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Thursday, August 25, 2011

NASA Scientist Explains the Grim Details of the End of the World; See Him Sunday

Posted By on Thu, Aug 25, 2011 at 4:00 PM

This is the future of our planet. - COSMOSASTRO.COM
  • This is the future of our planet.

Doomsday -- the end of planet Earth -- is alarmingly near, says NASA planetologist Chris McKay. But before you start calling up loved ones and stockpiling canned food, it's worth noting that for planetologists, time works on the scale of millions and billions of years. So yes, doomsday is coming, but McKay schedules it for 500 million years from now.

McKay will explain the end of the world Sunday at the Roxie Theater, along with UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist Greg Laughlin. The free event is organized by Wonderfest, an organization self-described as "the Bay Area Beacon of Science."

So what's going to happen to planet earth 500 million years from now?

"Most people know about the red giant phase that the sun will reach, and that the Earth will be vaporized, which is 5 billion years away," McKay says.

What they don't realize though, is we have (mere) millions of years left, not billions.

"500 million years from now we will become a steam planet like Venus, and everyone will cook to death," McKay explains.

Wow, that's cheery.

But McKay believes we have time to find a solution.

"I have high hopes for humans," he says. "I think the solution is either to move, or to put up an umbrella or sunglasses on the whole planet ... so we have 500 million years to figure out a mitigation plan or an escape plan, and to get a bill passed through Congress."

While 500 million years is a long time from now, scientists are already discussing geo-engineering methods in response to global warming.

"I'm heartened by the fact that global warming is making us think about it," says McKay. "It's like a free head-start."

Even if our descendants manage to survive the end of planet, it seems that we are doomed in the long run -- the long-term problem will be freezing.

SF Weekly was unable to reach Laughlin, but McKay says that Laughlin will discuss the expansion of the universe, which over billions of years will lead to galaxies drifting farther away from each other.

"It's a pretty grim story. All the galaxies disperse and it becomes very cold and very old and very dull," he says.

Grim stuff, indeed. But come out from under your desk -- the world's not ending yet. Then again, after you look at the astronomical map of so-called "near-earth objects" -- or all the observed asteroids that could run into our fragile little world -- you might want to crawl back underneath.

"Real Doomsdays: How Life Could End on Earth" starts at 1 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28, at the Roxie Theater. Admission is free.

For more events this week and beyond, check out our calendar section.

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Caroline Chen


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