Humanity Is Doing Its Best Impression of a Black Hole

Humanity Is Doing Its Best Impression of a Black Hole
Written by Techbot

In the universe, there is no greater catastrophe than a black hole, whose gravity is so intense that not even light can escape. Sure, a supernova is unbelievably violent, but the destruction wrought by a black hole is complete. These monsters wander around space like Pac-Man, gobbling up stars, planets, and asteroids, ripping them apart. 

No human-made disaster—climate change, hunger, nuclear war—can rival such total destruction, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re trying our damnedest. “I contemplate stuff at the very edge of the universe, things that are happening shortly after the Big Bang,” says Daniel Holz, a physicist at the University of Chicago. “We build these phenomenal instruments, these space telescopes, which peer back to the very beginning. It’s incredible. And yet, we’re on the verge of totally wrecking our only home.”

Holz is a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a nonprofit born of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings during World War II. Its goal is to assess existential threats to our species, be they nuclear weapons or climate change, and to that end it sets the time on the Doomsday Clock, which turned 75 this year. The clock is a visual representation of how far the Bulletin’s scientists reckon humanity is from oblivion—the closer to midnight, the closer to planetary destruction. The clock now sits at 100 seconds to midnight, up from two minutes in 2018. Tick tock, tick tock.

There’s a peculiar beauty, though, in peering into the cosmos and contemplating our own insignificance. So WIRED sat down with Holz to talk about cosmic versus earthly catastrophes, how to cope with doom, and why this is a uniquely perilous time in human history—but also why all is not lost. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

WIRED: For those who aren’t familiar, what’s the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and what’s the Doomsday Clock?

Daniel Holz: It was founded in 1947. They realized even then there will be an arms race, there will be H-bombs, there’ll be thousands of them. The entire planet will be under threat. There will be no way to win these wars, there will be no way to defend against these weapons. We need to have a new way of thinking. The scientists understood the technology, understood the threat, and felt like something had to be done.

The Doomsday Clock is our way of symbolizing how we are doing globally. How are we responding to the existing threats, as we understand them? I would claim the biggest threat is obviously nuclear, and also it’s climate, and you could argue disinformation. 

Bulletin members are people who are not hysterical. These are mostly scientists. These are very calm, rational, sober-minded people. None of us are in this because we’re excited to move the clock towards midnight. The whole goal is to move away. Our fondest dream, the reason all of us are doing this, is to get to a point where we’re so far from midnight that no one cares. If I could spend all my time on black holes and not worry about the future of civilization, that would be way better, without a doubt. 

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