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From space microbes to nuclear weapons: how humanity nearly destroyed itself

Sometimes the fate of all mankind is in the hands of only a few people. When did this happen in recent history, and what do these mistakes teach us? Tells Air force.

Photo: Shutterstock

The danger of infection with deadly microorganisms from space, testing of atomic weapons and several other moments in recent history, when the fate of all mankind was in the hands of a small group of people.

What exactly led to the adoption of such decisions? And what do they show given the new challenges we face today?

When people first seriously thought about sending spacecraft and humans into space in the middle of the XNUMXth century, the question of pollution arose.

On the one hand, there was a risk of contamination of outer space by microorganisms from the Earth. Before launch, the spacecraft had to be sterilized and carefully packaged. If microbes get on board, it will be extremely difficult to identify extraterrestrial life, scientists said.

Our terrestrial viruses and bacteria could also destroy other life forms that potentially existed in space, as happened with aliens in the famous "War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells. As in the era of the space race, this issue is just as relevant today.

On the other hand, researchers were just as worried about the risk of "contaminating" the Earth from space.

It was assumed that astronauts, rockets or probes that return to Earth could bring life with them, which would later outstrip the development of terrestrial organisms or do something much worse, for example, destroy all our oxygen.

NASA considered these risks when planning Apollo missions to the moon, but did not consider such a high probability. Few thought there could be life on the moon.

"We can be 99% sure that Apollo 11 will not bring living organisms to Earth from the Moon," said one influential scientist at the time, "but even this 1% is too large to be neglected."

NASA has introduced several quarantine measures - somewhat reluctantly in some cases. Concerned US health officials have demanded tough action, threatening the agency that they have the right to prevent “contaminated” astronauts from returning to US earth.

Following congressional hearings, the space agency agreed to establish a quarantine unit on the spacecraft, which was supposed to lift astronauts after landing in the Pacific Ocean.

They also agreed that the lunar explorers would spend three weeks in isolation before hugging their families or shaking hands with the president.

However, according to scientist Jonathan Wiener from Duke University, there was a big puncture in the quarantine procedure. The researcher described this moment in his scientific work devoted to the false perception of the risks of a catastrophe.

When the capsule with the astronauts fell into the ocean, according to the protocol, they had to remain inside it. However, NASA worried about the well-being of astronauts in a hot and stuffy apparatus, which was thrown by sea waves.

The officers decided to open the capsule doors and pick up the men by helicopter.

Although the astronauts themselves were in protective bio-suits and immediately went into the quarantine compartment on the ship, the air from the inside of the capsule got out.

Fortunately, the Apollo 11 mission did not bring deadly alien life to Earth. But in the decision taken by officials, the priority was the comfort of several men, and not the fate of all mankind.

Nuclear annihilation

24 years ago, American scientists and officials had to make another decision, which could have disastrous consequences. Before the first test of atomic weapons in 1945, scientists from the Manhattan Project carried out calculations of the possibility of a terrible development of events.

According to one scenario, the heat from an atomic bomb explosion could trigger an uncontrolled burnout of atmospheric oxygen, ignite the oceans and destroy almost all life on Earth.

Further research showed that this was almost impossible, but until the very day of the test, scientists were not 100% sure of this. And when the day of Trinity's test came, the officials did not stop.

When the flash was longer and brighter than expected, at least one of the team members decided the worst had happened. This was the president of Harvard University, and his initial enthusiasm was quickly replaced by panic.

“He had no confidence at all that the bomb would go off, but when it did, he thought he was witnessing the 'end of the world,'” his granddaughter Jennette Conant told the Washington Post after writing a book about scientists. project participants.

On the subject: Civilization and coronavirus: how the modern world breeds epidemics

For philosopher Toby Orda of Oxford University, this moment has become a key moment in the history of mankind. He calls the specific time and date of Trinity's test - 5:29 July 16, 1945 - the beginning of a new era for humanity. In his opinion, we now have a much more powerful ability to destroy ourselves.

Despite the seriousness of the Manhattan Group scientists, the calculations have never been evaluated by an independent panel of experts, Toby Ord notes. He also notes that no elected official, let alone the government, has reported possible risks. Scientists and military leaders made their own decisions.

Ord also recalls that in 1954, scientists made significant mistakes in calculating the power of the next nuclear explosion. Instead of the expected 6 megatons, they received an explosion of 15.

“Of the two basic thermonuclear calculations done that summer ... they made one correct and one not. Perhaps there was no risk of igniting the atmosphere, but this is definitely not the level of reliability on which the future could be built. "

Vulnerable world

From the height of our knowledge in the XNUMXst century, it is easy to assess decisions made in the past. Today we know much more about life in the solar system, and the war between the Allies and the Nazis is long over. Nobody would take that risk these days, right?

Alas, no. The risk of disaster, whether accidental or deliberate, is now much higher than it was then.

It should be admitted that destruction by aliens is perhaps not the main risk that humanity may face.

Although we have a developed strategy to “protect the planet” from infection by alien organisms, it is not known how private enterprises will adhere to these rules, which will go to other planets and satellites of the solar system.

The broadcast of our presence in the galaxy could also pose an additional threat to our species. The meeting of people with a technologically more advanced civilization, most likely, will not be positive. Remember the fate of the indigenous people who met the European colonialists.

The nuclear threat is even more real. If it does not lead to the burning of the atmosphere, it could very well cause a nuclear winter, similar to the one that destroyed the dinosaurs.

During World War II, nuclear arsenals were still not enough to provoke such a catastrophe, but now they are.

The philosopher Toby Ord calculated that the risk of extinction in the 1th century was about 100 in XNUMX. But he believes that it is now higher.

In addition to natural risks, which have always existed, the possibility of the death of humanity has grown significantly over the past few decades, the scientist says.

Alongside the nuclear threat is the prospect of AI spiraling out of control, rising carbon emissions, and our ability to interfere with the biology of viruses to make them even more deadly.

We have also become more vulnerable due to globalization, misinformation and political stubbornness, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown.

“Given what I know, I would rate the risk in this century at 1: 6, that is, like Russian roulette,” the scientist writes. "If we don't join forces, if we continue to let our power exceed wisdom, the risk will be even greater in the next century, and so on."

Another way the researchers characterize the rise in danger is with balls in a giant urn. Each ball represents a new technology, discovery or invention.

The vast majority of them are white or gray. The white ball is a useful progress for humanity, namely the invention of soap. The gray ball is a controversial boon, such as social media. However, there are also some black balls inside the urn. They are extremely rare, but draw out one of them and you have destroyed humanity.

This is called the “vulnerable world hypothesis,” and it illuminates the problem of preparing for rare and extremely dangerous events in the future.

We haven't pulled out the black ball yet, but this is most likely because they are very rare. And probably our hand has already touched it once or twice. In short, we have been lucky so far.

There are many technologies or discoveries that can turn out to be black balls. We are already familiar with some of them, but have not yet applied them. These are nuclear weapons or bioviruses.

The rest are machine algorithms and genetic engineering.

However, there are those about which we do not know anything at all. We haven’t come up with them yet.

On the subject: The account went on for minutes: how in 1995 Russia almost inflicted a nuclear strike on the USA

An unusual tragedy

Why don't we take these risks with the seriousness they deserve? Jonathan Wiener explains this by the fact that we perceive extreme risks as “unusual tragedies”.

You've probably heard of the “tragedy of the collective good”. This concept describes poor management of utility resources. Each person does what is best for him, but everyone suffers. Climate change, deforestation or overfishing are the result.

The unusual tragedy is different, Wiener explains. Instead of mismanaging shared resources, people mistakenly perceive unusual risks.

According to the researcher, there are three reasons for this.

The first is the lack of experience in rare disasters. Recent, notable events are easier to remember than those that never happened. The brain tends to construct an idea of ​​the future by creating a collage of memories of the past.

If danger is talked about in the news, such as terrorism, public anxiety grows, politicians take action, inventors create new technologies.

But “unusual tragedies” do not give us the opportunity to learn from experience. They won't be featured in the headlines because when they happen, the game will be over.

The second reason why we misunderstand rare disasters is the "daze effect."

Psychologists note that people's anxiety does not grow in direct proportion to the severity of the disaster. That is, if you ask people how much they would be worried about the death of all people on Earth, their fear will not be seven and a half billion times more than the fear for the life of one person. It is even more difficult for people to comprehend the lost lives of future generations.

On the contrary, when it comes to large numbers, people's concern is diminished in comparison to individual tragedy.

Journalists often quote the words of Mother Teresa: "When I see the suffering of a mass of people, I will not act, when I see the suffering of one person, I am acting."

Finally, there is always an effect of impunity in tragedies on a global scale. If the world ends because of your decision, you will not be held liable for negligence. Laws and regulations do not protect all humanity from destruction.

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Perhaps most alarming is that an “unusual tragedy” can happen by accident - because of human vanity, stupidity, or irresponsibility.

“Few would really like to destroy the world. Even greedy corporations, totalitarian governments, insane scientists and other "messengers of the apocalypse" need a world in which they can achieve their goals: make a profit or exercise their power, - once wrote the researcher of artificial intelligence Eliezer Yudkowsky. "If humanity does not disappear overnight, those who start the catastrophe will surely be shocked by the result of their actions ... So, if the Earth is ever destroyed, it will happen by accident."

Fortunately, NASA staff and scientists at the Manhattan Project did not have to be horrified by their actions. But sometime in the future, the fate of humanity may indeed be in the hands of a few people.

Perhaps they are already on this path and rush along it with their eyes closed. And we can only hope that they will make the right choice when the moment comes.

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