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January 20, 2014 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Recent times the world almost ended. (deslide version here)
posted by Chrysostom (50 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The article itself is forgettable clickbait, but deslide is an awesome service, bookmarked with great joy
posted by ook at 8:10 AM on January 20 [13 favorites]


Eh, I knew about a lot of these, but Klebsiella Planticola was new to me, and chilling.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:14 AM on January 20 [10 favorites]


The Sun always sets in the evening, and rises at dawn. Or so we thought until 1859, when the sun reminded Earthlings that the fiery ball is enormously powerful and can do whatever it wants.

I keep telling everyone this, but they are all "Oh, no, the Sun is our friend! It brings life!" Look, the Sun is an enormous seething mass of nuclear fire that could destroy us with an errant belch. The sooner we find a way to put it out and adapt ourselves to living symbiotically the sulfur- and methane-feeding bacteria in the deep sea, the happier we will all be.

Well, until a comet comes and kills us all.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:15 AM on January 20 [12 favorites]


Well, until a comet comes and kills us all.

But those pesky comets will be a lot easier to spot with the Sun extinguished.
posted by mikepop at 8:22 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]


Because the bright light emitted by the comets will no longer be washed out by the sun?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:23 AM on January 20 [27 favorites]


"Eh, I knew about a lot of these, but Klebsiella Planticola was new to me, and chilling."
This is what they actually say
"Klebsiella Planticola

The early 1990s saw leaps in the technology of genetically modified foods and organisms. One such organism being tested by a European genetic engineering company was known by the super-boring name "Klebsiella Planticola." A soil bacteria intended to decompose plant litter, Planticola had been tested in a laboratory incubator and determined to be safe for wheat. The company made plans to mass-produce and distribute the supposedly miraculous microscopic organism.

There was just one problem: Klebsiella Planticola was not safe for wheat; it was deadly. Not only that, its byproduct aggressively feeds on the roots of every plant, meaning the genetic engineering company was about to salt the soil everywhere Planticola was distributed. This could mean massive devastation to sensitive ecosystems and farms, an effect which would undoubtedly ripple throughout the entire world. The only unaffected people would probably be those who never eat greens or meat, and their resulting smug attitudes would kill millions.

Fortunately, we were saved when a team of independent scientists headed by Dr. Elaine Ingham of Oregon State University decided to run their own tests. Where's her blockbuster?
"
Its amazing that even the overgrown children who have replaced what used to be scientific journalism take this seriously. A middle school level of understanding of evolution should surely be enough for at least some skepticism right? Elaine Ingham of Oregon State University got a masters student to dump a shit load of the modified Klebsiella onto some potted plants and they died, this means pretty much nothing. That is especially when you consider that the Klebsiella dumped onto the plants also died very fast, was not shown to spread in any way, could not conceivably spread in any way, and did nothing in lower doses. An epidemic of plant eating bacteria would need to not only eat plants but grow at the expense of the plants, much less find a way to attack new plants.

If you're still worried, just think this through with me for a moment, if just a couple of yeast genes that are incredibly ubiquitous in nature could turn something as susceptible to horizontal gene transfer and ubiquitous as Klebsiella into a world ending menace, why hasn't it happened already? Nature possess far more useful tools of evolution, used far more often, than we could ever hope to harness. Why aren't the world's plants constantly going through mass death phases as nature selects for far more efficient alcohol producers than we could ever make in bugs that are already actual pathogens of plants?

We couldn't make such a bug if we wanted to, at least not with the tools of genetic engineering - they'd be useless for this purpose. What we could do, however, is use century year old techniques of classical microbiology in terrifying ways to isolate and conventionally breed pathogens of specific vital plants for these kinds of traits and seed them into militarized cropdusters, starve the world or specific regions into submission to whatever. Of course both the United States and former Soviet Union did exactly this for all of the world's major crops.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:29 AM on January 20 [37 favorites]


In fact, scientists estimate that, in order to have a serious impact on the entire globe, Earth would have to get hit by a space rock at least 1 kilometer wide (for Americans, 1 kilometer= 1 zillion meters).
[...]
As it turned out, the comet did not end life on Earth (spoiler alert). It did pass within 0.1 astronomical units of Earth, which as far as we can tell is an unneccesarily dramatic way of saying 15 million kilometers.



Someone needs to cut back on their afternoon Red Bull consumption.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:31 AM on January 20 [3 favorites]


From here:
"Klebsiella planticola - The Gene-Altered Monster That Almost Got Away - The Deadly Genetically Engineered Bacteria that Almost Got Away: A Cautionary Tale

This article orginally appeared in the Green Party publication
Synthesis/Regeneration 18 (Winter 1999)"
I think that's where a lot of the slant and scaremongering came from.
posted by mrbill at 8:41 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


Agreed, mrbill. Looking into more closely, Blasdelb is on target.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:45 AM on January 20


The Gene-Altered Monster That Almost Got Away

I think they got the name of the biosphere destroying species wrong.
posted by hat_eater at 8:46 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


"One such organism being tested by a European genetic engineering company was known by the super-boring name "Klebsiella Planticola."
Also, in addition to this fuckwad spelling the name of the bug that they're complaining about wrong (binomial names are always either italicized or underlined and species names are never capitalized so that people reading papers can easily figure out what the fuck is being talked about), the name Klebsiella planticola is anything but boring. It is named in honor of Edwin Klebs, the grumpy ass dude who discovered the causative agent of Diphtheria. His work allowed us to both control and treat diphtheria, now for the most part only remembered for its role in the start of the iditarod, but before his discovery and the and the development of an effective antiserum a decade later it was universally feared for its habit of occasionally slowly strangling all of the children in a community to death in an incomprehensibly brutal way. Eradication is totally possible if we ever get our shit together, but unlikely at any point in the foreseeable future.

The species name planticola is just an English/Latin hybrid meaning lives on plants.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:00 AM on January 20 [8 favorites]


The Universe: Slowly perfecting new ways to kill you and everyone you love.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:03 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]


Typical of this genre it is full of hyperbole and overstates the case and understates the controversy. For example the Toba event did occur, but there is little evidence it effected other species that are more sensitive to environmental change than humans, nor much evidence of climate change in eastern Africa. So it's a controversial theory that is not widely accepted - but such a good story who cares.
posted by stbalbach at 9:03 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


To be forever remembered by me as "the thingy whose name looks just like kielbasa".
posted by benito.strauss at 9:04 AM on January 20 [6 favorites]


I had never heard of this Raoultella planticola thing, and I work in this field, so I tried googling around. It's sad that I could find information only on anti-GMO websites, "The Straight Dope" and James Randi's website. Is there a calm website that discusses real facts about this? I agree with what Blasdelb said above, but that's because in my field, we make these judgements based on risk analysis, and the risks (as far as I can figure out based on this limited information) are not that this organism would kill all plant life, but that it wouldn't persist in soil long enough to be economically viable as a product. The problem with the kind of risk analysis that my field does is that it goes like this: a) test a zillion things in a Petri dish assay and select the most promising candidates b) Test a few things in greenhouse setting in pots and pick the most promising few. c) Test remaining candidates in field plots. d) select the winner and get permission to release it, and perform whatever safety tests a panel asks you to perform. e) Release candidate, cross fingers. From my perspective, the problem is that I probably missed good candidates in my original poorly-designed petri dish experiment, and then compounded the errors in my greenhouse tests under unnatural conditions, ending up with a "winner" that will not work. While it's unlikely that I would neglect to notice that my candidate killed all plant life, I might not notice that it killed some native endangered wildflower or caused cosmetic damage on some economic crop. And there is a remote chance that the world would end and humor websites would mock me.
posted by acrasis at 9:04 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]


Here's a look at the Klebsiella Planticola controversy, with some input from Elaine Ingham who originally reported the findings.

To me, this seems a relevant thought:
I don't know whether GMOs are safe for human consumption or for release into the natural environment, but neither does anyone else --- including the most knowledgeable and wise within the scientific community.
posted by farmerd at 9:05 AM on January 20


I'm currently reading Eric Schlosser's Command and Control... aka You Would Not Believe How Unsafe Nukes Are And It's Basically A Miracle That One's Not Gone Off Accidentally By Now Or That World War III Got Kicked Off By Mistake. For the last couple of weeks I've basically terrified myself to sleep every night.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:08 AM on January 20 [6 favorites]


This writing proves Groucho Marx's final words "Comedy is hard".
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 9:18 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Look, the Sun is an enormous seething mass of nuclear fire that could destroy us with an errant belch. The sooner we find a way to put it out and adapt ourselves to living symbiotically the sulfur- and methane-feeding bacteria in the deep sea, the happier we will all be.

No no no. The problem is that right now we depend completely on the sun, but the sun reauires nothing from us in return. The power dynamic is 100% one-sided and we'll be forever at it's mercy until we can prove our value and leverage that worth.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:22 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


So what you're saying is that we should just ... threaten the sun. Mutually assured destruction, maybe.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:26 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]


Biggest facepalm: "It [the solar flare] arrived on this planet in the middle of the night"

Go away, stupid writer.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:27 AM on January 20 [29 favorites]


Although, on the other hand, [in response to a plague] we probably wouldn't waste a lot of valuable first-response time placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of "sinners."

That's pretty much exactly what happens.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:30 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


It did pass within 0.1 astronomical units of Earth

Which is a fancy way of saying, of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, it came within one tenth of that. Within 9.3 million miles. So, not actually that close.
posted by JHarris at 9:33 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


there is a remote chance that the world would end and humor websites would mock me

Adding this to the Statement Of Risks section of everything I ever do from now on
posted by ook at 9:35 AM on January 20 [11 favorites]


There's exactly 100 times too many metrification jokes in this article. Though I did nearly die choking on a Royale With Cheese once*

*A lie for comedic purposes.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:37 AM on January 20


George_Spiggott: "Biggest facepalm: "It [the solar flare] arrived on this planet in the middle of the night"

Go away, stupid writer."
My favorite part is that this came with a diagram that included the Earths physical relationship with respect to the sun in case they skipped that day in elementary school.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:40 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


fearfulsymmetry: I'm currently reading Eric Schlosser's Command and Control... aka You Would Not Believe How Unsafe Nukes Are And It's Basically A Miracle That One's Not Gone Off Accidentally By Now Or That World War III Got Kicked Off By Mistake. For the last couple of weeks I've basically terrified myself to sleep every night.

Likewise. Terrifying highlight not included in any of the extracts: the brief story of one bomb disposal team member who "once removed a dummy [W-53*] weapon [which is what the teams practice on] from a storage bunker in broad daylight, put it into the back of his pickup truck, covered it with a tarp, drove it right past security, and disassembled it in front of his girlfriend. Arnold thought the move was stupid and irresponsible, as well as a major breach of security."

Which is, y'know, one way of putting it. Next sentence: "Inside the bunker, the dummy weapons were stored beside the real ones." I mean, there's not really enough "fucking hell" to cover how you should respond to that.


*total yield, 9 megatons or, to put it more colloquially, roughly three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during WWII, including the nukes detonated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
posted by Len at 9:41 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]


"To me, this seems a relevant thought:
I don't know whether GMOs are safe for human consumption or for release into the natural environment, but neither does anyone else --- including the most knowledgeable and wise within the scientific community.
"
Well, I'd have recommended not skipping over this part,
"One of life's great lessons as one gets older and hopefully more wiser is not to stick your nose into an area of expertise you know little or nothing about and make judgments on the conduct of individuals in such subject areas. The lesson is a tough one for journalists as --- or at least they should be ---- by nature, curiosity seekers in the context of what is news and what news should be laid before the public for its information and enlightenment. Often, however, they find themselves up the proverbial creek without a paddle."
There are zero scary things about this bacteria, its not even useful. While I can no more prove that this bug won't end the world any more than I could prove Belibers won't, because only mathematicians can prove things, just how absurdly trivial it is to demonstrate that it will not is ridiculous. The original project represents a fundamental failure to understand really basic concepts in evolution, microbial ecology, and epidemiology. This professor, having clearly demonstrated how willing she is to either lie to you or lie to herself this dramatically to convince you how important she is, is in no place to make pronouncements on knowledge or wisdom - at least in this context she is a crank in the classical sense whose reports belong in The Box

This is nothing more than pants on head craziness taking advantage of the fact that you can use words people do not understand to scare them into thinking you are important somehow or give you money. If you'd like a really great introduction to piecing apart GMO stuff for laymen, I'd go here,
"From the moment the bill to ban genetically engineered crops on the island of Hawaii was introduced in May 2013, it garnered more vocal support than any the County Council here had ever considered, even the perennially popular bids to decriminalize marijuana. Public hearings were dominated by recitations of the ills often attributed to genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s: cancer in rats, a rise in childhood allergies, out-of-control superweeds, genetic contamination, overuse of pesticides, the disappearance of butterflies and bees. Like some others on the nine-member Council, Greggor Ilagan was not even sure at the outset of the debate exactly what genetically modified organisms were: living things whose DNA has been altered, often with the addition of a gene from a distant species, to produce a desired trait. But he could see why almost all of his colleagues had been persuaded of the virtue of turning the island into what the bill’s proponents called a “G.M.O.-free oasis.” “You just type ‘G.M.O.’ and everything you see is negative,” he told his staff. Opposing the ban also seemed likely to ruin anyone’s re-election prospects. Yet doubts nagged at the councilman, who was serving his first two-year term."
posted by Blasdelb at 9:43 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


Its amazing that even the overgrown children who have replaced what used to be scientific journalism take this seriously.

It's pretty clear that this is a hyperbolic humor piece, not really "science journalism". Most of the events described never seriously threatened human life on a grand scale.

That supervolcano, though? Sheesh. Especially when you think about the Yellowstone Caldera.
posted by Sara C. at 9:49 AM on January 20 [4 favorites]


Pretty disgusting that our society hasn't even managed to organise a single apocalypse, given all these opportunities and chances. Thanks, Obama.

Surely it's time to hand the keys of ultimate power to quidnunc kid, under whose competent administration a world-wide catastrophe will be surely and swiftly achieved.

No longer will humankind be a laughing-stock for those other, already-apocalypsed civilizations - such as the Old Ones, the Martians and independent booksellers.

And, as billions of people burn, drown or die of the utter tedium brought on by a forced injection of quidnunc kid commentary, they will sigh with relief that - finally! - humanity has achieved the potential we glimpsed when we witnessed the first atomic bomb tests and thought, "Gee, that's shiny!".

So vote #1 quidnunc kid for Shiva, destroyer of worlds.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:49 AM on January 20 [19 favorites]


One thing that really does scare me is that as land-based ice, particularly on Greenland and Antarctica, melts and enters the oceans, the the resulting change to the distribution of mass on the Earth's surface will alter the load on tectonic plates. What this could mean in terms of vulcanism, never mind earthquakes, is something I don't even like to think about.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:49 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]


"It's pretty clear that this is a hyperbolic humor piece, not really "science journalism"."
I don't know, I'm still kind of undecided between whether the author is really that humorless or just that stupid. While I agree that this is really nothing like science journalism, this kind of bullshit sure is replacing it.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:51 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Metric jokes! They never get old adopted.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:54 AM on January 20 [3 favorites]


Pogo_Fuzzybutt: "That's pretty much exactly what happens."

Ya I really hope the next black plague/Spanish flu initially preferentially affects white American college females and not poor brown people in equatorial regions. The initial AIDs response doesn't make me all that sanguine that we'd handle a new black plaque any better the second time around.
posted by Mitheral at 9:55 AM on January 20


I don't know, science journalism has always been so dreadful that I'd almost rather this sort of thing take over. At least anyone with a third of a brain can tell that it's a joke, and it's not directly inspiring anyone to do anything stupid.

I'd take a hundred of these over one climate change denialist editorial.
posted by Sara C. at 9:57 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]


the resulting change to the distribution of mass on the Earth's surface will alter the load on tectonic plates

That's pretty much what happened at the end of the last ice age. The area around Lake Superior has been rebounding since then (that's my top-of-the-head example, don't have an exact cite). Pretty quiet area.

Counter example might be Dogger Bank in the North Sea--that does generate a quake from time to time if I remember right, possibly from aftereffects from ice going away.

My current climate change concern is something like "all the old, good food producing areas are ruined and the new ones kind of suck in comparison".
posted by gimonca at 10:02 AM on January 20



"One of life's great lessons as one gets older and hopefully more wiser is not to stick your nose into an area of expertise you know little or nothing about and make judgments on the conduct of individuals in such subject areas."


This is often a journalist's job, though. There is something weirdly mean spirited, and almost bigoted it seems to me, in the constant bashing of "science journalism." Sure, science journalists have a very difficult task if their topics are opaque to them and probably are doing a very poor job, but I suspect they can still get the basic facts that people need to know using good journalistic practices and immersing themselves in the academic communities they are covering without a great understanding of the actual science. Maybe not. This piece is obviously link bait entertainment, not serious journalism.

This professor, having clearly demonstrated how willing she is to either lie to you or lie to herself this dramatically to convince you how important she is, is in no place to make pronouncements on knowledge or wisdom - at least in this context she is a crank in the classical sense whose reports belong in The Box

A few conversations with other biologists like you should have made this clear to any decent science journalist, but it is amazing to me how often the source of bogus science reporting is an actual scientist. Maybe the problem is journalists are too inclined to trust individual scientists, instead of holding them with the same level of suspicion as wall street experts or police chiefs, and need realize that a healthy academic community probably should include a few cranks.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:22 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


I've enjoyed the Best American Science and Nature Writing series if you're looking for good science journalism.
posted by jjwiseman at 10:33 AM on January 20 [3 favorites]


for Americans, 1 kilometer= 1 zillion meters

Trying, but failing, to emulate Cracked's writing style.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 10:39 AM on January 20 [3 favorites]


I used to believe the sun was our friend, it was like, "hey come on, you've always been my friend" and then I discovered that the sun was still shining during the night. I was thinking, how sneaky. Maybe, perhaps, the same sun that gives us tans could get hot and damage somewhere random like the earth! And during night, when it is supposed to be turned off. And what if it turned around and showed us its butt?
And those lines that people draw coming from the sun. What if they were stink rays?

In summary: sun, bad. No more sun.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:45 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


Look, you people can mock, but the distortion of the shape of the Earth caused by our unequal adoption of the metric system is causing stress fractures that threaten our way of life. When a distance that used to be 100 miles, suddenly, with the stroke of some bureaucrat's pen, becomes 160 kilometers in one place while it stays the same in another place, what do you think happens? Giant unsightly bulges, and cracks at the borders where little children can fall in.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:53 AM on January 20 [8 favorites]


Say what you want about Cracked, at least they link to their sources.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:56 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


MetaFilter: Giant unsightly bulges, and cracks at the borders where little children can fall in.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:19 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


No no no. The problem is that right now we depend completely on the sun, but the sun reauires nothing from us in return. The power dynamic is 100% one-sided and we'll be forever at it's mercy until we can prove our value and leverage that worth.

Wait... your community does not burn a yearly hecatomb of screaming prisoners beneath the wrathful eye of Helios to gain his fiery favor? No wonder we are all in danger of his vengeance!

Just because he is an AU away doesn't mean we can skip birthdays!
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:24 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


Just for fun, somebody mention to Kirk Cameron that by an amazing coincidence sun is precisely one AU away.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:31 AM on January 20 [14 favorites]


Stanislav Petrov: History's Greatest Hero
posted by ob1quixote at 12:45 PM on January 20


Command and Control is indeed amazing - I'm about halfway through. I'm surprised no one mentioned the most terrifying thing in the book. When the Los Alamos team was preparing for the first nuclear test at Trinity, they had math to predict what would happen but they really didn't know what to expect. Hence the need for a test. Some of the scientists thought the atmosphere might catch fire, destroying all life on Earth. But they thought it was pretty unlikely ... they had a betting pool though. From Wikipedia:

It was feared by some that the Trinity test might "ignite" the earth's atmosphere, eliminating all life on the planet, although calculations had determined this was unlikely even for devices "which greatly exceed the bombs now under consideration".[22][23] Less wild estimates thought that New Mexico would be incinerated.
posted by freecellwizard at 2:01 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


Some of the scientists thought the atmosphere might catch fire, destroying all life on Earth. But they thought it was pretty unlikely ... they had a betting pool though.

No problem. The Seaview will take care of it.
posted by happyroach at 6:06 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


they had a betting pool though

You really gotta wonder about the guys who put money on "will destroy all life on Earth."
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:44 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


" You really gotta wonder about the guys who put money on "will destroy all life on Earth.""
That was famously Enrico Fermi who had set up the pool and likely didn't want to taint it with his prediction, which would have carried a lot of weight, while taking the chance to poke a little bit of lighthearted fun at Edward Teller, the father of the next generation hydrogen bomb who had raised the possibility of igniting the atmosphere.

Seconds after the blast he then calculated the trinity explosion from the bunker he was in at 10kt, which was remarkably close to the 20kt it was by dropping little pieces of paper he had just ripped up and watching how far they traveled with the blast.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:37 PM on January 21


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