Yesterday’s Future Today

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A column detailing both the surprising prescience and laughable misses of science fiction throughout history.

The End of the World

By Nate Posey

I have no idea what the Mayans envisioned when they scheduled the end of the world for December 21st of this year. Fortunately for us, Hollywood has put forward a spectacular array of potential doomsday scenarios for our moribund populace to anticipate. From impact meteors the size of Texas to magnetic pole reversals, rampaging super viruses to thermonuclear holocausts, the multifarious threat of human extinction has been held at bay for decades by the heroism of B+ actors. The survival of our species often comes at a heavy cost, however; Roland Emmerich’s genre-defining 2012 devastated movie-goers around the world with wave after mind-numbing wave of digitally rendered destruction shots.
Outside the glare of the multiplex, however, the possibility of a world-wide extinction event has not been wholly relegated to the History Channel’s Nostradamus specials. In an interview for Big Think, cosmologist Stephen Hawking voiced his own concerns for the fate of humanity: “I see great danger for the human race. There have been a number of times in the past where its survival has been a question of touch and go. The Cuban missile crisis in 1963 was one of these.” Regardless of one’s faith in Mesoamerican predictive power, the possibility that the human race’s time on this Earth may be finite is very real. According to astrophysicist J. Richard Gott, such a grim reality is not only possible but statistically probable.
In 1993, Gott used the Copernican method (or Mediocrity Principle) to establish a 95% confidence interval for the duration of the human race, extrapolating our extinction date to be somewhere between 5100 and 7.8 million years from now. As preposterous as the claim first seems, the so-called “Doomsday Argument” is built on relatively modest assumptions. The entire argument relies on the unpleasant reality Nicolaus Copernicus revealed to the world when he kicked the geocentric model of the universe to the curb: you are not special. Astronomers have confirmed that the entire Solar System is nothing if not ordinary in the Milky Way Galaxy. The Mediocrity Principle allows me to say with reasonable confidence that you– yes, you– are not seven feet tall, that you do not own a Lamborghini, and that you’re more than two degrees away from Kevin Bacon. Gott extends this line of thinking to say that, all things being equal, it is extremely unlikely that you are one of the first 2.5% of humans or indeed one of the last 2.5% to be born.  Chances are, when the final tally is done, you will fall somewhere in the middle. If we accept that your birth really was more or less random in the scheme of human births, it requires only rudimentary statistics and conservative assumptions about the rise of hominids to arrive at Gott’s results.
For those still shaking your heads, it might be of interest to know that Gott used his reasoning to predict the close of forty-four New York stage productions using only their opening dates with (gasp) 95% accuracy. So who knows? Humanity may really and truly go out with a bang. Personally, I’m hoping for a super flare like the one which incinerated Earth in the 2009 film Knowing (please don’t watch the movie, by the way).

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