8 Ways The World Could Suddenly End: Stephen Petranek (Transcript)

Full text of futurist Stephen Petranek’s talk: 8 ways the world could suddenly end at TEDxMidwest 2014 conference.


Stephen Petranek – Science Writer and Technologist

So about 11 years ago, I gave a talk in California at the TED Conference. And it went really well. It was called “10 ways the world could end tomorrow.”

But it also went viral at a time before things started going viral, and it wasn’t in a good way. It ended up on thousands of nutty websites. These are the kind of websites for people who think “Men in Black” is a documentary. It’s the kind of websites for people who actually believe the Mayan calendar does predict doomsday.

So if you’d googled me before this talk, you would have seen maybe nine or ten references to me as a science magazine editor. Three weeks after the talk, there were 418 references linking “moi” to little green men from Mars.

Now, coincidentally, I was teaching my mother how to use a computer at the time, long distance. And I was teaching her about Google. So guess who she googled first.

So, I started worrying about my reputation a little. And I decided to call Chris Anderson, the TED curator. I knew Chris would not want TED speakers to be co-opted by every nut job on the web, and maybe he could get his friends Larry and Sergey at Google to erase all this.

I was a little disappointed. Didn’t exactly get the sympathy I was looking for. Chris thought it was funny. But he did ask me to do another TED Talk, and I jumped at the chance because I saw it as redemption.

I could do “10 reasons to be optimistic about the future.” And I did. It was a great talk. Honestly, my best talk ever.

Full of surprises. Lots of interesting science. But it didn’t go over so well. Everybody wanted another 10 ways the world could end suddenly. And no one posted the optimistic talk.

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So, when Mike and Linda asked me to give a talk at TEDx these many years later, I had lots of good ideas. But guess what they wanted. And that’s why we’re here. Dr. Doom and Gloom. So let’s begin the 2013 countdown.

[#8 – A Pandemic is Coming]

Okay, you’re looking at N1H1. It’s the original flu virus that caused the last great pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918, which infected 50% of the world’s population at the time, which was a billion people, and probably killed one out of every 10 people.

But here’s the interesting thing about it, it came in three waves, three different waves pretty much about six months apart. And the second wave killed every single person who got the flu. And that is how bad flu can be.

Now, here we are in 2013, and in barnyards all over China there are ducks and pigs and chickens in close proximity. And that’s actually where influenza originates.

Now, viruses have gotten so good at mutating, and in these barnyards mostly, that you and I have to get a flu shot every year to protect against this. Although I will tell you something interesting. Less than half of the population of the United States does get a flu shot every year.

But that is not what keeps the Centers for Disease Control up at night. What they worry about is something called a recombinant flu bug. And here’s how it works:

There are two kinds of viruses. There are viruses that infect animals, and animals pass them easily to other animals. And then there are viruses that infect humans, and they pass them easily to other humans.

When a human has something like the Hong Kong flu, or in 2009 that H1N1 that came back, and they go to the market and they buy a chicken that happens to have one of these animal viruses, and they take it home and they don’t cook it properly, and they eat it, they get the animal virus.

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