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

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.

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.

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[#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.

And now inside that person are two kinds of viruses: a virus that transmits easily from human to human, and a virus that transmits easily from animal to animal. But in almost all cases, that animal virus is far more toxic and far more of a killer.

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Now, in just the last few weeks, a new very deadly animal flu called H7N9 has popped up. About 100 people are infected. A lot of them have died. And this is one that the CDC is really worried about.

And we could be looking at another worldwide pandemic like the Spanish flu if a human being who has a human-type virus, that transmits easily to people, happens to eat one of these animals.

Now, there are solutions to this, but we live in a very different world from 1918. There are 80,000 commercial jets that take off every day full of passengers. It would take a flu virus about two weeks to circle the globe. Private producers cannot make enough vaccine fast enough to save us.

The only thing that we can do is what the Australian government has done, which is to create laboratories that are ready to go on a moment’s notice to create vast quantities of flu vaccine. We should do this.

Second, we need to make a simple dip stick test. You go to the drug store, you buy a swab, you put it in your mouth. If it turns blue, you have the flu. How many times have you gone to the doctor: “Do I have the flu? Do I have a bacterial infection?” Half the time they don’t even know.

When a pandemic comes, you want to know if you have the flu, and you will not be able to find a doctor.

Thirdly, we need to invest in a really good public health system. We’ve actually been firing about 50,000 public health workers in the last three years. 40-50 years ago, this country built thousands of bomb shelters because we thought nuclear war was a real threat. If we can do that, we can build a public health system that will take care of us in a pandemic.

[#7 – The Sun Brightens]

Isn’t that beautiful? That’s a mass coronal ejection coming off the sun. It makes something called a solar flare look like kindergarten. It shoots uncountable numbers of atoms that have been broken apart into little particles and radiation out into space.

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Almost all of these blasts miss the Earth because the sun is like this huge yellow beach ball in space, and we’re like this little tiny BB at the end of the auditorium. So no matter which direction the sun sends these out, it’s very unusual for us to get a direct hit.

However, it happened last August, and it happened a month ago. And you would not have been wanting to have been in an airplane at that time.

In 1859, a coronal mass ejection took the brand new US telegraph system and basically melted it. It started fires. It shocked the operators. And the wires disappeared. Most of the time our magnetic field in our atmosphere protects us from coronal mass ejections.

But a severe direct hit would take out the entire world’s power grid at once, and all the satellites in orbit, plunging us essentially into a 19th-century existence. It would take 20 years to restore half the grid because we do not have back-up.

Try to imagine life without electricity. Almost all cities would become uninhabitable. We build skyscrapers 80 stories high and up and two stories underground. We need to create safety zones beneath our buildings. We should be building down eight stories for every 80 stories up, and we should make that part of our building code.

The state of New Jersey is rebuilding 20,000 bridges in the state because they know there will be a massive earthquake on the East coast sooner or later. If we can do that, we can have different building codes for our buildings.

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