Apocalyptic Visions - Science and Mysteries (Part 1)

The end is coming. But which cosmic catastrophe will deliver the death blow? Were the Vikings right to fear the frozen apocalypse of an endless winter? Did the Buddhists correctly predict the fiery end to life on Earth? Or will the thunderous Christian vision of Armageddon come crashing down from the stars?

Which ancient prophecy do scientists believe accurately foretells our doom? And how close are we to the end of the world? Ancient mysteries, shrouded in the shadows of time. Now, can they finally be solved by looking to the heavens?

The truth is out there, hidden among the stars in a place we call... It's the ultimate fear for every human being on Earth and across time. The end of the world. A time when death is inescapable, delivered by fire... ice... or terrifying forces from beyond our planet. Every civilization has its own horrific vision. Every culture knows about death. Every culture has seen major disasters. Destruction, death, the ending of things really looks like it's part of the natural order, so it shouldn't be a surprise to us that every culture has an Armageddon scenario. In a lot of mythologies, the world ends by either cold or by fire, the real extremes of weather on the Earth.

But which vision of Armageddon does modern science support? How exactly will the world end? Could it be the frozen apocalypse, feared by the Vikings? It's 535 A.D., and the people of a Norse village, so used to harsh winters, have never seen anything like this. Even the elders can't recall such a brutal season. Spring should be here, but the winter won't let go. Farmers can't plant crops. Livestock is dying.

 

What if winter never ends? This truly feels like the beginning of the end of the world. It's winters like this that probably inspired the Norse vision of the apocalypse. They called it Ragnarok, or the Twilight of the Gods. Even the doomed pantheon of Norse deities was powerless to stop it. It meant the rise of monsters and the annihilation of gods and men. It starts with Fimbulwinter, a killing cold worse than even a hardened Viking could imagine.

The Norse believed that the end of the world would be heralded by a three-year mighty winter, following which, the heavens and the Earth would be destroyed. Perpetual winter-- that's the end. Could the end of everything come in cold as the Norse predicted?

Looking back at our planet's history, it's not hard to imagine. Three times in the Earth's past, glaciers may have spread to encase the entire planet in ice and slush, like a giant snowball. Now scientists predict something even more extreme, an icy apocalypse that will put a deep freeze not just on Earth, but the entire universe. And this frigid end was set into motion at the very beginning... with the rapid expansion of the universe after the Big Bang.

We've known for a long time that the universe is expanding, and it's been cooling down as it expands since the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago. Heat is energy, and the universe has only so much of it to go around. As the universe expands, the energy gets diluted, and everything starts to cool. Scientists once believed that the expansion of the universe would eventually slow down, or even reverse as cosmic gravity tapped the brakes. But then... they discovered that some unseen, unexplained force was out-dueling gravity, accelerating us toward a truly chilling Armageddon.

In the late '90s, we discovered that the universe is actually accelerating the expansion. This has put a new wrinkle on the scenarios about how the universe might end. I was a member of both teams that were studying the expansion history of the universe, and when I saw the results, that the universe is accelerating in its expansion, I was just completely stunned. It was a shocking result. Essentially, no one had expected this. What's out there, stronger than gravity, that's pulling the universe apart?

Incredibly, nobody knows. Astronomers simply call it dark energy. We're still not sure exactly what dark energy is. It may be an intrinsic energy that space itself has that actually makes it prefer to get larger. This rubber band has what we call elasticity. If I pull on it and make it larger, it actually tries to pull back and restore its shape to a smaller size. Imagine the reverse of that, where instead, you have something that likes to increase its size. That's the sort of physics that might underlie dark energy, where it actually is driving the acceleration of the whole expansion of the universe. One thing we do know about the mysterious dark energy is that it makes up around 70% of the universe. That's crazy, that we don't know about most of the universe. We're the weird things in the universe.

So how will dark energy drive us toward a frigid cosmic Armageddon? Little by little, but faster and faster, it will move everything away from everything else. And as clusters of galaxies spread, the expanding universe will get colder. When we look out in the universe, we see that all galaxies appear to be moving away from us.

If we could view the universe from a different galaxy, we'd see the same thing. How can all the galaxies be moving away from all the other galaxies? One way to think about the expanding universe is to think about an expanding loaf of raisin bread. The raisins are galaxies, and the dough is the universe. The raisin bread is expanding because the baking soda in the bread is causing it to expand, kind of like dark energy. The baking soda is expanding the dough and spreading the raisins, just like dark energy is expanding the universe and moving all the galaxies farther and farther apart.

As the universe expands, its energy gets diluted. There won't be enough to build new stars as old ones die. With no stars to generate heat and no new stars being born, the universe marches toward a bitterly cold end, an ice age that affects not just one planet, but the entire universe. In a universe that's expanding eternally, it's getting colder and colder with time. It's as though you're entering a long, extended-- Indeed, eternal winter. A Nordic nightmare, the mighty winter that heralds Armageddon.

But is that truly the end? Or does dark energy have the power to do something even more destructive? It's possible that the mysterious force could grow stronger over time. In that case, eventually, clusters of galaxies will get ripped apart, then galaxies will be ripped apart, then planetary systems will be ripped apart, planets, us, and even the atoms of which we are made. It won't stop until nothing's left to tear apart. Scientists call this "the Big Rip."

If the Big Rip were to occur, it would be the ultimate Armageddon. Everything ripped apart. Wow, doesn't get any worse than that. The Big Rip is one vision of Armageddon on a universal scale. But even if the universe is fated to end in bitter cold, is the Earth itself destined to die much sooner, not in cold, but fire? Ancient prophesies foretell Armageddon, but few agree how it will come to pass. The ancient Norse predicted the beginning of the end in bone-cracking cold, a prophecy that our expanding universe might make happen. The Norse weren't the only ones to fear a wintery Armageddon.

It's the 16th century, in what is now Mexico. A prisoner captured from a recent battle is dragged out and held down on a slab. The Aztec priest raises an obsidian knife and slices open the prisoner's chest. Ripping out the still-beating heart and raising it triumphantly to the sun. He holds the fate of the planet in his bloodstained hands. The Aztecs believed they had a duty to feed the sun through blood sacrifice, giving it the strength to make its daily journey across the sky. If they failed to feed it, they believed it would disappear. But what would really happen if one dark morning, the sun vanished? If the sun were to suddenly disappear from the universe, then there'd be no gravity pulling the Earth toward the sun anymore, and that means that the Earth would go flying off in space in a straight line along the direction it was moving at the instant that the sun disappeared. This would doom the Earth to a frozen Armageddon that recalls the deadly Norse winter.

Fortunately for us, our sun won't magically vanish, but what it will do is evolve. Evolve...and then die. Will this mean a cold, dark death for the Earth, or something more like the ancient Buddhists envisioned?

In the Buddhist apocalypse, seven suns will blaze across the sky. When the sixth sun rises, it will bake the Earth like pottery. Then, according to the prophecy, "A seventh sun appears. "The mountains fire and blaze, "and of this great earth, when consumed, neither ashes nor soot remains." Although there aren't multiple suns in our future, were the Buddhists right that Earth will die by fire? Will we be burned into oblivion by our dying sun?

At 5 billion years old, the sun has reached middle age and its days are numbered. Scientists have a clear idea of how it will die, and it's all driven by pressure. The heat of nuclear fusion in the core creates enormous outward pressure that should blow the sun apart, but instead, it's countered by the equal force of gravity pushing in. Balancing inward and outward pressure is something every diver stakes his life on. The reason we have life on earth is because the sun is burning through its nuclear fuel. it's an equilibrium. It's a balance between gravity trying to crush it down and pressure holding it up.

So what happens when equilibrium is lost? On the surface of the Earth, human beings are in equilibrium, just like the sun. The atmosphere presses on us at 15 pounds per square inch, or one atmosphere. We don't feel it because the air inside us is pushing out at the same pressure. But take an object designed to be in equilibrium on the surface, and bring it underwater, and you start to see what happens when equilibrium is lost. I want to demonstrate what a small amount of atmospheric pressure can do to this metal can. As we're descending, we're already seeing effects of this can. Check it out. The can is starting to bend, and we're only at 15 feet. I'm pretty surprised that we're starting to see the effects of pressure at only 15 feet. I dive 15 feet all the time, and I didn't know I was exerting these kinds of forces on my body. Now we're finally at 33 feet. That's double atmospheric pressure. We totally crushed our can. It's pretty obvious that when you have twice the amount of pressure on the outside of the can, what's on the inside, our can, just can't survive.

So what will drive the sun out of equilibrium? And what will this mean for our planet? The sun's lifetime is mostly governed by how much fuel it has in its core versus the force of gravity of its own matter pushing inward. Over time, stars like our sun, which fuse hydrogen into helium in their cores, eventually start to run out of fuel, and enter a period of time where they go through these death throes.

As the sun runs out of fuel, gravity will keep pulling the core tighter. But as the core shrinks, it will heat the surrounding layers of gas, causing hydrogen and helium to fuse even faster than before. The extra energy released will increase the pressure on the outer layer of the sun. That extra energy will push on the outer layers of the sun, causing them to expand, becoming big. We call this a red giant. The core will keep contracting while its outer layer grows bigger and brighter. The sun will become so bright and so big that the Earth might actually find itself inside the sun for a while. That would be Armageddon. The Earth will be incinerated, lifeless, but still a planet after the sun gradually cools. The sun will fade away, and then the Earth will just keep on orbiting a very dim, ever dimmer lump that remains from today's sun. The dying sun will trigger our own infernal Armageddon, a blazing, Buddhist finale before eternal Aztec winter. Or life on Earth could be finished long before that happens, and much, much sooner than we expect.

Ancient visions predict that Armageddon is inevitable some distant day. But what if our day of reckoning... Is today?

Chelyabinsk, Russia, February, 2013. Residents see a fireball blaze across the sky, seconds before it detonates. The asteroid arrives unannounced... leaving no time to react or take cover. It exploded in the atmosphere with a force about 20 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Luckily, it was high enough in the atmosphere that the atmosphere absorbed most of the energy. That object was only about 20 yards in diameter. That was a small rock, yet the explosion caused widespread damage, lots of imploding glass that actually hurt 1,500 people, many buildings damaged.

A larger asteroid or comet could cause mass extinction on Earth... leaving the planet intact, but lifeless. The idea of an Earth devoid of people is something the ancients feared. When they talk about Armageddon scenarios, it's wiping away the living organisms that are here now and starting again. At least that's the usual scenario. So the world will still be here, the heavens will still be there. We won't.

But the Ancients had different visions of how humanity would be wiped out. Muslim writings foresaw the end of the world, signaled by landslides and a cloud of smoke... engulfing the planet. The Romans envisioned Armageddon by fire or flood--or both-- when the time comes to cleanse the Earth. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, "Water and fire bring about creation, "they bring about destruction, "so when the world decides to change, "it sends the sea crashing down on us, or causes extinction by heat and fire." This sounds a lot like the kind of thing you would get when you got a meteorite slamming into the oceans, a global tsunami, nuclear winter, the end of the world.

Perhaps the most frightening vision of Armageddon comes from Christianity. The Book of Revelation describes all manner of destruction raining down on Earth. "And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; "and there was a great earthquake, "not seen since men were upon the Earth. "He maketh fire come down from heaven, and the sun became black, and the moon became as blood." It's a terrifying vision, but can such a global cataclysm really happen?

The Christian scenario for the end of the world involves raging seas, famine, pestilence, fire, earthquakes. These are all of the kind of things that you could have if you were suffering multiple impacts. Perhaps multiple meteorites, a comet that's fragmented and slammed into the Earth. This kind of thing could easily happen in real life.

With an asteroid impact, there's all kinds of other side effects. The Earth could get increased vulcanism, increased earthquakes, the ocean could acidify. Anything not killed immediately might die slowly. The entire food chain would be disrupted. Many or most species of life on Earth would perish-- a global mass extinction, a real Armageddon.

The sudden meteorite explosion in Chelyabinsk put the world on notice. There are a lot of asteroids and other big rocks in the solar system just kind of flying around, and most of them are between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, but some of them cross Earth's orbit, and so eventually, they can slam into the Earth. How do we know?

Earth's battered past is carved into the face of the moon. Over the Earth's history, it's been bombarded by meteors, and one way we can tell is just by looking at the moon. There are craters everywhere, and they aren't eroded by the water and the air like they are on the Earth, so you can look up and see a fossil record of all of the impacts near Earth.

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