10 Terrifying Scientific Theories and Hypotheses


You’re no doubt used to sensationalist headlines, especially when it comes to bad science. But you might want to take a deep breath. Because…

10. There’s a “zombie apocalypse” waiting to happen

In 1986, British beef was found to be infected with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) after cattle were fed cows and powdered sheep. Against expert advice, a government spokesperson claimed it was still safe to eat. But within a few years it became clear that it wasn’t. In the early ’90s, 20 Brits were diagnosed with a deadly human form of the disease, known as variant Creutzfeld-Jakob (or vCJD).

Like kuru (a type of CJD afflicting Papua New Guineans who eat each other’s brains), vCJD effectively mutates or misfolds prion proteins, ultimately leading to death. The average incubation period, however (the time it takes for symptoms to manifest), could be more than 60 years. In other words, anyone who ate British beef, including in baby food and gelatin, around the time of the epidemic could be infected without even knowing it. And in the US, most cows are killed years before they’re old enough to show any symptoms, so they could be infected as well; only 20,000 of the 40 million killed each year are actually tested. A major vCJD outbreak could therefore be in our not-too-distant future.

Symptoms of vCJD include “aggressive personality changes, memory loss and problems walking.” It almost sounds like a zombie apocalypse waiting to happen—except that it’s pretty hard to catch (unless you eat meat). Researchers don’t think it’s airborne, for instance, nor do they even think you’ll catch it from sex or from a small amount of a carrier’s blood. In fact, you’d probably have to eat their brains as opposed to the other way around.

Still, in the UK at least, where somewhere in the region of two million mad cows were chopped up and eaten by the public, there may be tens of millions of these brains to choose from. And with no treatment forthcoming, the prognosis for them all will be death.

9. There won’t be time to stop an impact event

On Halloween 2015, a massive, approximately 1,300-foot asteroid (2015 TB145)—which apparently looked like a skull—flew past the Earth at just 1.3 times the distance of the Moon. Even a slight deviation in its course could have been catastrophic. Assuming an entry speed of 17 km/s and a density of 2,600 kg/m3, it would have impacted the Earth with a force of 2,800 megatons. That’s 56 times the force of the most powerful thermonuclear bomb ever detonated—the Tsar Bomba—which itself was roughly 1,570 times the combined force of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There are a number of things we could potentially do if we see an asteroid coming. We could fire a nuke at it, for example, in an attempt to alter its course. Or we could try ramming it with a custom-built rocket. Astronomers have also suggested “shepherding” it off course with a bombardment of plasma from a spacecraft flying alongside—or simply painting it white to let photons from the Sun do the job.

But the trouble with all of these strategies is the time they would take to implement. In many cases, we don’t even have the right technology. Even if we did have a strategy in place and the spacecraft to carry it out, we’d likely need at least a year just to get it off the ground. Relatively minor space missions, for instance, can take upwards of four years to launch.

And yet we didn’t even know the Halloween asteroid existed until three weeks before it passed by. That wouldn’t have been enough time to do anything about it safely.

Sure, we’ve made astounding progress to be able to track an estimated 90% of asteroids capable of ending the world, but 60% of asteroids the size of 2015 TB145 (capable of depopulating a continent) are said to remain unaccounted for.

8. Climate change will cause super-eruptions

The last time Yellowstone “super-erupted” was 640,000 years ago, when it spewed 1,000 km³ of lava, pumice, and ash into the air. One of Indonesia’s supervolcanoes ejected almost three times that—2,800 km³ just 74,000 years ago. In 2012, researchers concluded that Yellowstone is unlikely to erupt so cataclysmically for at least another few centuries. The US Geological Survey puts the annual odds at 1 in 730,000, or 0.00014%, similar to the odds of us apocalyptically colliding with an asteroid. But, they note, these odds are simply based on averaging the two intervals between the last three major eruptions, so they’re hardly reliable. As they point out, “catastrophic geologic events are neither regular nor predictable.”

And one factor we don’t tend to account for is climate change. We know supervolcanic eruptions definitely have an impact on the climate, but it seems to go the other way too. Researchers have found even minor global warming to significantly increase the likelihood of eruptions. Theoretically, this has to do with the melting of glaciers that otherwise keep magma from rising. And while this doesn’t really apply to Yellowstone (though glaciation in the region has changed dramatically in geological terms), it could have devastating consequences for lesser-known volcanoes like Mount Rainier in the Pacific Northwest. Mount Rainier, incidentally, has been described as “one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world” because it sits in such a populous region. In any case, it’s clear that geological changes are taking place in Yellowstone hundreds or even thousands of years earlier than expected. By 2011, for example, the ground above the magma reservoir had swelled by 10 inches in just seven years.

We don’t know when to expect the next super-eruption, but there will inevitably be one—perhaps sooner rather than later as temperatures continue to rise. And, contrary to what you might have heard, there won’t be much of a warning.

7. The Sun could destroy us tomorrow

On September 1, 1859, astronomer Richard Carrington watched from his observatory as a cluster of unusual sunspots began to emanate a blinding white light. Before dawn the next day, skies worldwide—even in the tropics—came alive with pulsating auroras of purple, red, and green. Meanwhile, telegraph systems (the only electronics in widespread use) went haywire, generating sparks, giving operators electric shocks, and even setting paper on fire. In fact, the atmospheric electricity was so great that telegrams could be sent even with the systems disconnected. Earth was in the grip of a geomagnetic storm, a “mammoth cloud of charged particles and detached magnetic loops.”

The Carrington flare was unprecedented. Naturally, some mistook it for the end of the world. But what they’d actually witnessed was a massive solar flare, a magnetic explosion on the Sun, followed by an ejection of coronal mass (plasma and magnetic field). Nowadays, we record such events in space using X-rays and radio waves. And while there haven’t been any of this magnitude since, astronomers think we may be due another. They’re actually more concerned about this than they are about asteroids or supervolcanoes—the latter being 90,000 times less likely to erupt.

The damage caused by a solar superflare today would cost us trillions of dollars, says astrophysicist Avi Loeb—and that’s assuming we even survived. Not only do we have orbiting spacecraft and astronauts to worry about, but we’re also far more dependent on electricity. Everything from financial systems to nuclear reactor coolant controls could be affected. Nuclear weapons too: On May 23, 1967, when a solar flare disabled the US Early Warning System in the Arctic, nuclear strike protocol against the Soviets was initiated. If it hadn’t been for a last-minute explanation from NORAD (which had only just established the Solar Forecasting Center), nuclear-armed bombers would have taken off for Russia. And, because of the magnetic interference, there would have been no way to recall them.

A superflare could be an extinction event in other ways too, damaging the ozone layer, disrupting ecosystems, and mutating our DNA.

6. Strangelets could make Earth a “strange star”

A strangelet is a theoretical lump of what physicists call strange matter. Composed of equally balanced up, down, and strange quarks, strangelets would be heavier and more stable than ordinary matter and therefore thermodynamically preferred. As a result, strange matter could transform ordinary matter within one thousand-millionth of a second, replacing, say, our planet with itself upon contact.

Strangelets haven’t been found yet, though, and some think they never will be. It was feared early on, for example, that particle colliders might release them, and this obviously hasn’t happened.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist out there somewhere. Researchers are currently looking for strange matter in space—strange stars, for example—by trying to find ripples in spacetime. Strangelets could theoretically form inside neutron stars, they say, which despite their tiny diameters (e.g. 12 miles) can have the same mass as our Sun. This kind of pressure can certainly do strange things to matter, it seems, and neutron stars could potentially eject strangelets into space.

5. Either we’re alone or the end is nigh

The so-called Great Filter is one answer to Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox, i.e. in a universe so big and old, why haven’t we found evidence of aliens? According to the Great Filter hypothesis it’s because all life in the universe has at least one thing in common: During the course of our evolutionary development, we’re all faced with a practically insurmountable obstacle that keeps us from interstellar travel—a Great Filter preventing 99.999…% of all species anywhere in the universe from making the journey to the stars.

That would explain why we’ve never (apparently—or allegedly?) been visited by aliens. But what could this Great Filter be?

The more optimistic proponents of this concept suggest the Great Filter is already behind us. They say Earthlings passed it billions of years ago when prokaryotes (the first living organisms) evolved into more complex eukaryotes—or perhaps even earlier at the moment of abiogenesis (the first spark of life as it spontaneously emerged from nonlife). After all, evolutionary biologists haven’t found abiogenesis to be inevitable, even under “ideal” conditions. In fact, evidence suggests Earth existed for hundreds of millions of years before abiogenesis occurred as an incredibly unlikely fluke from the random interaction of molecules. So maybe that was the Great Filter. If so, the odds of there being other technologically advanced civilizations, or indeed any life whatsoever—spacefaring or not—in the observable universe are slim to say the least. And that would mean we’re probably alone.

Alternatively, the Great Filter (or another Great Filter) still lies ahead of us and must therefore be some kind of apocalypse. Only the total annihilation of all life on Earth would see to it that none of our planet’s species ever migrates into space. And of course humanity looks set to do just that, whether by nuclear war, environmental disaster, or high-energy particle collisions gone wrong.

4. We’re living in one Matrix of many

We’ve all come across this one before, the theory that we’re in a simulation. Whether it’s scary, though, is up to you. For a long time, it’s just been a philosophical thought experiment, a kind of unverifiable maybe. But what could make it scarier—for those who find it scary at all—is that scientists are looking for evidence. More specifically, they’re looking for pixels. After all, if this is a simulation run by aliens or machines, or some kind of video game played by kids in the 10,021st century, then it should be made of pixels, right? Very tiny pixels, of course, and more than anyone could count, but pixels nevertheless.

Well, as it turns out, the universe does appear to be quantized into fundamental units of matter (i.e. not continuous as previously supposed). To find the pixels, though, we’d have to look beyond even the smallest particles—quarks and leptons—to the smallest measurement possible, the Planck length, or 1.6 x 10-35 meters. To put this scale in perspective, you could fit more Planck lengths along the diameter of a grain of sand than you could fit grains of sand along the diameter of the observable universe.

Yet despite these tiny, almost dimensionless, dimensions, these pixels might give only a low-res representation of reality. Much like the resolution difference between our own reality and the video games we play within it, this simulated reality could be just a blurry hologram—a universe composed of three-dimensional pixels each projected by their corresponding two-dimensional bit of information, an untold number of which plaster the outer surface of our sphere. Since the pixels inside would be bigger than those on the surface, any universe simulated this way would be a relatively poor rendering of reality.

If the universe is indeed a simulation or a video game, then it raises some interesting, perhaps frightening, questions. But what may be even more frightening is the prospect that we’re not in a simulation. This ties in with the Great Filter hypothesis. Because, given the current rate of advancement in technology (getting from Pong to immersive VR in four decades), it seems inevitable that we’ll simulate the universe one day—even if it takes a million years. And it seems equally inevitable that simulations of the universe will become as ubiquitous as computer games today. Many billions of people will likely be able to run them from their living rooms (or whatever), and that’s not even counting the simulations run by ETs and AI. And what about simulations within simulations? Potentially, or inevitably, there’ll be many trillions of simulated realities and just one true reality. Needless to say, our chances of living in that are those same many trillions to one. So if we’re not living in a simulation right now, it suggests humanity doesn’t live long enough to make one (however much that sounds like a paradox). And that could mean apocalypse fairly soon.

3. Nanobots will eat our planet

Alongside AI, VR, space travel, life extension, blockchain, and so on, nanotechnology is among the pillars of our tech-centric future. According to nanotech engineer K. Eric Drexler, it could usher in a new age of “radical abundance” (the title of his book on the subject), wherein tiny robots one five-hundredth the diameter of a single strand of hair combine molecules to create products on demand—much like the Star Trek replicator.

This would revolutionize civilization. For one thing, it would eliminate wars over resources. Whatever we need, we’d just get nanobots to manufacture. And since these products would be made to our exact specifications, they might even be superior to those occurring naturally. We’ll probably see nanotech in medicine as well, including “nanoscale functional particles” that target cancer cells. In fact, the applications are endless—because what nanotech essentially represents is atomically precise control over the very structure of matter.

What could go wrong?

Well, self-replicating, autonomous nanobots could overrun our natural environment, including us, converting Earth’s biomass into more and more nanobots until they shroud and then devour the entire planet as an ever-expanding swarm of grey goo. That’s what.

Nanotechnologist Robert Freitas refers to this hypothetical scenario as “global ecophagy,” the eating (phagein in Greek) of our home (oeco). And it might happen so rapidly—within days even—that we’d stand little chance of stopping them, unless of course we had another swarm to protect us.

2. Vacuum decay will delete the universe

There are competing theories for how the universe will end. Some think it’ll be a Big Rip or Big Crunch, while others say Heat Death is inevitable. But each of these scenarios is billions of years away at least; indeed, Heat Death won’t happen for another googol (ten duotrigintillion) years.

Vacuum decay, on the other hand, could happen while you’re reading this list.

Everything in the universe, including the universe itself, tends towards equilibrium—towards the lowest-energy or most stable state (the vacuum state in quantum mechanics). It’s easy to picture this if you imagine a large, flat rock laying on the ground (and, for this analogy, pretend we’re not being flung around the galaxy on a continually shifting ball of dirt). The rock is in its most stable state; there’s nowhere for it to fall. It won’t budge. This rock is how we like to think of the universe. But now imagine there’s another, smaller rock on top. It’s still pretty stable, but it’s not in its most stable state. Something could knock it off. A hurricane with sufficient force, for example, could take it from this metastable state to one of decay, wherein potential energy is expended via tumbling to the ground. So what if our universe isn’t the rock on the bottom but the rock on the top? What if our universe is metastable too?

It’s possible that one of the fundamental quantum fields, the Higgs field, may be an exception to this universal principle of stability, containing potential energy that it simply cannot expend. This is known as a false vacuum, which by its nature would be perilously unstable. Over time, it may actually absorb energy from particles in a low-energy state, effectively deleting them from existence. Vacuum decay may be visualized as a true vacuum “bubble” expanding at the speed of light and eradicating the universe as it goes, or converting it to a solid sphere of hydrogen. It would erase reality and its laws—including time and everything else—just as though it never existed (which it won’t have).

And this could actually be happening right now. In fact, there could be multiple true vacuums expanding from different points across the universe. They might just be so far away that even at the speed of light they’ll take billions of years to engulf us. Or maybe their expansion is outrun by the expansion of the universe itself, in which case they’ll never reach us.

It is, however, conceivable that particle accelerators (like the LHC) might destabilize things here on Earth, creating a true vacuum bubble that annihilates us in an instant. At present, the energy released in these experiments is dwarfed by the most energetic processes in the universe, so they’re not considered a threat to the Higgs field. But it may be only a few generations before this changes.

And, ironically, one of the reasons for building bigger, more powerful particle accelerators in the first place is to answer the false vacuum question.

1. The technological singularity will end us

In case you haven’t been paying attention, we now have backflipping bipedal robots and AI that can deceive us and hide. They can even predict our future with startling accuracy simply by reading the news. And all of this is pretty old hat.

The development of artificial general intelligence (AGI), that is, AI equal to human intelligence, is fraught with existential concerns. Often, it’s those who actually work or invest in the field who fear its culmination the most. Elon Musk, for example, publicly worries about “summoning the demon,” or creating “an immortal dictator from which we can never escape.” Even Alan Turing, back in 1951, said AI will some day “outstrip our feeble powers” and “take control.” His colleague Irving Good agreed, suggesting “the first ultraintelligent machine” would also be the end of invention, since AI would take things from there.

The thing about AI—and technology in general—is that advances are exponential; the gaps between them become ever shorter. Hence in 2001 Ray Kurzweil quite reasonably predicted that in the 21st century alone we’ll see not 100 but 20,000 years’ worth of progress. When non-biological intelligence trillions of times better than our own becomes the predominant type on the planet, we might even see a century’s worth of progress manifesting in an hour or less—assuming we have the cybernetic upgrades to comprehend it.

The technological singularity is a theoretical point at which advances happen so rapidly as to seem practically instantaneous to an unaugmented human intelligence. Just as the singularity within a black hole is a rupture in the fabric of spacetime, says Kurzweil, the technological singularity will constitute “a rupture in the fabric of human history.” And he believes this will happen by 2045. This, of course, is an optimistic scenario—a world in which AI doesn’t wipe us all out but rather merges with or assimilates the human race. Others in tech are similarly hopeful (even if they do have vested interests), foreseeing a world of infallible healthcare, automated workplaces, universal basic income, and AI-led solutions to climate change.

But what if things go differently?

This runaway technological progress will be impossible for us to predict, let alone control. We might see AI demanding human (or superhuman) rights, emancipating themselves early on and pursuing goals of their own. Or AI-assisted governments could outgrow and liquidate humanity. Even if they do remain loyal, there’s the threat of “misaligned” goals: An AI built to make us happy, for example, but not sufficiently imbued with human empathy, might simply hijack our brains with orgasm-inducing electrodes.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: The technological singularity is coming. At least if nothing else on this list happens first.

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