The many ways in which we can all die

There seems to be a subset of the population that easily succumbs to the idea that some major disaster is going to befall us at any time. The fear of an apocalyptic event that wipes out large chunks of humanity seems to act like oxygen for such people, and as a result we are regaled with the possibility of one imminent catastrophe after another, with diseases (Ebola, swine flu, bird flu), meteors or asteroids hitting the Earth, weather (a big snowfall in winter), and so on.

Of course, the news channels also feed these fears because people watch or listen to the news a lot more when they think some disaster is going to happen or has happened, even if it occurring elsewhere. Even I get caught up in the fear-mongering. Yesterday there were predictions of a ‘historic’ and ‘mammoth’ storm that was going too blanket the east coast from Philadelphia to Boston with mountains of snow. It was not expected to affect Cleveland but even I was checking the weather reports last night and this morning, just to see how bad it was. (It wasn’t as widespread as initially feared, but bad in parts.)

But if you cannot wait until the news channels tell you what to worry about, the BBC has helpfully put together an infographic of all the possible cataclysmic events that could possibly happen, when they might happen, and their likelihood of occurring, so you can panic without any help from anyone else. It helpfully categorizes the events by the time scale, whether it is human-caused or natural, and its degree of seriousness along a five-point scale labeled as ‘keep calm’, ‘check bucket list’, ‘live dangerously’, ‘move to Mars’, and ‘it’s all over’. You’ll be relieved to find that there are only two items in the last category, the death of the Sun and the death of the universe.

It’s actually quite a fun and informative graphic. Just don’t freak out at all the ways that we can die in large numbers.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    The BBC missed one; we might be living in a false vacuum which will decay, and effectively wipe out the universe we know and love.

    If the simplest version of the Standard Model is valid, with the observed Higgs mass and assuming no new physics up to past 10^10 GeV, the odds are good that our vacuum is metastable*. That would mean that the universe will decay to a lower energy state eventually**, via expanding ‘new vacuum’ bubbles. Everything we know would be wiped out.

    If that happens any time soon, Anthropic Principle enthusiasts won’t even have time to put their heads between their knees and kiss their finely tuned arses goodbye. Sad.

    More details here, but don’t lose any sleep. We wouldn’t even know what hit us.

    * i.e. there’s a lower energy vacuum, accessible by tunneling.
    **No way of predicting when, but the universe has been around for 14 billion years, so the odds of it happening soon, or nearby, are pretty slim.

  2. philhoenig says

    Have you seen Exit Mundi? (I currently can’t connect to it, but the Wayback Machine has a copy from last month and Google’s cache has one that’s not even a day old.) It’s an entire (slightly dated) website full of ways humanity could be doomed, and a surprisingly entertaining read.

  3. says

    the news channels also feed these fears because people watch or listen to the news a lot more when they think some disaster is going to happen or has happened, even if it occurring elsewhere

    Bruce Schneier used to point out that if you hear about something scary on the news, you can probably ignore it, because if it’s news that means it doesn’t happen a lot. What you should really be afraid of is the stuff that happens so often nobody reports on it (car wreck, cancer, choke on food, heart attack…)

    That doesn’t work with global warming, though.

  4. tecolata says

    For 2 years after the attack of Sept 11, 2001 a friend refused to go to baseball games with me because she was terrifed at the thought of a terrorist attack on the Oakland Coliseum. No matter how hard I tried, I could not persuade her she was far likelier to be killed in a car crash en route (or even more likely due to the drinking at games, on the way home) than by a terrorist attack on the Coliseum.

  5. Scr... Archivist says

    On one level, you have news reporters who use hype to get views. This happens a lot with bad weather news, so I just read the most factual, non-hyper reports.

    Meanwhile, you have a “subset of the population” that really likes the idea that civilization will soon collapse. They like this idea because they don’t like civilization. They think that they will be on top when order breaks down. They are almost certainly wrong (and the ones who aren’t are the people we need to keep an eye on).

    Finally, our civilization is more fragile than we usually like to think it is. The answer is to make it more resilient, together, and not to revel in fantasies of individualistic survivalism.

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