Saturday, April 16, 2011

Worst case scenario

My brain is exceptionally good at envisioning horrible outcomes. For whatever reason, my mind plays out daily what Stephen King achieves in 700 pages. My fear of flying turns every plane into a ticking time bomb of catastrophe - I might as well (as the prophets of old) see blood dripping from the wings and windows. But because I retain some capability of reasonable analysis, I know that these scenarios, while gruesome and frightening, are ultimately not real, nor are they ever likely to become so.

This doesn't seem to be a talent of the popular news media.

At softball practice the other day, a woman on the team mentions knowingly that the Japanese should have realized that they lived in an earthquake-prone area and built reactors that could withstand 9.0 earthquakes. Aside from the rather insidious proposition that an amateur slow-pitch softball player from the southeastern US knows more about nuclear reactor engineering than the whole of Japan, I was taken aback. Are you serious? Do you realize just how big a 9.0 earthquake is? Does it not matter that this particular quake was the fourth largest in the world's recorded history (and that the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi have actually done an excellent job of preventing a worse disaster, all this considered)? Her demand that Japan prepare for something that is historically unprecedented is the same in nature as my belief that every and all flight I take will crash in a burning fireball into the sea. It would seem that reasonable assessment is impossible. We can't just engineer for bad scenarios. We have to engineer for worst-case scenarios.

So here, for the benefit of all mankind, present and future, is a worst-case scenario for which you should all be planning.

First, terrorists will hijack not 1, not 4, but all (roughly) 28,000 commercial flights on this particular day. Also private planes, single- and twin-engine Cessnas, UPS and DHL freight carriers and anything else they can get their hands on (they'll probably break into the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum on the National Mall and take The Spirit of St Louis and a few old Air Force rockets, too, just to add insult to injury). Every one of these hundred thousand aircraft will be flown with one accord (and full complement of fuel) into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Somehow, every plane will reach the target, which is (in fact) deep underground in a thick, impenetrable salt deposit. All of the leaking jet fuel will ignite an explosion that somehow burns hotter than jet fuel is designed to burn and melts the nuclear waste containment canisters, releasing nuclear materials. The force of the explosion causes a crack in the crust, which quickly travels deeper until it hits a dormant lava plume below. The lava plume is reawakened and erupts, sending molten rock through the WIPP chambers and into the air, carrying with it jet fuel and radioactive waste. Immediately, it begins to rain, the water running off in all directions, carrying the nuclear material from the volcanic ash to hundreds of surrounding miles (never mind that at this point the nuclear material would be too dispersed to even be measured above background). Quick-reacting politicians in Washington hear about the unfolding disaster, but with information sketchy at best, they misinterpret the data (explosion, nuclear material...) and believe we have been hit by a nuclear weapon. The decision is made to retaliate, and the military immediately begins bombing North Korea. North Korea, in its death throes, retaliates by launching its own missiles, failing to hit the US but doing considerable damage to South Korea, Japan and China. Suddenly all of Asia is in a radioactive, deathly panic, and a high-ranking official in the Indian government takes advantage of the chaos to turn weapons on Pakistan. Pakistan retaliates. A misfire from Pakistan ends up in Russia, and the Russian military now joins the deluge.
The sheer quantity of nuclear weapons being detonated causes major earthquakes to occur along delicate fault lines, razing San Francisco and Los Angeles to the ground. Volcanoes in Iceland are triggered, sending plumes of ash (in addition to the radioactive fallout) across Europe, killing crops. Meanwhile, a rogue nuclear submarine from the US Navy gets incorrect bomb codes and hits several accidental targets along the eastern seaboard, as well as Canada.
After the two-minute rush of nuclear arsenals is used up, hundreds of millions of people are dead, and hundreds of millions more are without power, food, information, or clean water. Slowly the sky darkens from the quantity of ash in the air. Looting begins, people rioting in the streets, trampling children and the elderly, police beating people to death in a horribly awry state of martial law. Quasi-religious sects, seizing their chance, declare war on whomever they consider infidels, killing hundreds in the open during the chaos.
And then, to make matters worse, the Sun suddenly uses up the last of its hydrogen fuel. This causes a conversion to helium burning, turning the Sun into a Red Giant; its radius extends past Mercury's orbit, immediately incinerating the tiny planet, and the intense heat and radiation from the Sun's sudden proximity boils the atmosphere and all the oceans from Earth and fries us all to a crisp instantaneously.
If that's still not enough, a D-brane instability appears in our local region of 10-dimensional space, creating an ever expanding void of nothingness that envelopes the whole universe.

This is why it's ridiculous to demand that things be engineered for worst-case scenarios.

Get on it, people. I want my universe to be D-brane-instability-proof. Ready, go.


  1. All you need is a mechanism for a last minute way to save the world, and you have the synopsis for Bruce Willis movie :-P

  2. I'd say that Bruce Willis is my mechanism for a last minute way to save the world...

  3. Okay, which one of my so-called devoted minions disclosed our brilliant and diabolical plan? Did (s)he also spill the beans on Plan "B" involving three hundred Zamboni machines and fifty million marbles? It is SO hard for a villain to get world class henchmen these days .....

  4. Kurt, don't I know it! Used to be that minions had to go through extensive apprenticeships (starting, of course, at a young age, and approached with the sincerity and seriousness of a lifelong profession), but now it's just a two-year technical college...


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