Sunday, August 1

TEOTWAKI? Pass The “Wacky Ta-Bakkey”!


I’m tired of ranting against Donald Trump, and you’re probably tired – quite understandably – of reading about him. So let’s talk about something much more pleasant:  different scenarios, all possible but of varying degrees of probability, of how the world could end.  Back in the early 70s and into the early 80s, I ran a kind of internal think-tank at Boeing that did highly classified work for the US Defense Department and for many of the defense ministries of the NATO countries.  In the process, I got to know fairly well some people working in various disciplines who were employed by what those in “the Game” generically refer to as the “3-letter agencies,” including some work for one known facetiously as “Christians In Action”. Back then, there was an acronym in fashion:  TEOTWAKI, standing for The End Of The World As We Know It and pronounced “tee-oh-TWACK-ee”.  (Acronyms come into and go out of fashion like long hair, wide ties, and short skirts. I doubt if this one is still current.)  But given the nature of our work, it was useful shorthand.  For example, we would ask questions like If the Warsaw Pact invades NATO, and NATO has to resort to tactical nuclear weapons to stop them, would that be TEOTWACKI? So how about a light-hearted diversion from Trump … like examining some speculative TEOTWACKI scenarios? Consider the following, all possible but in no particular order:

o Nearby gamma-ray burst

The discovery of gamma-ray bursts dates from around 1967 when the US Defense Department launched several satellites of the Vela series, intended to detect the telltale burst of gamma-rays from nuclear explosions that would originate from any Soviet violation of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty that grew out of the near-catastrophe of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Surprisingly, in a very short time, the early Vela satellites detected several such gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). The problem, however, was that the gamma-ray emissions, typically lasting several seconds to a few minutes, originated in deep space, not anywhere near the earth.  Furthermore, over a short period of time, it became clear that the frequency spectrum “fingerprints” of the emitted gamma-rays did not match those of any nuclear weapons in the inventories of the Soviets or any other nuclear power. Also, instead of being concentrated along the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, as one would expect if the bursts were of galactic origin, the GRBs were more or less evenly distributed over the entire sky. More sophisticated gamma-ray satellites soon measured red-shifts in the GRBs indicating distances of several billion light years, i.e., out toward the edge of the visible Universe. That the GRBs were visible at all, let alone that they were as bright as they were at such distances, indicated that, whatever their source, GRBs were emitted by the most powerful explosions in the Universe since the Big Bang.  Universe-wide, there are a few hundred detected per year.


Long story short, it now appears that GRBs result when certain rather exotic classes of stars – Wolf-Rayet stars, blue super-giants, et al. – exhaust their nuclear fuel, undergo catastrophic gravitational collapse, implode into black holes, and thus end their lives – not as mere novas or even supernovas – but as hypernovas, or more technically “class 1bc” supernovas. Hypernovas’ / GRBs’ gravitationally driven core collapse results in two “jets” or “pencils” of ultra-intense gamma rays being emitted, at 99-plus percent of the speed of light, from opposite poles of the collapsing star.  If one’s line of sight happens to coincide with the jets’ axis, the resulting GRB is so powerful that it is easily observed across, essentially, the diameter of the observable Universe.

As far as has been determined, there is no evidence that the Milky Way galaxy has ever experienced a GRB / hypernova event. But if it ever did, we might realistically expect that, depending on the energy of the GRB, any planet in any star system directly in the path of either gamma-ray beam, perhaps as far as 10 thousand light-years, would be effectively sterilized of all life, even life beneath the surface of the planet. This is problematical for earth beings, because there is at least one prime candidate for hypernova-hood only 7500 light-years distant:  the binary system Eta Carinae (“Eta Car”). Both stars are blue supergiants, the larger with a mass approximately 100 times the mass of our sun; the other perhaps a comparatively tiny 50 solar masses. It is virtually certain that at the end of only 30 million or so years, one or both components of Eta Car will collapse into a hypernova / GRB.  When that happens – “when,” not “if” – we’d best hope that at least one of two circumstances prevails:  (a) the gamma-ray jet from the explosion is aimed well away from earth and / or (b) a future earth civilization will have developed level-10-trillion sun-block.

Otherwise … well … does the term “Crispy Critter” ring a bell? Result:  TEOTWAKI

o Global pandemic / biological warfare

Nature is also capable of inflicting TEOTWAKI levels of damage on the human race from sources that are microscopically small as well as astronomically large.  Consider, as just a single example, the Spanish H1N1 flu epidemic of 1918-1920, which killed an estimated 3 percent of the planet's population, though estimates vary widely:  conservatively, about 50 million people worldwide.  The equivalent mortality numbers today, assuming all other factors stayed the same, would be 175 million fatalities, scaling up the estimate to allow for greater population (2 billion in 1918 vs. 7 billion today).  Of course, all things are not equal, if for no other reason than that a 21st-century version of the 1918 Spanish flu would spread much more quickly, given that, today, one can travel non-stop by jet aircraft from Seattle to London in about 9 hours. And it is not clear that the more advanced state of biotechnology 100 years after the Spanish flu pandemic would compensate for its more rapid spread. Maybe.  Maybe not. Best not find out.


Biological warfare (BW) research, however, especially in the areas of recombinant DNA and s0-called "chimera viruses" -- viruses combining two or more disease pathogens, and that therefore may be impossible to vaccinate against -- make even the Spanish flu look like a mild case of sniffles.  The US has -- if government avowals can be accepted at face value -- renounced offensive-weapon research into bio-weapons, and repurposed facilities like Ft. Detrick, MD, which used to be the offensive BW capital of the Nation, to research into bio-weapon defense.  BW research in the old Soviet Union was done by an immensely larger version of Ft. Detrick, an organization called "Biopreparat," that did research in BW under the cover of finding more effective treatments for the common cold, bronchitis, etc., etc. One of the most senior executives of the Soviet Biopreparat apparatus is Ken Alibek (Western / US name) who defected to the US, became an American citizen, and (last I heard) runs a BW-defense contracting company in the Crystal City / Pentagon City area of suburban DC.  If you want to read a hair-whitening horror story, you can do no better than to read either Biohazard or the anthology Infectious Agents, both by Alibek (the latter co-edited by I. W. Fong).

We like to preen ourselves on being the "apex predator" of Planet Earth.  But virus particles that can be seen only under, e.g., an electron microscope rival humans in their potential to bring about TEOTWAKI.

o Climate change / global warming

Now we enter the realm of the all too possible ... even the all too imminent. I'm not going to waste time preaching to persuade people that climate change is real.  At this point, anyone who remains unconvinced is in essentially the same situation as Titanic passengers who continued to insist that the ship was "unsinkable," even as seawater lapped around their knees. I used to be relatively optimistic, thinking -- and even writing with what at the time I saw as an admirable sense of alarm -- that ... golly-gee-gawrsh ... we had best start addressing this issue, because in a hundred years, our great-grandkids will see Florida underwater.  Now, at this point, my attitude is "True enough but ... think about us right now".  I'm 67 years old and believe it is quite possible that even I could live to see, probably not all of Florida, but Miami and Fort Lauderdale -- and certainly the lowlands of Holland -- and the Embankment in London submerged, and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, isolated on what might then be called something like "Jefferson Island" when today's high-school juniors graduate college and begin their careers.


All that is a done deal. So, to me at this point, the really interesting questions comprise long-term issues of biological evolution, and the lessons they have to teach us for the future. Evolution is a short-term phenomenon, tending to equip an organism to maximize its chances to survive, and thereby pass on its genome, in the immediate future.  So organisms evolve to, e.g., learn how to make and use fire so they can stay warm tonight, without thought to what the burning of organic materials is going to do to the environment in 10,000 or 100,000 years. So there are sound evolutionary reasons why human beings have such a difficult time doing planning measured in generations, let alone centuries:  we have to train ourselves to think in those time-scales, because such time-scales are so much longer than the typical human "survival horizon," in terms of which evolution has equipped us to think. I have written about these and related issues here and here. I would also speculate that perhaps one of the reasons for the "Fermi paradox" -- if there are thousands of intelligent species elsewhere in the Galaxy, why don't we hear from them? -- is that one of the most difficult challenges for any intelligent species anywhere is transcending their evolution so as to learn to think in time-frames measured in at least multiple generations -- and that such may remain true, even for species with very long lifetimes, because the time-frames all expand proportionately.  (An intelligent species with an average lifetime of 1,000 years may find it as difficult to think in terms of 100,000 years as humans do to think in terms of centuries.) In that context, the silence greeting SETI radio surveys searching for intelligent life is, not slam-dunk conclusive, but certainly ominous. However, one lesson, I would argue, is decidedly not speculative:  our future survival on this planet absolutely requires that we learn to think and to plan, at the very least, in terms of multiple generations, preferably in terms of a few centuries.  Unfortunately, our political systems and governments seem designed, like biological evolution itself, to run on short time-scales:  2 years, 4 years, 6 years ... the next election, the next Great Economic Plan, the generalissimo's lifetime, who will command the junta when el jefe expires, etc.

The clock is ticking closer and closer to "TEOTWAKI o'clock".

I will pass mercifully over possibilities like nuclear war, the errant black hole meandering into the solar system, alien invasion, economic collapse ... Zombie Apocalypse.  I will only close with one more ...

o Electing Donald J. Trump President of the United States

Oh Hay-yull naw!  Quick!  Somebody get my hands off the keyboard!

Y'all sleep real good tonight, heah?

James R. Cowles

Image credits:
GRB ... ESO ... CC BY 3.0
Desert ... ... Public domain
Black hole destroying a planet ... Flickr ... Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
Spanish flu virus ... CDC ... Public domain

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