Tuesday, 23 September 2008

ANALYSIS: it's the global apocalyptic financial end-of-the-world money armageddon!!

Far be it from me to suggest that the mainstream media has a nasty tendency to overhype things, but as you'll have seen if you've read Doomwatch in issue two, they have a nastier tendency to reach for the apocalyptic phrase book when things turn sour, as evidenced by the language used in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

So is it unreasonable for the financial press to avoid “crash,” “panic,” “apocalypse,” “Armageddon,” “meltdown” or “freefall” in news stories?

More to the point, does the speed with which they fall back on apocalyptic imagery alter our behaviour towards such events? If we're conditioned to react instinctively and quickly to such strong language then doesn't using it without just cause make over-reaction more likely? Do such words spark an inherent herd instinct to protect ourselves? What effect did the publishing of images of queues outside Northern Rock have?

How easy is it to describe something as an 'apocalypse' yet how hard to explain precisely how - while many people are suffering from the effects of a global economic downturn, will the world's financial sector crumble to dust, leaving us homeless, destitute and eventually eating each other in the streets? Highly doubtful. Yet frightening images are conjured up by these words and when big financial decisions are being made based on the latest rumour, words and how you use them become very important indeed. Image a president or a prime minister using words like 'apocalypse', 'armageddon' or 'end of the world' - we know they don't, simply because they'd spread panic. So what happens when reporters put such words into people's mouths? For all our tomfoolery at The End is Nigh, in the big wide world the apocalypse is not for toying with.

NEWS: magnet problem spanner in the works for LHC

A reprieve ...

The Large Hadron Collider near Geneva will be shut off until Spring 2009 while engineers probe a magnet failure.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

"Cheer up, it's not the end of the world!"

Yeah, it wasn’t funny the first hundred times I heard that either …

But doesn't it worry you that, maybe, one of these days someone's going to be right? Hideously, devastatingly right? No, me neither ...

That, apparently, is odd for a man who edits a magazine about that very subject.

Three issues of the official magazine of the apocalypse in and I'm becoming something of an authority on the subject ... a terrible boring authority ... yet you could never exactly call me a believer as such. I don't start to fret when oil prices go up, I remain unconvinced that George W Bush is the anti-Christ, I really think God has better things to do than dole out virgins to trigger-happy idiots. And yes, shock, horror, I don't believe in THE END OF THE WORLD.

Completing this circle of non-belief is 'most people', as it is they who now don't believe me. Chief amongst these is lawyer-turned-acerbic-TV-host and Bee Gee baiter Clive Anderson. I found this out while being interviewed for a BBC Radio Four show called The End is Nigh ... Again last year which, rather festively, was broadcast on New Year's Eve. It purported to examine the latest predictions of the end of the world and included interviews with apocalypticly-minded minds such as Gaia-theorist James Lovelock.

And me.

The questions were benign enough, but when all of my answers tended to slightly mock whatever theory we were talking about, Mr Anderson and his producer were a little bemused.
The problem is that I just don't believe. Sure, mankind isn't going to on forever, whether it's fire, ice, war or plague that wipes us out, but I certainly don't believe the one day I'll wake up and find that all the Christians have been hoovered off to heaven or that global warming will make this place completely uninhabitable. The end will come, but it'll either come before we can do anything about it, or it will be the long, slow twilight every race must suffer – bare in mind that 99% of the species that have ever existed are now extinct. There, that puts it into context, doesn’t it.

So how, asked Anderson, could I say I didn’t believe in the end of the world (other than when our sun gasps its last and destroys whatever is left of our home planet) when I edit and produce a magazine about it? Easy, say I, I just find the concept and its hold on the human psyche utterly, endlessly fascinating. Witness the reams of newsprint, the mountains of books and the endless number of webpages about this most timeless of concepts. Ever since mankind developed a sense of the future, he has had a sense of it coming to an end; as mortal beings we are only too aware of our impending death, yet we are ultimately powerless to change or delay it. Predicting it is a cunning way to try and exert some control, exercise some measure of influence over that dark day that awaits us all. Doesn't work, but that never stops people trying. Whether it's voices in their head, a feeling in your gut, an alignment of stars or the way your dog's entrails sit just so on the makeshift Stonehenge in your back garden, trying to second guess fate has been a favourite past time since time immemorial. But we just can't seem to get it right ...

And that’s where THE END IS NIGH! comes in. We seek to chart and preserve mankind’s on-going fascination with its own demise, examining the claims of those who would see us consumed by solar fire, dashed to pieces by flying rocks, obliterated by nuclear weapons or wiped out by a big bad bug. Where there is a hell-fire preacher predicting perpetual purgatory, you will find us. When a scientist looks up from his microscope or telescope eyepiece in horror, we will be there.
In the end, they cut me out of the programme, preferring instead to concentrate on the scientists and their pet theories.

Just as well really ...

Monday, 15 September 2008

NEWS: Spanish town still haunted by its brush with Armageddon

Fascinating piece in the International Herald Tribune about the Spanish town that very nearly became ground zero for a nuclear holocaust in 1966, after a B-52 carrying nuclear weapons exploded above it in midair ...

On the morning of Jan. 17, 1966, a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber returning from a routine Cold War alert mission exploded during airborne refueling, sending its cargo of B28 hydrogen bombs plummeting toward earth.

One went into the azure waters of the Mediterranean and three others fell around this poor farming village, about 200 kilometers, or 125 miles, east of Granada.

Seven crew members on the air force planes perished in the fireball, while four parachuted to safety. No one on the ground was killed. The nuclear warheads, many times more powerful than those that fell on Hiroshima, did not go off - exactly.

ANALYSIS: web 'must separate rumour' from science

As a source of apocalyptic rumour and panic, the internet can't be beaten. Once upon a time, doomsayers were confined to preaching, pamphlet/book printing or - in usually quite extreme cases - bagging mainstream media attention to propagate their ideas, but now anybody with a copy of Dreamweaver and a broadband connection can be all over the internet like a rash.
Now obviously the flap over the LHC was something more than that, since those who launched the biggest legal challenge against the switch-on were scientists themselves, but you don't have to have an intimate understanding of Google's listing system to find websites that put an apocalyptic slant on scientific discoveries or ideas both old and new. Polar shifts, the conjunction of planets, asteroid strikes, shooting stars, even messages in the layout of the pyramids in Egypt - all these ideas and more (worse?) find a home on the World Wide Web. It's a boon for us - since it makes these people all the easier to find - but it also means the mainstream media are more likely to pick up on the latest predictions and by broadcasting them they encourage others to find or believe in them. It's a vicious circle that's not really been addressed by a loony-ignoring scientific community before.
It is therefore a sign of how significant the LHC flap was that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who gave birth to the internet, has said he is "increasingly worried" about the way the web has been used to spread "disinformation".
Speaking to the BBC News website in advance of an announcement about a Foundation he has helped create that he hopes will improve the World Wide Web, Sir Tim has voiced concern about the use of the web to spread fears that flicking the switch on the LHC could create a Black Hole that could swallow up the Earth. He also linked this to general 'scientiphobia' such as the spread of rumours that the MMR vaccine could cause autism.
"On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable," he said. "A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."
It's obvious why the misguided interest in the LHC should provoke his ire - his pioneering work on the web was done at the collider's home of CERN at Geneva - but it must also be truly galling to see what could be one of the most important experiments in the history of mankind reduced to the status of a freakshow by journalists whose attention helped explode bog-standard apocalyptic scaremongering into a real 'silly season' summer story.
Sir Tim's solution? Systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources. Whether this is in any way workable or not, it's significant that the father of the internet (who thanks to his connections at CERN is also a major figure in the wider scientific community) has chosen to tackle such people head on, rather than ignore them lest the attention almost legitimise their ideas.
But did scientific rebuttals destroy the MMR allegations and lay parents' minds at rest? The downward spiral of uptake rates for the vaccine would suggest otherwise and it can be argued that suspicions of science, and those 'in charge', run much deeper than those behind paternalistic action plans maybe realise.
Apocalyptic ideas are ultimately an expression of our fear of the unknown, of things that come outside the world's received wisdom - they feed on uncertainty and the LHC just proves that no scientist can ever give the 100% guarantee of what will happen in an experiment (otherwise, what's the point of doing it in the first place?)

So bear in mind that Robert J Oppenheimer, who created the world's first atomic bomb, ordered extensive calculations to prove that the detonation wouldn't set off a chain-reaction in the upper atmosphere which would engulf the planet in flame - which may well represent the first quantitative risk assessment of human extinction, something that has continued on and off for almost 70 years.

Poll results

The question was 'some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. But what do you say?' and the results were:

Fire - 20%
Ice - 14%
Something half way between the two. Kinda lukewarm - 8%
Sorry, too busy stocking up on baked beans and shotgun shells - 56%

Good to see you lot didn't let me down ;)

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

And that was The World Tonight

Well, that didn't go too badly.

Appeared on BBC Radio Four's The World Tonight to talk about the apocalyptic kerfuffle over the LHC. Managed to plug the mag and get my points across - couple of sound bites I'd prepared went unused and since the other guest (see below) mentioned the atomic bomb I *should* have said about how Oppenheimer's team wasn't 100% that Gadget (see issue two) wouldn't set off a chain reaction in the upper atmosphere that would engulf the planet in flame.

The other guest was Paul Boyer, a history professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose area of expertise includes prophetic and apocalyptic beliefs in America. His book, When Time Shall Be No More, has now been added to my reading list and I'm probably going to be dropping him a line to say hi.

You should be able to hear it again here once the BBC has uploaded it. I think we were about half an hour into the programme.

Not with a bang, but with a whimper ...

We still here? Excellent.

Was quite bizarre being interviewed on BBC Radio Solent while a man from a pub in Southampton, appropriately named The World's End, counted down to the switching on of the LHC ... which was then late.

And as reasoned and unflappable as The Doomsayer is, even his heart skipped a beat when the mobile signal went all screwy at 8.32am ...

LHC Countdown 00.22BST 10/09/2008

Aah, nothing like a good Armageddon countdown. Here's hoping there's a world to wake up to ;)

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

LHC Countdown 22.00BST 09/09/2008

10.5 hours and counting ...

There is SOME good news, however - I get interviewed about all this by BBC Radio Solent at 8.14am and then I'll be on BBC Radio Four's The World Tonight at 10pm.

(I love how the local radio station does it BEFORE the event, but Radio Four is suitably convinced nothing will happen so they're doing the interview in the evening ...)

LHC Countdown 13.55BST 09/09/2008

There are now 18 hours and 35 minutes remaining.

Fingers crossed we'll all survive, because it's likely I've got an interview tomorrow evening ...

NEWS: It's official - "Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat"

There are lots of things to get wound up about in the world, many of them truly apocalyptic - global climate change, world food supply, biosecurity etc etc.

However, let all doomsayers take note: particle acceleraters are not one of them ...

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is due to be 'switched on' (which basically means it will circulate a beam of particles through its entire 17km length for the first time) at 9.30am EST on Wednesday. For what is the beginning of a groundbreaking attempt to uncover the origins and the building blocks of the universe, it is only right the event will be broadcast around the world. However, we all know why there's so much media interest in this event - and it ain't a new appreciation for scientific endeavour.

The End is Nigh has been produced, on and off, for almost four years and yet it still comes as a surprise that scientists working on the LHC have not only had to fend off legal challenges, but have also apparently been receiving death threats. Once such recipient, according to the Daily Telegraph, has been Frank Wilczek, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But an End is Nigh Common Sense Award goes to Prof Brian Cox of Manchester University, who bluntly told the Telegraph: "Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat."

Most of the media attention of this event has focused on hyping up or refuting such outlandish claims, and the Telegraph goes on to report that the head of PR James Gillies, the public's contact for info on the £4.5 billion machine, is inundated with people fearing for their lives. "There are a number who say: "You are evil and dangerous and you are going to destroy the world," he said. "I find myself getting slightly angry, not because people are getting in touch but the fact they have been driven to do that by what is nonsense. What we are doing is enriching humanity, not putting it at risk."

With apocalyptic fears usually fuelled by the attention the media pay to anyone with a scary theory, the LHC would appear to be teaching us as much about human ignorance as it is about the foundations of existence.

The LHC Switch On: 32 hours and counting ...

Monday, 8 September 2008

NEWS: And we thought Bush was a worry ...

Oh this just gets better and better. Now, it IS arguable that one can belong to a church and not share some of its more ... unorthodox preachings (God knows, I've spent enough time in churches just biting my tongue) but it seems that Sarah Palin has some apocalyptic skeletons rattling in the ol' closet:

rawstory.com - Monday September 8, 2008

Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has attended a number of different churches over the years, but for most of her adult life, she belonged to the Wasilla Assembly of God, which has attracted attention for its unorthodox beliefs and practices.

In June, Palin addressed graduates of a youth ministry program at that church, telling them, "It was so cool growin' up in this church and gettin' saved here."

CNN's Jessica Yellin looked into the church's beliefs and reports that it practices speaking in tongues and also "teaches that Alaska will be a shelter at the end of the world."

A video produced by the church proclaims with apocalyptic imagery that "God has a destiny for the state of Alaska!" and in another clip someone from the church affirms, "I believe that Alaska's one of the refuge states."

Yellin acknowledged that "whether Palin shares these beliefs is unclear" but noted that "during her June visit, she described the Iraq War and a natural gas pipeline she is trying to build as part of God's plan."

Palin herself has not spoken publicly about her faith, but one Wasilla parishioner told Yellin that Palin's years at the Assembly of God had shaped her beliefs, saying, "She has a better idea of what God is wanting her to do and guiding her and leading her."

Since 2002, Palin has attended the non-denominational Wasilla Bible Church, which "has more traditional practices," according to Yellin. The pastor there, Larry Kroon, says, "She really cares about her God, and it doesn't get in the way of anything. ... She approaches everybody with respect."

BBC feature on The End of the World

And lo, the BBC did speak to the Doomsayer and verily the wisdom that poured forth from his mouth becameth the stuff of a feature ...

Sunday, 7 September 2008

The End is Nigh is back on the web!

After an extended hiatus, The End is Nigh website is back up and running.

You can order copies of issue three (£7.50) or you can download issue two for absolutely nothing!

With grateful thanks to webmaster Paul White.

World War III ... with ants!

Now THIS is the kind of creative apocalyptic thinking we need more of! Begone with your Hadron Colliders, your 2012s and your asteroid strikes - when did GIANT ANTS go out of fashion?!

Thanks to the fertile Mr Arthur Wyatt for the link ...

ANALYSIS: The curse and the blessing of the preacher man in US politics

Back in issues two and three, we highlighted how it has been suggested, on more than one occasion, that President George W Bush holds certain ... 'fundamentalist' opinions about God and the End of the World. This, it has been pointed out, is worrying for a man with control over the greatest nuclear arsenal the world has ever seen.

So it's interesting to find out about what his potential successor thinks about the issue. And what is thought about it by the people he relies on for support.

Much was made of the connection between Barrack Obama and controversial Chicago minister, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose racially divisive comments Obama had to publicly condemn and whose support he was then forced to renounce.

However, next to nothing has been made by the mainstream media of McCain's connections to really-much-scarier preachers such as Rev. John Hagee and Rev. Rod Parsley, both of whom share some rather fascinating views for the average apocalypse-watcher.

Hagee, for example, is not only really, really keen to ensure people are 'Rapture ready' but has also been publicly vilified for suggesting that Hurricane Katrina was God's retribution for homosexual sin (though not to the same extent as Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church for his comments about the Asian Tsunami being 'punishment' on Swedes for tolerating homosexuality).

Parsley, on the other hand, has a slight problem with Islam. This, for America, is nothing new but again McCain's relationship with Parsley has not 'broken' into the mainstream media and he has certainly not faced widespread demands to ditch the pastor from Ohio.

The fact that the media in America has not made the same deal of Parsley/McCain as any of them did over the Wright/Obama issue opens up some interesting attitudes towards both religion, politics and what opinions can/cannot be voiced. From a purely apocalyptic standpoint, Wright's opinions (which are pointed out for a lack of patriotism but a surfeit of interesting ... er ... racial ideas) are nowhere near as inflammatory as those of Parsley and Hagee. To be fair, McCain has sought to 'distance' himself from Hagee - though so far he has not been forced to renounce him, as Obama was with Wright. Add in Sarah Palin's somewhat ... strident views and it's a heady mix.

So what does the apocalypse-watcher have to learn from this experience? Well, aside from the fact that both sides in a US election will always seek to embarrass or smear the other side by concentrating on those 'associated' with the candidates, but there are clearly Issues Worth Mentioning and Issues Of No Consequence. From the evidence above it's clear that racial issues/militant black politics = a problem, but suggesting the Pope is the Anti-Christ, that Hurricane Katrina was a godly judgement and that America was founded as an anti-Islamic state which should attack Iran = just fine.

It also says something about the respective parties, with radical preaching okay with the Republicans, but not with the Democrats. Either way, with Obama having managed to shrug the Wright controversy off it'll be interesting to watch whether these preachers become a factor in the last two months of campaigning.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

All kinds of crazy

There's nothing like a sublimely over the top scientific experiment to bring the doomsayers out of the woodwork ...

Yours truly got interviewed on Friday by the BBC News website, which is doing a feature about why we're obsessed by the end of the world. I can only compliment the reporter concerned for him tracking me down, though to be fair my name's all over the internet like a rash ...

Anyways, the 'angle' behind the story is the many scare stories about the switching on of the massive Large Hadron Collider near Geneva this week, the operators of which saw off a legal attempt to stop it in the European Court of Human Rights. A group of scientists, headed by Professor Otto Rössler, a German chemist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, had applied for an injunction to stop the collider being switched on because they feared that rather than reveal the secrets of the universe, the machine would actually either create mini black holes that would swallow the Earth 'within 50 months' or splurge exotic killer particles everywhere.

Now, I'm excited about the scientific possibilities as anyone but what's really got my attention is the huge kinds of crazy this experiement has drawn from the EotW community, a small sample of which can be viewed in the comments on the New Scientist's blog about why the collider won't suck us all into a black hole.

What's interesting to note is that although the collider is being switched on, it's not being switched on to FULL power. That's a few months down the road. Will be interesting to watch the doomsayers once nothing happens in the next few days - will they, in the main, leave the issue alone and switch back to 2012 or will they eagerly watch for the date of when the collider goes to full strength? Should be fun ...

NEWS: Risking Armageddon for Cold, Hard Cash

Washington Post: September 7, 2008

While everyone has been abuzz about Georgia, the Beijing Olympics and Sarah Palin, perhaps the most important development in the world has been unfolding with almost no attention. India and the United States, along with deep-pocketed corporations, have been steadily pushing along a lucrative and dangerous new nuclear pact, the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. Both governments have been working at a fever pitch to get the pact approved by the 45-country Nuclear Suppliers Group, which governs the world's trade in nuclear materials, and before Congress for a final vote before it adjourns this month.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the deal will let his country, which refuses to sign either the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, take "its rightful place among the comity of nations." I entirely understand why today's democratic, globalized and modernizing India wants recognition and respect, and I agree that it needs more energy. But this foolish, risky deal is not the way to get any of these things. India's democracy has already paid a crippling price, and now the planet may too.

The historic deal will allow U.S. nuclear companies to again do business in India, something that has been barred since 1974, when New Delhi tested its first atomic bomb. (India tested nuclear bombs again in 1998, spurring Pakistan to follow suit with its own tests days later.) The pact will also lift restrictions on other countries' sales of nuclear technology and fuel to India, while asking virtually nothing from India in return. All of that will undermine the very international system that India so ardently seeks to join.

The deal risks triggering a new arms race in Asia: If it passes, a miffed and unstable Pakistan will seek nuclear parity with India, and China will fume at a transparent U.S. ploy to balance Beijing's rise by building up India as a counterweight next door. The pact will gut global efforts to contain the spread of nuclear materials and encourage other countries to flout the NPT that India is now being rewarded for failing to sign. The U.S.-India deal will divert billions of dollars away from India's real development needs in sustainable agriculture, education, health care, housing, sanitation and roads. It will also distract India from developing clean energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and from reducing emissions from its many coal plants. Instead, the pact will focus the nation's efforts on an energy source that will, under the rosiest of projections, contribute a mere 8 percent of India's total energy needs -- and won't even do that until 2030.

So what will the deal accomplish? It will generate billions of dollars in lucrative contracts for the corporate members of the U.S.-India Business Council and the Confederation of Indian Industry. The Bush administration hopes that it will help resuscitate the moribund U.S. nuclear power industry and expand the use of this "non-polluting" source of energy, one of the pillars of the Bush team's energy policy. The deal will let the real leaders of the global nuclear-power business -- France and Russia, both of which eagerly support the deal -- reap huge profits in India. And the pact will provide spectacularly profitable opportunities to India's leading corporations, which are slavering to get their hands on a share of the booty. How much booty? This newspaper estimates more than $100 billion in business over the next 20 years, as well as perhaps tens of thousands of jobs in India and the United States.

This is what the U.S.-India nuclear deal is really all about. This is what the nonproliferation regime that has kept the world safe from nuclear Armageddon for decades is being risked for: cash

Welcome to the End of the World ...

Or so people would have you believe.

Ever since man has had language with which to speak, he has been plagued by the doomsayer, the predictor, the one who claims to know. And they have all said the same thing: the end is nigh ...

And yet here we still are – because for every prediction of imminent doom, a sigh of relief or grunt of disappointment has followed.

You’d think they’d stop, that they’d learn their lesson and realise the unknowable is just that. Yet, bloodied but unbowed, the doomsayers gleefully continue their task of distributing dire warnings of impending oblivion to any who will listen.

So who do you turn to if you want a guide through this cacophony of cataclysm, this wealth of world-ending wisdom?

Well, welcome to the official magazine of the apocalypse, the chronicle of end times, the anthology of Armageddons, the depository of doom, the collection of catastrophe, the encyclopaedia of eschatology …


Each issue we examine the predictions, the facts, the figures, the myths and the magic of the end of the world. From Biblical tales of the final battle, to modern fears of asteroid strike, lethal plague or nuclear holocaust, THE END IS NIGH is your guide through the Final Days …