Humans have always been inquisitive little things, and when a problem or mystery rears its ugly little head, there are some among us who will stop at nothing to solve it - even if it means putting the entire world at risk.
New technologies have always made people uncomfortable. For example, when the Stockton-Darlington Railway opened in 1825, there were public fears that the pure hair-raising speed of the locomotive (a staggering 30 miles per hour) could cause heart-attacks, brain hemorrhaging and all kinds of gruesome maladies.
However, that was in the 19th century, since then we have developed technologies and conducted experiments which were slightly more likely to cause major problems - and perhaps even end the world. Here are some of them.
1. The Trinity Test - 1945
The Trinity Test was the explosion of the first plutonium bomb by the scientists of the Manhattan Project, led by Robert Oppenheimer.
Until this point, all the science behind an atomic bomb was purely theoretical, and the Trinity Test marked the researchers' first practical test of their new weapon. Some feared it wouldn't even work, while others feared it would... perhaps a little too well.
Members of the Manhattan Project, including Enrico Fermi (a Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist) and Edward Teller (known as "the father of the hydrogen bomb") did express concerns that a nuclear explosion could lead to a self-sustaining fusion reaction of nitrogen nuclei - essentially setting the entire Earth's atmosphere ablaze.
Although these fears slowed development, the chances of this occurring were ultimately decided to be minuscule and the test went ahead.
Interestingly, nuclear weapons are now often cited as one of the most likely means for humanity to destroy itself. In this sense, the Trinity Test might still be the end of us all.
2. The Kola Superdeep Borehole - 1970 - 2005
It seems the Cold War wasn't enough to keep the Soviet Union occupied in the 1970s. So, with nothing else to do, a bunch of scientists decided to try and dig as deep as possible into the Earth's crust - kind of like a bored kid on a beach.
The Kola Superdeep Borehole, located within the Arctic Circle, was in operation between 1970 and 2005 and, in this time, managed to drill a depth of 40,230 ft. (12,252 meters) into the Earth. This is roughly 7.61 miles or, for comparative reasons, 11,167.98 (3,404 meters) deeper than Mount Everest is high.
At the time, they were unsure what digging this deep into the Earth's crust would do, with some fearing it could set off seismic activity resulting in earthquakes, tsunamis and perhaps even opening up a gateway to Hades' fiery eternal damned kingdom.
Although the site was active until 2005, drilling stopped in 1989 once the temperatures in the outer mantle became to high to continue. The heat reached an excess of 350F (177C), which allowed rock to flow back into the borehole, preventing further drilling. That might be a good thing.
3. The Large Hadron Collider - 2008
The LHC, located beneath the border of France and Switzerland, isn't just the biggest piece of experimental technology ever built - it is the biggest thing ever built.
Of course, once you've gone through the effort of creating a 17 mile long particle accelerator, you kind of want to play with it, and this is what the LHC scientists announced when it was finally completed in 2008.
They stated they would be conducting a series of experiments which would involve smashing protons together at incredible speed. The plan was to essentially recreate the conditions of the Big Bang. However, some individuals - who importantly were NOT nuclear physicists - claimed the LHC would create a blackhole that would suck in the entire world.
One Hawaiian man even filed a lawsuit to prevent its operation, with legal documents citing:
The compression of the two atoms colliding together at nearly light speed will cause an irreversible implosion, forming a miniature version of a giant black hole. […] Any matter coming into contact with it would fall into it and never be able to escape. Eventually, all of earth would fall into such growing micro-black-hole, converting earth into a medium-sized black hole, around which would continue to orbit the moon, satellites, the ISS, etc.
As it turns out nothing of this sort happened, although the LHC scientists did discover the so-called 'God Particle,' the legendary Higgs Boson.
4. Starfish Prime - 1962
Let's give a hello once again to our good ol' friends, nuclear weapons.
Not content to nuke tropical archipelagos or desert wasteland, the US decided it should shake shit up in space by firing six nuclear weapons into the atmosphere as part of 1962's Operation Fishbowl.
The plan was apparently to test the effects of high-altitude nuclear explosions, in particular how they could alter the magnetic field of the Earth. The magnetosphere is an important layer of charged particles which protect the Earth from solar wind and radiation.
The Starfish Prime explosion, which occurred 250 miles above Johnston Island in the South Pacific produced an electromagnetic effect which was larger than anticipated. Indeed, it drove many measuring instruments off the scale. The EMP generated by the explosion was so vast, it knocked out street lights and telephone systems in Hawaii - which was 898 miles away.
Further to this, there were significant magnetic field disturbances which temporary diminished the protection caused by the magnetosphere. Luckily, the Earth's magnetic field 'snapped back,' although there were lingering side effects. The radiation caused by the explosion became trapped in the atmosphere, creating a band of radiation which knocked out a third of low-orbit satellites. There is much debate about the potential adverse effects of this trapped radiation.
5. Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) - Ongoing
This one is slightly different, because it's an experiment that is technically still ongoing.
For the most part, SETI has been passively scanning the 'airwaves' of space in an attempt to locate any kind of evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence. So far, they haven't come up with anything conclusive.
Faced with this, SETI wants to change up their methods. Instead of just listening, they also want to send out broadcasts to nearby solar systems. This would certainly be a major step up in their experiment, but it does have some people concerned. What if the aliens on the other end aren't exactly in the mood for a nice chin-wag? What if they're more interested in taking our natural resources and/or exploring our orifices?
This isn't just the ramblings of deranged conspiracy theorists and madmen. Professor Stephen Hawking himself has warned about the outcomes of searching for advanced life out in the stars. He explained:
If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans... We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet.
6. Nanotechnology - The Future
So, none of these experiments did end the world, however there's still plenty of opportunity in the future.
For example, one long-standing concern involves self-replicating nano-machines which have been created by humanity to do our bidding. These microscopic machines could be used to assemble anything we wanted within nanofactories, or "auto-assemblers." They would send out harvesters which would take resources (atoms, molecules) from the natural world and convert them into the building blocks of the desired product. But, in order to do this, the nanomachines must be self-replicating.
However, Eric Drexler, author of Engines of Creation, has hypothesized a scenario where these nano-machines usher in the end of the world. Known as the 'gray-goo problem,' the theory argues that a malfunctioning auto-assembler could continue to self-replicate and consume the world at a rate we simply could not deal with. In 10 hours, one haywire auto-assembler could create 68 BILLION offspring.
The resulting world would be nothing but a large glutinous mass of nanomachines - the gray goo.