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The Pessimist's Guide to History 3e
An Irresistible Compendium of Catastrophes, Barbarities, Massacres, and Mayhemfrom 14 Billion Years Ago to 2007
Description of Events
18 Billion Years Ago: The Big Bang. The first and greatest natural catastrophe imaginable was the Big Bang, the cataclysmic event that scientists believe created virtually the entire universe we know today. The true pessimists among us might find it a less than desirable event, as the calamities that follow would never have occurred had it not been for the Big Bang.
While no one knows what really took place, scientists today believe the universe before the Big Bang was a single, supercooled energy field no bigger than a speck that floated in a dark, limitless vacuum. Then, for some unknown reason, the energy field was disturbed by a random fluctuation.
Suddenly the field started expanding rapidly; then gravity, fight, and subatomic particles formed from the original energy field. In a fraction of a second, the Big Bang blasted matter and energy outward at incredible speeds, and even today, billions of years later, the universe continues expanding outward. During the eons following the Big Bang, great clouds of gases and dust formed and gradually condensed into the galaxies, stars, planets, and everything else we see around us today.
65 Million Years Ago: Extinction of the Dinosaurs. For 160 million years dinosaurs roamed the earth, evolving into a multitude of species that could be found on land, in the sea, and in the air. They survived the massive upheavals of primeval continents breaking up and shifting about the faceof the earth, all the while thriving in a climate that was much like a continuous temperate summer. Suddenly, sixty-five million years ago, they disappeared.
The mystery of their abrupt extinction has left scientists baffled. There are numerous theories, of course, some of them postulating rather improbable causes. One theory holds that the dinosaurs may have died of constipation after eating newly evolved forms of plant life that they could not digest. Others suggest there might have been a change in climate or even a sudden burst of radiation from a not too distant supernova. Increasingly, though, the evidence points toward a cosmic catastrophe most likely a huge asteroid or comet that collided with the earth.
A layer of clay containing the heavy metal iridium (often found in asteroids) has been discovered in sites around the world, and in 1987 researchers located a twenty-eight-mile-wide crater in the floor of the Atlantic Ocean that is also rich in iridium, suggesting that the earth was hit by a big asteroid at about the time of the dinosaurs' extinction.
It could have ended that quickly. A fiery asteroid, six miles in diameter, falls out of the sky at forty-five thousand miles per hour, smashing into the earth with tremendous force. Great clouds of debris explode up into the atmosphere, shrouding the earth in darkness for months and lowering temperatures on the surface enough to kill off the majority of the plant life. Dinosaurs that fed on plants died first, while the carnivores succumbed soon afterward. This may have been the earth's first major ecological disaster.
6 Million Years Ago: Mediterranean Sea Dries Up. The Mediterranean's connection with the Atlantic Ocean, what is known today as the Strait of Gibraltar, was closed off about six million years ago by the drifting together of North Africa and Europe. Mediterranean waters rapidly evaporated, leaving nothing but salty pools of water until, on a number of occasions, the continents parted briefly, allowing Atlantic waters to again flow into the Mediterranean. The Strait of Gibraltar has remained open continuously for the last five million years.
85 Thousand Years Ago: The Last Ice Age? The change probably began with a barely perceptible cooling of the climate that lasted for thousands of years. Then, some eighty-five thousand years ago, temperatures finally dropped so low that a great ice age began. Slowly the thick sheets of ice covering the north polar region advanced southward.
As the cold worsened, some eighteen million cubic miles of water froze, and sea levels dropped by 425 feet. North America, Europe, and northern Siberia were largely buried under nearly two miles of ice and Asia and North America were joined by a massive bridge of ice. In the southern hemisphere, the south polar ice cap spread northward to cover New Zealand and the Andes Mountains. By the time the Ice Age reached its peak about eighte en thousand years ago, ice in the northern hemisphere extended as far south as southern Illinois. In New Hampshire, the sixty-three-hundred-foot Mount Washington was buried in ice up to its peak. Some areas not covered by ice became vast deserts. Regions of Africa that are now rain forests were covered by sand dunes. By about ten thousand years ago, the ice had largely receded from western North America, and by seven thousand years ago, the Ice Age was over.
The drastic climatic changes during the long Ice Age devastated the world's animal species. Competition for reduced food supplies and other factors drove half of the species in Europe and North America into extinction within twenty thousand years. Most of the world's large land mammals died out, including the saber-toothed cat, a twelve-foot-tall kangaroo, a three-ton ground sloth, and a fourteen-foot tusked mammoth. Only in parts of Africa did the large mammals survive. As zoologist Alfred Wallace put it, "We live in a zoologically impoverished world from which all the hugest, and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared."
While it was certainly the latest, this Ice Age was by no means the only one experienced over the millennia. In fact, there have been four separate Ice Ages in the last two million years, the other three lasting from approximately 1.6 to 1.3 million years ago, 900,000 to 700,000 years ago, and 550,000 to 400,000 years ago respectively. One can only wonder if this latest Ice Age is really the last.The Pessimist's Guide to History 3e
An Irresistible Compendium of Catastrophes, Barbarities, Massacres, and Mayhemfrom 14 Billion Years Ago to 2007. Copyright © by Doris Flexner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.