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How to Know when the World is Ending

by Dear Jon
April 29, 2008

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Dear Jon,
I don't know what to believe. Will the world end or not?

Dear Unsigned,

You might not realize it, but I have no idea what you are asking. There are too many ways to think of "the end of the world." You might have just watched a movie by Al Gore or read a Partial Observer column by Everett Wilson and you are thinking about the end of the world in those terms. Or you are religious and you are considering mutually exclusive viewpoints on what to expect as the outcome of your faith. ("Mutually exclusive" means "both cannot be true at the same time.") Or you might have just gotten the "let's be friends" speech by your partner in romance, which feels like the end of YOUR world. Or you might be a fan of the Oakland Raiders and you are writing this note after watching the NFL draft.

"The world" is not a synonym of "the Earth." Earth is a planet orbiting our sun. Your world, however, constitutes all that you experience in life.  Your world will certainly end because your life will end. The world also constitutes all shared experiences in life. My world includes the greater Chicago metropolitan area in the context of the dominant Anglo-American culture. This civilization might end--thus my world would end--but it might not mean the end of the earth as a planet; the end of the United States might not even mean the end of civilization.

Ending a world is relatively easy. A few nuclear bombs or large asteroids, a volcanic eruption here and there, a few plagues, and suddenly another mass extinction occurs. Our planet has seen such mass extinctions before. Many worlds have ended on the Earth. Some worlds have even ended through climate change. Without looking anything up, I am pretty sure that somewhere before the rain starts to fall in the Flood of Noah story from Genesis chapter 6, God mentions something about "120 years from now" it's going to happen. And then he gets Noah to start preparing for the flood 100 years before it happens. And then what happened, was really bad weather.

Some folks are saying today that maybe in a hundred years or so, the world could end -- that is, some civilizations could collapse or there could be mass extinctions on the earth's surface -- because of really bad weather.

The main preoccupations of our worlds have to do with the Earth's surface. The Earth's planetary integrity, however, is massive and dense. It will take enormous energy to dis-integrate the planet: to blow it apart into chunks. The scenarios of "global-killing" objects from space, such as an asteroid in the movie "Armeggedon" or a comet in the movie "Deep Impact" actually only describe the destruction to civilization and life on the surface.

As an object in space the Earth has a big claim on longevity. Even if the oceans evaporate or are peeled off in a sudden cataclysm, even if the molten core stops spinning and cools, even if the sun itself explodes or collapses, the Earth could wander through space as an enormous cold rock. Not even the Bible, for all its scary pictures of the end of the world, goes so far as to describe the Earth itself getting blown into fragments. Not surprisingly, the Bible is more concerned with the worlds on the surface. As I mentioned, many such worlds have ended already.

As to the end of the planet, we should consider such concepts as the "half-life" of elements. As the Earth gets very old--speaking in terms of billions and trillions of years-- it will shrink considerably in size. A physicist named J. Robert Islam posits the theory of "final proton decay" in an ever-expanding universe. This means that given natural forces alone, the objects of the universe will decompose until, in 10 to the google years, the last remaining components will dissolve into pure radiation. Comparatively, the universe at a mere 13.7 billion years, is the age of a baby taking its first breath in the arms of the delivering obstetrician.

31 years ago George Lucas released the first motion picture of his Star Wars franchise. This featured an ultimate Doomsday weapon, the "Death Star," which had the power to release a bolt of energy that would cause a planet to explode. Ten or so years before that, using special effects that were much cheesier, Gene Roddenberry's first Star Trek series had an episode of a robot super weapon with the same power. That super weapon looked like a log.

(For you die-hard trekkies out there, I do not know the episode number nor do I even know in which of the three seasons this episode appeared. I am not a Trekkie, I have a good memory of my sources but I do not have a photographic memory, and I do not look anything up. I haven't looked anything up for this article so far, and I don't plan to start by going to a Star Trek fan site. Remember my motto: What I don't already know is not important enough for me to know. Dear Jon never looks anything up.)

It can be safely said, as much as about ships travelling faster than the speed of light, that manufactured weapons that can smash planets into pieces belong entirely to the realm of fiction. The term "Science Fiction" cannot apply in these cases. Better to call this genre "Gadget Fiction." By the way, I LOVE Gadget Fiction.

Top Ten signs that your world will end very soon.

10. The Chicago Cubs qualify for the World Series.

9. The People's Republic of China tells the United States to renounce liberal democratic principles or else China will foreclose on the bonds it has purchased to finance our Iraq War, to which our illustrious commander-in-chief responds "Bring it On!"

8. The Chicago Cubs avoid a World Series sweep.

7. Iran discloses that it has nuclear weapons and announces its intentions of solving the world's "Jewish Problem" once and for all.

6. Faced with McCain's defeat in the  national election, the Republican National Committee directs the Justice Department to draft a memo on "three really good reasons why, during a War on Terror, the President of the United States can extend to a third term by means of declaring martial law."

5. The U.S. Mint announces it is outsourcing its printing operation to Poland.

4. Holy Cow! The Cubs have extended the series to seven games!

3. Canada announces that IT owns the North Pole, and its Prime Minister flips the  bird at Vlad "Make My Day" Putin.

2. Hail to the Chief: President Hilary Rodham Clinton.

1. Ladies and Gentlemen, history is being made today. There is only one out left and the Cubs, holding a 15-0 lead in this game 7, will win this World Series for the first time in a hundred years, with our pitcher going the distance in a no-hit shut-out. He gets the signal from the catcher, and--wait a minute. What's that siren? What's going on? Something is falling out of the sky, like a huge burning mountain! It can't be! Aaaaahhhhh!

According to some religious faiths, the planet  will endure forever, which is really the belief that the power of God will reverse the entropic principle not only in elemental terms but also in social and spiritual terms. So, whether your thinking is cultural, scientific or religious, you may take comfort that your world will end, whatever that means to you, long before the planet ends.

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