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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Six Most Dangerous Plans of Mad Scientists

The Six Most Dangerous Plans of Mad Scientists
One of the stock characters of movies is the Mad Scientist. One of the first such characters in the annals of fiction was Doctor Frankenstein, and there have been many mad scientists since then in books, plays, and films. The term Mad Scientist can also be used for any real-life scientist who proposes some outrageous plan that is extremely dangerous. Let us now look at some of the very dangerous schemes that these daring scientific thinkers have proposed.

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Geoengineering: Playing Dice with Our Climate

Geoengineering is the idea of doing large-scale monkeying with our planet's atmosphere to help reduce the effects of global warming. One plan calls for creating a vast armada of ships that will heat up sea water and shoot the steam or mist into the air, which will supposedly whiten clouds and increase cloud reflectivity, thereby reducing the amount of sunlight our planet absorbs.  Another plan calls for sending up into the atmosphere huge amounts of aluminum oxide particles.  Another plan calls for blocking sunlight by pulverizing asteroids, and inserting their dust into the atmosphere.  Then there's a plan for dumping millions of tons of iron particles into the ocean, in hopes that this will cause a huge surge in plankton, leading to a decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide when the plankton takes in carbon dioxide.

These plans are potentially very dangerous, because they might end up having some unexpected side effects that make our climate worse. The wikipedia.org article on geoengineering says, “There may be unintended climatic consequences, such as changes to the hydrological cycle including droughts or floods, caused by the geoengineering techniques, but possibly not predicted by the models used to plan them. Such effects may be cumulative or chaotic in nature, making prediction and control very difficult.”

Asteroid Mining: Be Careful, or Lose a Continent

The solar system is full of chunks of rock called asteroids. Asteroid mining is the proposal that we drag one of these metal-rich objects closer to our planet, and then start mining the rock for valuable metals.  Asteroid mining is an incredibly dangerous proposal, because of what might happen if astronauts tried to move a big asteroid closer to Earth, and the asteroid accidentally fell upon our planet. Scientists think that the dinosaurs were wiped out millions of years ago when an asteroid struck our planet.  If a ten-mile wide asteroid struck our planet, it would probably be enough to kill everyone on a continent. If a large enough asteroid struck Earth, so much dust would be raised in the air that almost everyone would die. So asteroid mining therefore qualifies as a Mad Scientist Plan.

Self-Reproducing Intelligent Robots: Would They Spare Us?

Some scientists are eager about the prospects of making intelligent robots. There has even been discussion about making such robots self-reproducing, so that they could make copies of themselves. Of course, great danger lurks in such a plan. If the robots were able to make copies of themselves, they could start reproducing at a rate far faster than the maximum rate that a human can reproduce. The end result might be something like a world of 20 billion robots and 8 billion people. The robots might then  decide that they don't need us, and take over the whole planet.

Turbocharged Flu

A scientist in the Netherlands has written a scientific paper describing how  the genome of the H5N1 flu strain can be modified to make it spread many times faster.  People are worried that if the details of the plan ever get out, the result could be a flu strain that kills hundreds of millions of people. 

Genetically Modified Humans

Some scientists are eager about the prospects of modifying human genes. Some thinkers want to just make modifications that will eliminate specific genetic-based diseases. Others want to make genetic modifications that will improve human characteristics such as height and intelligence. The problem with making modifications in human genes is that you can introduce subtle bugs in the human software which get propagated to more and more people as humans breed.  What if we find out 50 years later that some problem caused by genetic modification is causing millions to die of cancer? Unlike computer servers, there is no way to release a global software patch to millions of human beings.

Antimatter Spaceships: Oops, We Blew Up the Planet

Every type of atomic particle has an antiparticle with an opposite charge (for example, the electron is a negatively charged particle that has a positively charged antiparticle called a positron). Antiparticles are normally very short-lived, lasting much less than a second.  Antimatter is a  type of matter consisting of antiparticles. So far scientists have only been able to create tiny amounts of antimatter, but some scientists think that one day we could accumulate a huge amount of antimatter, and use it to power a spaceship. The reason why antimatter is attractive as a potential rocket fuel is that when matter is combined with antimatter, fantastic amounts of energy are released (much more than the energy released by the most powerful nuclear bomb).

However, the same reason why antimatter is so good as a rocket fuel makes it a deadly hazard. If a small amount of antimatter were to accidentally explode, it would create an explosion so vast that it could destroy our planet. So the scheme to create antimatter spaceships may be the ultimate Mad Scientist Plan.