What's the closest that we've ever coming to ending?

Me and some friends were discussing this the other night: when was the closest that the human race has ever come to ending? Like, a realy close meteor or something, large plague or anything like that. The theory that we came up with was that perhaps the cuban missile crisis was it, but this seems remarkably unglamorous (not to say that the end will be glamorous of course). So what does anyone reckon the closest we ever came to buying the farm? (excluding of course the temprature in the primordial soup getting a bit too hot and causing the single-cellers to fizzle).

Anyway, personal guess is Cuba. I hope someone can think of something cooler.


The Trinity test site, July 16 1945, in New Mexico was where the first Atomic Bomb was detonated. Before that, no one with complete certainty could predict exactly what might happen.

One school of thought held that the intense heat resulting in a first time nuclear conflagration would ignite the earth’s atmosphere itself. Now, we know this wasn’t the case.

What scares me is that a fair number of people must have known of this possibility, discussed it, and decided to go ahead, all without public comment or input.

“Well, the whole earth’s atmosphere might very well burn up. What the heck. How does Tuesday sound??”

I’d say the Cuban Missile Crisis. IIRC, that was the only time the US went to DEFCON 2…that and the time that kid broke into the WOPR.

Friedo gets 50 points for an absolutely fantastic movie reference.

However, I think the rpevious answers are cheats. What COULD have happened is for wimps. I wonder if anyone knows for sure when the human race was closest to extinction in terms of something that DID happen? How many people did the Black Death kill?

IIRC the Plague killed a third of Europe (that sounds high though).

I read recently in The Guardian that during the Six Day War the US and Soviet Union nearly sparked a war. Apparently, IIRC, the Soviets had an amphibious vessel or task force ready to unload troops onto Israeli soil if the US didn’t come down like a ton of bricks on Israel. The US responded by moving a carrier fleet in their general direction.

I can’t remember the exact details, and the paper’s online archive is worse than useless, but it got quite a bit of coverage - interviews with retired Soviet soldiers and the like.

Well, there was that time the aliens blew up the White House, and Will Smith & Jeff Goldblum saved the planet with a computer virus. Thank God the aliens used Macs!

And don’t forget the time that Lex Luthor launched his nuclear missiles, but Superman had the wisdom to fly backwards around the earth really fast, reversing the orbit and actually turning back time!

Yeah, and it’s hard to imagine that we once were just one Slim Whitman record away from extinction!

Seriously, I’d guess that the Black Plague caused the greatest loss of life by percentages, but AIDS may be running a close second. Isn’t the mortality rate above 20 percent in Africa?

I think curwin is getting his Superman movies mixed up. He whizzed round the Earth really fast to turn back time so that Lois Lane wouldn’t die iin an earthquake. As I remember he redirected the nukes into space (or the sun or something).

I’ll have to look this up, but I do recall a meteor or two missing us by a mere 120k miles. No Bruce Willis needed.

Actually, November 9th, 1979 was as close as we’ve gotten to a global catastophe.


you’ll want #18 on the list. I’ve read an interview with the commander of the Base in that instance, and he still has nightmares about how close they came, something like minutes from pushing the button. his interview doesn’t seem to be online, tho. Argh!

Yes, there were some crackpots who thought that a single nuke would burn away the entire atmosphere. They’re even worse than the crackpots who thought that the Relatavistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven would cause the Earth to turn into a black hole. The fact is, any particle physicist KNEW otherwise about the RHIC, and anyone with a half-semester of high school chem KNEW otherwise about the first A-bomb test. Heck, I could say that the world would end if I didn’t brush my teeth this evening, but that wouldn’t make it true.

Also, I think we should disregard all of the Cold War scares. Yes, we did have some awfully close calls (and thank God neither power actually held to the MAD philosophy), but nuclear war would not completely wipe out the human race. Even in a worst-case scenario, where every nuclear-capable nation on the planet fired every warhead they had, and threw in their biological and chemical arsenals to boot, the folks on Tristan del Cunha, say, or Amundsen-Scott Research Station, would survive, and that’s a large enough population to potentially repopulate the globe. I don’t think that there’s been the possibility of any single catastrophe, short of the Sun going nova, capable of completely wiping out the human race since about 3000 BC, when agriculture was invented.

The flu epedemic of 1918…


How many would have died if the virus had not mutated?

Chronos - I thought that some MIT physics professor said the risk was small, but non-zero (re: RHIC forming a black hole…or strange matter IIRC)…at least, that’s what I read in the papers. Also, even though nuke war may not get everyone at once, the potential Nuke Winter may do the job (or at least the resulting atmospheric contamination).

Yes, agriculture almost did us all in. It turned perfectly good hunter-gatherers into vegans. But I’ll drop that before it’s too late for me to get out of it.

The sun going nova is absolutely guaranteed to end human life on earth, but we will have contaminated many other worlds before that happens. My vote goes to the ever-present possibility that an earth-crosser will hit before we are able to mount a sufficient defense. True, it will not necessarily make humans go extinct but it could easily destroy all civilization. I think the fossil record demonstrates quite a few extinction events, even before the K-T impact. So I would think that such an event would still be at the top of the list.

Remember, kids! DUCK and COVER!

If we’re talking about complete species extinction, then nothing man-made up until now was ever a threat to do that. Not even full-scale nuclear war. On a cosmic scale, probably the biggest threat has been the cumulative risk of an extinction-level asteroid hit. The risk over the span of human existance probably measures in the range of a percentage point or two.

I’d guess the biggest risk to the entire species is happening right now, with the development of germ warfare, genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, and the like. There are several technologies being developed now which have at least the potential for species extinction.

I’m all in favor of nano-research and genetic research, btw. There are some risks, but they are extremely tiny. Still, that’s more risk than we’ve ever faced as a species.

If you want to include other outside influences like asteroids and comets, you can also note things like colliding neutron stars within 1000 light years (or some insane distance like that) would fry the Earth in gamma rays.

Outside influences? Apparently you are of the old school and think that the earth is the center of the universe and contained within concentric crystal rings.

If any colliding neutron stars were within 1000 light years (we like to use A.U.s to measure these short distances) I would have certainly suggested them.

…I wonder what sort of threats to survival were being faced right around the time that Homo Sapiens was first evolving. I guess we’ll never know, but it probably wouldn’t have taken much to nip us in the bud…