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For many Canadians, Americans and Europeans, the threat of global warming might not seem that big a deal. Sorry about the polar bears, of course, but shorter winters? Manitobans and Muscovites probably feel they could cope.
In "Megacatastrophes!: Nine Strange Ways the World Could End," David Darling and Dirk Schulze-Makuch offer a much more impressive list of lethal possibilities, which they score on a "Catastrophometer," giving points for probability and potential loss of life. The top of the scale is 10: absolutely certain extinction of the entire species. Fortunately, none of the authors' scenarios is quite that bad yet.
As for the possibility of something awful being caused by the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, another threat that the authors note, there's no point in worrying. If the LHC flips us into a "deeper energy minimum" or "true vacuum state," as one or two physicists speculate could happen, we'll all just wink out instantly.
One involves nanotechnology getting out of hand. We might release tiny self-replicating gadgets to mop up an oil spill, say, but what if they take an interest in all carbon molecules instead? In no time much of the world would be "gray goo."
Nevertheless, the real danger, say Messrs. Darling and Schulze-Makuch, is pandemics, a threat they rate at 7.5: sure to happen sometime, death toll in the hundreds of millions or even billions.
"Megacatastrophes!" reminds us that the air of reassuring omnipotence that our leaders like to project is mere illusion. We're always dancing on the edge of a volcano, in a universe not built to human scale.
In the fall of 1959, for a time capsule, students draw pictures of life as they imagine it will be in 50 years. Lucinda, an odd child who hears voices, swiftly writes a long string of numbers. In 2009, the capsule is opened; student Caleb Koestler gets Lucinda's "drawing" and his father John, an astrophysicist and grieving widower, takes a look. He discovers dates of disasters over the past 50 years with the number who died. Three dates remain, all coming soon. He investigates, learns of Lucinda, and looks for her family. He fears for his son, who's started to hear voices and who is visited by a silent stranger who shows him a vision of fire and destruction. What's going on?