What if we are wrong? Musings on the way homePosted: December 6, 2012
When I was a physics student, many years ago, we would sometimes entertain the notion of what would happen if something wasn’t the way that it was. The impact of changing the Planck constant and diffracting through doorways (ignoring how much else would immediately break). What would happen if the speed of light was much slower – or much faster. What would happen if there was no static coefficient of friction. (The short answer to that last one is Wheeeeeeeeeeeee and the penguins dominate the Earth.)
These thought experiments constitute a principle aspect of physics, specifically, and science, in general. What if?
Now we are approaching another date of a so-called apocalypse and, as I have already posted, both I and the Mayans agree: being scared of the end of this ba’ak’tun makes as much sense as being worried about Sunday night.
But what if? What if, after everything, the world ends on the 21st of December, 2012?
Let’s start this by working out which 21st of December we are talking about. Is it GMT offset or the first country to officially have the time? Is it even 00:00:01 on that date or something convenient like midday? Do we all have to be in the correct day or will the world end in neat hourly blocks (half hourly for difficult time zones like Adelaide). Spain is GMT+1 but sits under England. Will there be an embarrassing absence of ocean as the seas pour into the hole vacated by the destruction of the Iberian Peninsula?
What do we even mean by the end of the world, anyway? The destruction of all life, all human life, most human life, the flooding of the land, fire, famine, pestilence or the complete obliteration of the planet itself? Is this a grand Universal extinction event or localised to our galaxy?
These are important questions! If we are talking the wiping out of only some life forms on the planet, with an otherwise intact biosphere, then we have a small but fit for purpose International Space Station. Once the disaster is over, the crew can descend and they can repopulate the Earth.
We are really not taking this apocalypse seriously, are we? We have one opportunity for an isolated spot that could theoretically jump start our race – and looking at the pictures it’s a zero gravity moustache growing competition.
I’m being facetious, obviously, but it is amazing how far the apocalypse idea spreads without any of the questions of any detail being answered. The eschatological aspects of the Bible have been fleshed out in the most amazing detail but this current Mayan apocalypse? Meh.
We are currently seeing another, far more serious, threat manifesting in the steadily unfolding issues caused by climate change and what scares me is that people have been postulating the What If scenarios on that for decades. We are longer talking about What If for this, we are talking about What Now. Yet we still argue as if the real and demonstrable changes are as mythical as the Mayan scenario.
It would be darkly amusing if December the 21st, 2012, is revealed, decades hence, to have been the tipping point between salvageable and irretrievable. I sometimes refer to this as the Atlantis moment, the point at which your civilisation is doomed to extinction and myth.
“What if?” is not just a good scientific tool for my students, it’s an ethical and philosophical tool as well. What if we don’t tell these men that we can cure their syphilis? What if I argue in a way that suggests a reversed order of priority for key tasks? What if I take money to stay silent? What would happen if I did nothing? What if? WHAT IF?
What if all of us are wrong about apocalypses because we don’t see well enough through longer periods of time to see what a true disaster looks like?
I’m not expecting the world to end before Christmas (I have flights booked and would hate to miss the party) but it’s not a bad time to step back and think about what would happen, if we were in such dire straits. What if we are?