10 Science Experiments That Looked Like the End of the World
It’s official: The Large Hadron Collider helped to find a new particle, and it didn’t turn the world inside out. Everybody relax! But history is full of strange experiments that people predicted might bring about the end of the human race… and in some cases, they might actually have had a point.
Here are 10 scientific experiments that people believed — rightly or wrongly — had the potential to wipe out humanity.
10. Digging the Kola Superdeep Borehole
Initiated in 1970, this Soviet science experiment sought to drill as deep as possibleinto the Earth’s crust. The borehole on theKola Peninsula dug to a depth of 12 kilometers into the planet’s crust by 1994.
While the Soviets did not encounter the Mole Man during digging, drilling a deep hole into the Earth’s crust (which varies from 30 to 50 kilometers in thickness) could have unleashed seismic forces that nobody could control, much like in the Doctor Who story “Inferno,” which aired that same year.
9. New Zealand’s Tsunami Bomb
Known more for a connection to the Shire than innovation in weapons creation, New Zealand experimented with the use of bombs to create artificial tsunamis, between 1944 and 1945.
By strategically placing bombs, the military scientists behind New Zealand’s Project Seal believed they could divert explosive energy through water, causing tsunamis and tidal waves. After thousands of test explosions, New Zealand ceased experimentation, because military scientists kept having trouble with funneling the explosive energy in a horizontal direction. If New Zealand’s tsunami bomb experiments had been successful, tsunami creation could have gone mainstream — allowing anyone with a conventional explosive device to create widespread chaos and death with ease.
8. Operation Cirrus
In the late 1940s, the United States attempted to divert the path of hurricanes by seeding the storms with dry ice. After scientists poured 180 pounds of dry ice into a hurricane moving east into the Atlantic Ocean, the hurricane made an extremely unpredictable move — and changed directions. The hurricane collided with the town of Savannah, Georgia — no stranger to unusual government intrusions , killing at least one person and causing over $200 million in damage.
This early weather-changing experiment eventually led to the UN’s Environmental Modification Convention, banning weather changing experiments conducted as a means of war.
7. Project Mercury and Volcano
From 1987 to 1992, the Russian military detonated nuclear weapons underground, with the goal of disturbing tectonic plates and electromagnetic fields as a weapon, in Project Mercury and Project Volcano.
These experiments sound like the basis for a bad James Bond movie, but four experimental attempts actually happened — until the 1978 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques banning experiments of this nature. Extended disruption of tectonic plates could cause a series of severe earthquakes and destabilize electromagnetic fields, leading to a number of theoretical and unforeseen issues.
6. Genetically engineered oil-eating superbugs
In the mid-1970s, General Electric R&D scientist Ananda Chakrabarty introduced a plasmidthat allowed the bacteria Pseudomonas putida to digest petroleum. Chakrabarty designed the bacteria with the hope that it would be used to clean up oil spills. But many people were terrified that these engineered bacteria could run amuck, consume everything in their path, and “out-compete” other bacteria and organisms for survival on Earth. The bacterial dominance theory is a “green” precursor to the grey goo theory — and it might be a more likely possibly.
5. Accidentally creating a black hole
Before the opening of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in New York, public fears amassed over the idea of the RHIC creating an uncontrollable black hole during the course course of its operation. This lead to aplethora of sensational articles in 1999, topped off by a story from the The Sunday Times of London running with the headline “Big Bang machine could destroy Earth.”
The researchers at RHIC study aspects of black holes, but they lack the energy available to create a real gravitational black hole. Whether or not the researchers crossed their fingers when they began experiments at RHIC in 2000 is another story, but as far as I know, we still exist and are not suffering the extreme relativistic effects of a journey through a black hole.
4. U.S. experiments increasing the efficiency of Magnaporthe grisea
Wheat blast and rice blast cause huge damage to world crops, but they’re rare in First World countries. The fungusMagnaporthe grisea leaves lesions on individual plants, that can release thousands of spores and contaminate an enormous area in a single night. The fungus exists in over 80 countries, and it entered the United States in 1996.
During the Cold War, the United States experimented with a weaponized form ofMagnaporthe grisea, which could spread via a spray — or via bombs. Nobody knows whether the U.S. intentionally used the weaponized form, but if these “contagious” crop diseases started spreading uncontrollably, two of the world’s most vital crops would be devastated, causing a worldwide famine.
3. Starfish Prime
Detonating a nuclear weapon outside of the planet’s magnetic field just sounds like a bad idea, but the United States decided to go ahead and detonate six nuclear weapons at high altitude, during 1962’s Starfish Prime(and Operation Fishbowl).
How did this nuclear explosion affect the Earth’s magnetic field? Luckily, the magnetic field “snapped back” into place — causing a strong electromagnetic pulse as a side effect. But if our geomagnetic field had been permanently altered, we could experience a loss protection from cosmic rays and solar winds, along with massive earthquakes, as the continents moved around.
2. Weaponizing the plague
The Plague was responsible for killing up to 60% of the population of Europe in the 14th Century — and then, the Soviet All-Union Institute of Ultra-Pure Biological Preparations succeeded in weaponizing it in the late 1980s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, program director Vladimir Pasechnik went public with this research, which included military preparations to load warheads with a time-released version of the Black Death. In order to handle the plague, the Soviet program encased a powdered form of bacterial agent, Yersinia pestis, in a polymer capsule.
1. The Trinity nuclear test
In the days preceding the detonation of the first nuclear bomb, scientists within the Manhattan Project debated what would happen in the aftermath of detonation, with a few scientists believing the bomb would not explode at all.
Enrico Fermi, however, suggested the detonation of the bomb could create a chain reaction that would set the Earth’s atmosphere ablaze and kill almost all life on the planet. It is disturbing to realize that scientists would go forward, in light of the ruminations of a Nobel Prize winner — but thank goodness, Fermi hypothesized incorrectly.