Ben Bova: The end of the world is nigh, once again

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They’re predicting the end of the world again.

This time the world is supposed to come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012. That’s less than two and a half years from now!

Some people think the Earth will be hit by a giant meteor, causing a global catastrophe similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Other fear massive solar flares that will drench our world with killing radiation.

The 2012 date comes from the calendar of the Mayan civilization of Central America, which stops at that point.

The end of the world?

People have been predicting the end of the world for as long as we have written records. The earliest Christians fully believed that Christ would return in their lifetime and end this world of trials and tears. The good would be rewarded with heaven and the evil would be eternally punished.

Didn’t happen.

The Christian academic Sextus Julius Africanus predicted that the world would end in the year 500. Other than offering a nice round figure on the calendar, nothing very special happened in 500 A.D.

Much of Europe was gripped with “end of the world” terror as the millennial year of 1000 approached. Many people sold their goods to the church, under the impression that this would grease their entry into the kingdom of heaven. The year came and went, and life went on as before. The church did not return the gifts to their disappointed (or relieved) donors.

In 1179 John of Toledo predicted that the world would end in 1186, based on the alignment of the planets in that year. The planets aligned but the world did not end.

Pope Innocent III calculated that the world would end in 1284 by the simple expedient of adding 666 years to the date when Islam was founded.

The world — Islam and Christianity included — kept on going.

Around the middle of the 14th century, the Black Plague swept through Europe, killing a third of the people or more. Many thought this was indeed the end of the world. It wasn’t. The plague subsided and life went on.

Many religious leaders, including the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Joseph Smith, predicted the end of the world on various dates in the 19th century. Ellen White, founder of the Seventh Day Adventists, predicted the end several times in the 1850s. None of the predictions came true. (But you knew that.)

In more modern times, predictions of the world’s end have been based more on scientific grounds than religious. In 1919 meteorologist Albert Porta contended that the conjunction of six planets would generate a magnetic current that would blow up the Sun. This was nonsense, scientifically.

In 1982 conservative leader Pat Robertson predicted the world would end before the year was out. It didn’t.

Also in 1982 science writer John Gribben and astronomer Stephen Plagemann claimed in their book “The Jupiter Effect” that a lineup of the outer planets would cause havoc. Wrong.

There was widespread fear as the year 2000 approached that the western world’s computer systems would crash, perhaps ruining our technological civilization. The Y2K problem was properly attended to, and the world sailed right on, computers and all.

Over the centuries many predictions of disaster have included the rise of the AntiChrist, the embodiment of evil. Adolph Hitler was as close to an AntiChrist as I can imagine, and the world survived his evil regime, although tens of millions died in World War II.

While predictions of the end of the world have all proved wrong, there really are dangers that could wipe out the human race, or at least a large part of it.

This planet Earth isn’t going to be destroyed, but the thin veneer of life on its crust — including the human race — could be driven into extinction just as the dinosaurs were.

There are thousands of asteroids sailing through interplanetary space, many of them big enough to cause a global cataclysm if they struck Earth. Scientists are trying to find the chunks of rock that might hit our planet, in an attempt to give us enough warning time so that we might send out rockets to divert the incoming doom.

We have the technology to divert approaching asteroids, just barely, if we’re given enough warning time. The real question is, do we have the political smarts to save ourselves, or will we spend the precious few years of the asteroid’s approach bickering and dithering, as usual.

Global plagues could decimate the human race. It’s happened before, and with modern transportation interconnecting the world’s population, a pandemic could kill billions. End of the world? No, but nasty.

It doesn’t seem likely that a natural catastrophe could snuff out the entire human race, unless we’re hit by a major asteroid. Earthquakes, floods, global warming, even an ice age would not kill all of us.

Nuclear war? With more and more nations acquiring nuclear weapons, and more and more fanatics perfectly willing to use them, we face a danger of our own making. During the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Russia had thousands of hydrogen-bomb-armed ballistic missiles ready to fire at each other, the survival of the human race truly hung in the balance.

I’ve seen maps showing the levels of fallout that would blanket the U.S. after a full nuclear attack by the USSR. There was one little corner of northern California where you might be able to live. The rest of the country was smothered with lethal levels of radiation.

Christ’s Second Coming. The advent of the AntiChrist. Armageddon. The alignment of the planets. Global warming. A new ice age. Asteroid strike. Nuclear war.

Of all the possibilities, nuclear war is the scariest. Because it’s the most likely to happen.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of 120 books, including “The Immortality Factor,” his latest novel. Dr. Bova’s Web site address is

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