their way of saying Simon Cowell’s a dick.

IN REALITY

As Douglas Adams sagely pointed out, “Space is big. Really big,” so aliens likely are real. But before you start running to Walmart for shotguns (which, come on, wouldn’t do you any good against lasers, anyway), stop. Real aliens aren’t going to be those Grey, big-eyed-waifs we know and love from Close Encounters and elaborate autopsy hoax videos.

No, chances are, any aliens we do encounter will be the single-celled, microbial kind, not likely to be packing heat or trying to turn us into a slave race, forced to battle each other gladiator-style for their amusement.

So next time you’re paralyzed in bed, watching helplessly as that big-eyed, gray-skinned Dr. Kildare surgically implants a transmitter into the base of your skull, take consolation in the knowledge that you’re really just suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

Or maybe it’s the government.

SUPERBUG

According to our very good friend Wikipedia, viruses “are the most abundant type of biological entity” on the planet. They’re too small to be seen by a standard microscope, they infect every organism, they’re found in every ecosystem, and they’re resistant to antibiotics. If this were a horror film, viruses would be cast as the slow-moving yet surprisingly effective chainsaw murderer.

Think we’re kidding? Smallpox: five hundred million dead; Spanish flu: fifty million dead; HIV, twenty five million and counting. And of course there’s the ever-present threat of viruses being “weaponized.” Scary thought, isn’t it? Some schmoe with a chip on his shoulder opens up a vial of pathogenic whoop-ass on a plane and next thing you know, the whole world’s bleeding out the eyeballs.

Course, none of this works if the terrorists are as unwilling as the rest of us to pay those new carry-on fees.

IN REALITY

You know that smallpox virus with the horrifically high body count? Eradicated. HIV? Slowed down. Spanish flu? Mutated into a less lethal form. And thanks to high-tech, modern hygiene techniques like hand washing and not hurling plague corpses and dung at our enemies, even viruses like Ebola can be curtailed.

And Twelve Monkeys aside, weaponizing viruses is not the simple procedure you might think it is. First, you have to manage to develop your bug bomb without killing yourself. In 1979, the Soviets tried it with Anthrax. All they managed to eradicate was a bunch of their own sheep.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call karma. Karma with phlegm.

GRAY GOO

If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term Gray Goo is a horror film about a goopy mass of mindless metaphor eating its way through 1950s suburbia, you would be mistaken…and not just because The Blob is red.

To explain Gray Goo, we have to start with nanotechnology. Nanobots are tiny machines built on the molecular, even atomic level, that, theoretically, can be used for a variety of useful tasks such as cleaning up oil spills, coaxing stem cells to regenerate damaged organs, or helping us understand the ending of Lost. Pretty handy, especially when you know that they self-assemble.

But what if those helpful little nanos suddenly went wild? And, no, we don’t mean getting drunk and lifting their shirts for every sleaze ball with a camera.

When nanos go crazy they out-of-control self replicate, gobbling up everything around them while continuing to build more and more and more of themselves. Eventually, all matter on Earth is consumed, up to and including your tasty, carbon-based flesh. All that will be left is an undulating lump of metallic Gray Goo.

Or, as we call it here on the East Coast, New Jersey.

THE REALITY

Nanomachines don’t exist yet.

The field of nantotechnology is relatively nascent, so rest assured, you’ll probably be dead before this civilization-ending event can ever come to pass.

In fact, one of the highlights of our current level of technology is a robot that can walk fifty paces. Impressive, until you find out each step is only half a nanometer long. No worries about this guy disassembling your DNA and rebuilding you in the form of a clown.

And besides, Gray Goo can only happen when nanos replicate out of control, and no self-respecting scientist would ever let that happen. Not because he gives a damn about the rest of us. No, it’s his grant money he’s worried about.

RISE OF THE MACHINES

Robots perform all sorts of useful functions: they vacuum our floors, they build our cars. In Japan, they even tend to our elderly. And best of all, they don’t care that we’re exploiting them. In fact, they don’t care about anything at all. They’re robots; they don’t have feelings.

And that pretty much sums up our biggest fear: cold-hearted machines devoid of emotions and programmed to respond only to logic. And what’s the least logical thing on this planet? That’s right, it’s us.

One of these days, Asimo’s gonna realize exactly how useless we are to him, and then it’s no more mister happy dance. We’ll be crushed under his literal iron fist like the fragile meat-puppets we are. Driven like rats, we’ll be hunted to near extinction with nothing to protect us but Christian Bale and his rage issues.

Boy, are we screwed.

IN REALITY

Look, robots can only do what we program them to do. All this hand-wringing about Arnold going back in time to kill your mother is about as realistic as Pacific Northwest emo veggie vampires.

In the unlikely event that there is a robot coming to crush your windpipe, just toss a tin can into its path. The ensuing hilarity will generate enough hits to crash YouTube.

And if all else fails, there’s always Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to fall back on. We have to hope that the directive to preserve human life will be the base programming of any future artificial intelligence.

Course, Asimov might have changed his mind on that one had he seen what Will Smith did to I, Robot.

CONCLUSION

Worrying about the future collapse of civilization as we know it is a great thought-experiment, but the fact is that the chances of us all getting snuffed in one cataclysmic, species-killing event are really pretty slim.

But if stockpiling seeds and water and giant, Costco cans of tuna fish in the lead-lined bunker beneath your carport makes you happy, hey, knock yourself out.

And maybe it’s for the best. Cause if all that paranoid busy work accomplishes nothing else, at least it’ll keep you from worrying about how you’re really gonna die. In a nursing home. Surrounded by alien-robot invaders, fending off a mass of gray goo and a viral infection. Watching the asteroids fly into view.

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Carol Pinchefsky

Carol Pinchefsky, photo by David RiveraWhen she is not freelance writing, Carol Pinchefsky is the editor of the Space Future Journal (www.spacefuture.com), a website dedicated to space tourism, as well as the humor competition editor for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. To Serve Man is her favorite cookbook.