Nuclear Holocausts are So 1950s

I was recently re-watching the movie Thirteen Days, which is about the Cuban Missile Crises. The movie is intense, intelligent, and leaves you without any desire to run for political office. Afterward, I was discussing the show with the beautiful woman who was watching with me (women make everything more fun– even the Cold War) and she said, “I don’t feel like we’re in that much danger from nuclear weapons anymore.” That struck me as an odd comment, but when I thought about it, she had a point. When was the last time you were afraid of a nuclear holocaust? If you were born after 1990, you may not even have thought about it unless you were watching Terminator on TV.

Why aren’t we as worried about that anymore? For starters, we aren’t fighting with Russia anymore (at least not seriously), Pakistan can’t hit us and China would want us to repay all of our loans before destroying us. Second, if Saddam didn’t have them, then it goes without saying that there aren’t other nut cases that do have them. Third, we’ve gotten used to nuclear energy, and there’s a big initiative to create many more nuclear power plants; in fact, isn’t nuclear energy considered green now?

Another interesting thought that came to mind was that science has either invented or brought to light so many more ways of destroying the planet since Oppenheimer’s day that nuclear holocaust is only one of a myriad of scenarios. We have chemical agents, killer viruses, global warming, destructive meteors and anything that creates zombies or mutants, not to mention intelligent computer networks. We’ve been there and done that with post-apocalyptic capabilities, and our creativity has become increasingly impressive.

Take the new supercollider being built in Europe. A couple of people complained that the collider could create a black hole that would be impossible to stop and which would eat the Earth. But the physicists involved say that that’s ridiculous and that there’s no way that could ever happen, at least not on a large scale. They’re going ahead with it and it should be ready in just a few months more.

You may have noticed that this is exactly the plot line of every major “science gone horribly wrong” movie. The stubborn scientist says it’s fine, the rogue intellect realizes the danger, the experiment begins, all heck breaks loose and the intellect has to save the day with the help of some attractive cohorts. I don’t think any of that will happen with the supercollider, (although I’m sure that many scientific cohorts are attractive).

You may have read that there was considerable debate about whether the A-bomb would ignite the atmosphere before it was tested, but luckily it only destroyed one city at a time. As unfounded as some of these fears may be, isn’t it interesting that these scenarios can seem not only plausible, but imminent?

I bring this up because I wonder what we’ll be scared of in 50 years. Are killer plagues no longer going to be a threat? Will global warming come and go? Will we be worried that the fragile new life system support on Mars won’t last long enough to support the remaining humans? ARE WE ALL GOING TO DIE?

Don’t worry. We’ll be OK.

Here’s my question, though. In all our years of being afraid of the end of life as we know it, has it helped us to progress? Is our imagination of the worst that could happen getting us anywhere, or is it just leading to unneeded stress? On the environmental side, fear has led to a positive turnaround. Our fear of deadly viruses is spurning all kinds of good research. On the nuclear side, well, we’re making fewer bombs. All practical science is propelled by problems or conflicts, but does straight up global terror serve any good purpose outside of Hollywood?

Maybe someone from the future, (I’m talking to you, people reading through 500 years of Scienceblog archives) should find a way to send us a note about anything major that we should be worried about.

In the mean time, I’ve been practicing. I can duck and cover in under 4 seconds. Bring it on, climate change!

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