Popular ways the Universe may kill us

By Phil Plait | August 26, 2010 10:30 am

popmechlogoMy friend Erin McCarthy works at Popular Mechanics. We met at Comic Con last year, and at this year’s nerdfest we chatted briefly about me possibly writing an article for them some day.

That day has come. On their website they’ve posted my short but deadly "Top 5 Ways the Universe Could Wipe Out Humankind". I wrote it a bit tongue-in-cheek — the topic sure lends itself to snark, doesn’t it? — but I had to scratch my head about it a wee bit. After all, what are the Top 5 ways? So I picked one that was statistically likely, two that weren’t, and two that were inevitable.

I bet you can figure out which was which. Anyway, they generously plugged my show in the article, and even embedded the teaser clip in the section about asteroid impacts.

I hope you like it. And thanks, Erin!


Comments (23)

  1. llewelly

    Popular? What boring jerk voted for “Death by Ennui”?

  2. Corey

    Phil…you forgot a change in the vacuum constant…

  3. Wayne on the plains

    I’ve been talking up your show to all my physics students, just doing my bit for what I hope will be a great show.

  4. Jumblepudding

    The dissolution of everything because of atomic decay is the worst. There will be nothing for a lot longer than there was ever anything, and as far as I understand, there will be no indicator in the nothingness (supposing a being from an entirely unknown plane of existence were to stumble on the corpse of our universe) to provide an inkling that anything ever happened, which is a massively depressing thought.

  5. Erik Siers

    Under “Death by Black Hole”:

    “They don’t wander the galaxy looking for tasty snacks in the form of planets and stars […] But it’s possible that one could wander too close to us.”

    That one struck me as funny.

  6. How can two different ways of killing us all be inevitable?

  7. All this “end of the world” stuff is extremely irrelevant.

    When I’m gone, that will be the end of the world.

    Fortunately for all of you, I’m immortal so you can go on wondering about the end of the world.

  8. Georg

    So in that long distant future, the Universe may be nothing more than an ultra-thin soup of electrons and low-energy photons bumping around an eternal nothingness.

    Hello Phil,
    just electrons and photons? Who will care for electroneutrality?
    What about neutrinos?

  9. “Anyway, they generously plugged my show in the article”

    You did a show?

  10. I haven’t looked at the page yet, but I will venture a guess that the “statistically likely” would be “hit by an asteroid”, and one of the inevitables is “the Sun dies”.

    Now, as for “popular”, I vote for “being enslaved by the women of Orion“. :-)

  11. K7V orange dwarf Gliese 710; ra 18h 19m 51s, dec -010¬į 56.4′; arxiv:1003.2160.


  12. Stosh Y

    It’s fun to speculate on the possibilities yet science says we been here for billions of years and so far so good. Truth is, politics will have killed us all long before so much as mote from space disturbs more than a few molecules of dust on the planet. If no one is around to see the end of the world will it matter? No ABC coverage, no TMZ to decry the death of the “stars”, will it really be so bad? In silent wonder the last star will wink out and ,,,

  13. David Christensen

    Hey Phil,

    Just in case no one caught it, you’ve got a mention here:



  14. Chris Winter

    “”In silent wonder the last star will wink out and …”

    The nine-billionth name of God will whisper through the cosmos.

  15. Thameron

    Alright this is just downright insulting. Why is it always the asteroids? What about the comets? One of those could come out of the Kuiper Belt or Oort cloud at any time and do for us what they do for Jupiter and the sun, but they don’t get so much as a mention! What is it with this rock fetish? A ball of ice could do exactly the same thing but prettier.

    Oh, and as long as it is just ‘the universe’ in general I’d pick the superbug. All it needs is a long latency period during which it is highly contagious and then 100% lethal with eventual onset and have a common environmental reservoir.

  16. Is there a quid pro quo to cross-blogging (bloggers blogging about other blogger’s posts and then cross-linking the entries to trade/gain readers)? Not that I begrudge self-promotion…maybe I should start writing about famous bloggers on my humble little site.

  17. Messier Tidy Upper

    Nice, very cheery end of the universe piece there – & that show clip does look very Mythbusters~esque & fun! 8)

    [Pedant mode on]

    I will however get very nitpicky about this line :

    During the day the Sun shines steadily, …

    Er .. Solar flares?! Sunspots?! Coronal Mass Ejections?! Maunder’s & other minimums?

    Our Sun is actually a variable star – just a very, *very* slight variable. ūüėČ

    .. and at night the heavens are reassuring and unchanging.

    Reassuring? Well, yeah, you could look at it that way but unchanging?

    No. The planets are the original “wandering stars” (even if they do stick to the zodiac) plus we have comets and asteroids, stellar proper motions altering the positions of the nearer stars and thus the constellations (eg. Barnard’s Star, Alpha Centauri, Sirius etc .. moving gradually from their unchanging places), variable stars, novae and supernovae, Nibiru – & the IAU changing the planets by killing off Pluto .. and who knows which planet will be next on their hitlist! (Watch your back Mercury – you’re the smallest now &, oh so Moon-like! ūüėČ )

    Plus I’ll second (#15.) Thameron’s comment on the comets there too. Why do asteroids always get all the glory? ūüėČ

    [/pedant mode off.]

    Nice article though all the same, BA. It’d go really nice in your next book methinks! :-)

  18. Starlike

    @Carl (#6): Two death possibilities are inevitable only due to our current technology. If we can come up with a transport technology to go to other stars before the sun dies, then we escape 1 inevitable death. Death by Ennui is much harder to escape. However, recent theories/speculation on multiverse might provide an escape clause from that as well. If multiple universe bubbles continue to be created (out of thin space), and we find a way to jump between them, then we might last forever. :-)

  19. Thomas

    What about “the big rip”? Where the expansion of the universe keeps accelerating until first the Earth starts speeding away from the sun, and then eventually is torn apart. As I understand it some versions of dark energy predict that scenario.

    I’d still bet that humanity manages to kill itself long before the universe manages to get into the action.

  20. Blizzzzzaaaarrg!

    Odd note in the one and only comment on the PM site about the moon…not sure it works that way…

    Anyhoo, this made me think of a lame superhero (a member of the Great Lakes Avengers) who’s only superpower is that he comes back to life every time he dies. Which seems like that would be kinda sweet, other than the repeated dying bit…but…

    In one issue he is forced to face his true, grim reality: he can never die. As time winds on, and the universe’s clumps of mass de-clump and the universe becomes the dark, thin nothingness that it irrevocably will be…Resurrection Man will be there. Alone. For eternity. Because he doesn’t stay dead.

    Dude…now THAT would suck.

  21. SteveM

    “Anyhoo, this made me think of a lame superhero (a member of the Great Lakes Avengers) who‚Äôs only superpower is that he comes back to life every time he dies. ”

    Which reminds me of one of the most awesome “companions” of the Doctor: Captain Jack Harkness who also cannot be killed (for long).

  22. Buzz Mega

    Top 5:

    1. Spam.

    (The other four have been deleted due to unconscionable rudeness. -ed)


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