Humanity Is Doing Its Best Impression of a Black Hole
Humanity Is Doing Its Best Impression of a Black Hole
Daniel Holz studies the ultimate catastrophe of the universe. He knows a thing or two about existential threats on Earth as he helps set the doomsday clock.
In the universe, there is no greater catastrophe than a black hole, whose gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape. Sure, supernovae are incredibly violent, but the devastation caused by black holes is complete. These monsters roam through space like Pac-Man, devouring stars, planets and asteroids, tearing them apart.
No man-made disaster – climate change, starvation, nuclear war – can rival such utter devastation, but you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re doing our best. “I’m thinking about things at the edge of the universe, things that happened shortly after the Big Bang,” said physicist Daniel Holz of the University of Chicago. “We’ve made these extraordinary instruments, these space telescopes, that go back to the very beginning. . This is incredible. Yet we are on the verge of completely destroying our only home.”
Holz is a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a nonprofit organization born out of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Its goal is to assess existential threats to our species, be it nuclear weapons or climate change, and to do so sets the time for the Doomsday Clock, which turns 75 this year. The clock is a visual representation of how far Bulletin scientists believe humanity is from being forgotten—the closer to midnight, the closer to planetary destruction. Clocks are now 100 seconds from midnight, up from two minutes in 2018. Tick tock, tick tock.
Yet there is a unique beauty in gazing at the universe and contemplating our own insignificance. So Wired sat down with Holz to discuss cosmic and Earth catastrophe, how to deal with doom, and why this is a uniquely dangerous time in human history — and why all is not lost. Dialogue has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Wired: For those unfamiliar, what is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and what is the Doomsday Clock?
Daniel Holz: It was founded in 1947. They realized that even then there would be an arms race, there would be hydrogen bombs, there would be thousands of them. The entire planet will be threatened. There is no way to win these wars, and there is no way to defend against these weapons. We need a new way of thinking. Scientists understand the technology, understand the threat, and feel that something must be done.
Doomsday clocks are our way of symbolizing how we do on a global scale. Based on our understanding, how do we address existing threats? I would claim that the biggest threat is obviously nuclear, and climate, you can argue disinformation.
Announcement members are not hysterical people. These are mostly scientists. These people are very calm, rational, sober people. None of us were involved because we happily moved the clock to midnight. The whole goal is to leave. Our biggest dream, and the reason we all do it, is to get to a point where we’re so far from midnight that no one cares. It would be better if I could spend all my time on black holes without worrying about the future of civilization, no doubt about it.
One way I deal with the chaos around me is to think: Well, we are insignificant in the sweep of the universe. But you can’t just bury your head in the sand and expect the chaos to go away. You need to care about what’s going on.
We are insignificant. The planet is insignificant. The solar system, the Milky Way—just a tiny dot in a larger universe. We blew ourselves up, our planet, we made it totally uninhabitable, civilization collapsed – it was just a flash in the pan. It’s just a small part of this boring part of the universe. The universe has existed for 14 billion years. Civilization, what is it, ten thousand years?
In fact, sometimes it really calms me down. Just thinking, “It’s okay, it’s okay. The universe will keep going.” There is almost certainly life on other planets as well. As we learn more about the universe, we also learn more about how we are not special.
There is no guarantee that we will still be around in 50 years or 100 years or whatever. The only deciding factor is ourselves, and the universe doesn’t care. It’s on us.
But our planet is special — at least in our solar system, in this little corner of our universe — because it supports life. We have been given this incredible planet and we are destroying it. That makes it all the more frustrating to hear that people want to transfer humans to Mars.
Many things bring us here at this moment. And Mars just shows a profound misunderstanding of how all these things work, and the myriad things that make Earth perfect for human life. It’s also completely unrealistic – it’s science fiction. The timescale we’re talking about, it’s not going to save us.
You are probably familiar with the Fermi Paradox. [While pondering why a galaxy that could theoretically support multiple life forms never showed signs of any other life forms, physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked: “Everyone Where?” Up. If you look back over the past 50 years, a lot of times we were very close to blowing ourselves up. And only 50 years. How many chances do we have to blow ourselves up in the next 50 years?
Look at the last few months. Look at the words. How many chances do we have of doing this in the next 20 years? You have all the nukes, all the conflicts. But now there are environmental disasters, food insecurity, water wars, floods, mass migration, displacement of people, refugee crises — all on a scale that dwarfs anything the world has experienced so far.
Or, it could just be that the universe is just too big for complex life to get, and the odds are so low that it hasn’t happened in our galaxy yet. I find this hard to believe, but who knows? Reasonable people can disagree.