2020 has been surreal. And frightening. We've already had a pandemic, a recession, and the most intense and widespread protests in decades, leading one friend of mine to say that it's like we're experiencing the 1918 Spanish flu, the depression of the 1930s, and the civil unrest of the late 1960s, but all in the same three months. In addition, in April we had record cold temperatures on one side of the country and record hot temperatures on the other on the same day; in May, the earliest start to the hurricane season I can remember; and an outbreak of 140 tornadoes in one 37 hour period -- that encompassed Easter Sunday.
Oh, and "murder hornets." We can't forget the "murder hornets."
So a lot of us, even those of us who aren't superstitious, see the "Breaking News" symbol a little like this:
What I'd like to do today is to look at four stories that seem to me to be tempting fate, given the way the year's gone so far. Let's see if any of these are the next square to check off on the Apocalypse 2020 Bingo Card.
First, we have:
REAPPEARANCE OF A DROWNED GHOST VILLAGE
In 1947, the residents of the Italian village of Fabbriche di Careggine were relocated by the government to make way for a hydroelectric dam that created a lake, submerging it completely. But now, the company that owns the dam is considering draining the lake "to improve tourism."
The town is still substantially intact, including the church, streets, many buildings, and the cemetery. It's this last bit that has me worried, because an invasion of pissed off, waterlogged Italian zombies seeking revenge would be completely on-brand for 2020.
Of course, the lake has been drained a couple of times before, for the purpose of doing maintenance on the dam, and nothing has happened. To which I respond: yeah, but it wasn't 2020. Try doing stuff like that now and you're just asking for trouble.
Next, we have:
THE DISCOVERY OF A 2000-YEAR-OLD BRONZE POT CONTAINING "AN UNKNOWN LIQUID"
Archaeologists working in the city of Sanmenxia, Henan Province, China have discovered a two-millennium-old spherical pot with a swan-like neck, made of bronze, which contains three liters of an "unknown liquid... yellowish-brown with impurities." The pot was recovered from a tomb (of course) dating from the time marking the end of the Qin Dynasty and the beginning of the Han Dynasty, right around 200 B.C.E. They're trying to analyze the liquid to figure out what it is, which makes me wonder if they've even heard about the Curse of the Pharaohs.
Okay, I know the whole Curse of the Pharaohs was hyped-up nonsense, but still. Cf. what I said earlier about this being 2020. If ever there was a year where some nitwit scientists say "let's open up this thing we found in a tomb! It'll be fun!" and accidentally release an evil yellowish-brown liquid entity that then goes around and messily devours hundreds of innocent bystanders, this is it.
Third, we have:
A STRANGELY-COLORED POOL IN A CAVE THAT HAS NEVER BEEN TOUCHED BY HUMAN HANDS
Lechuguilla Cave, in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, is one of the largest cave complexes in the world, and despite this wasn't even discovered until 1993. A lot of it has never been explored, like the hundred-meter-long stretch of it investigated just last week, that ended in a pool that looked like it was filled with lime yogurt.
Geologist Max Wisshak, who led the expedition, said the color is "an optical illusion," that actually it's crystal clear. My response: sure, it is. He admits, however, that because it has been isolated in the depths of this cavern, it will contain microorganisms that have never been observed before and very likely have never encountered a terrestrial life form since being trapped there thousands, possibly millions, of years ago.
I see no way this could possibly go wrong, do you?
Oh, and Wisshak also said, "we found bat skeletons, thousands of years old, in some places in the cave."
Because that's not ominous at all.
SCIENTISTS IN NEW YORK PROPOSE MAKING A LIQUID METAL ROBOT
This one's right down the road from me, at Binghamton University, where mechanical engineer Pu Zhang and his team have developed an alloy of indium, bismuth, and tin that melts at 62 C (so it could be melted with hot water). But along with this, they have come up with a way of bonding it to a silicone matrix, so once it cools, the liquid metal will "remember" its original configuration and come back together into the shape it started with.
As I recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger made a movie about this. It didn't end well.
"Normally, engineers use aluminum or steel to produce cushion structures," Zhang said. "After you land on the Moon, the metal absorbs the energy and deforms. It’s over – you can use it only once... In contrast, a spacecraft with landing cushions built using a liquid metal lattice could be reused over and over again. Using this Field’s alloy, you can crash into it like other metals, but then heat it up later to recover its shape."
Ultimately, Zhang says, he wants to create "a liquid metal robot."
Because of course he does.
So I'm taking bets. Will it be ghostly hordes from a drowned village? Something deadly released from a pot taken from a Chinese tomb? A contagion from a pool of optical-illusion yogurt in a cave in New Mexico? Or a shape-shifting liquid metal assassin going on a rampage? Or something else that we haven't even thought about?
To find out, tune in next time for 2020: Hold My Beer!
This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is for people who are fascinated with the latest research on our universe, but are a little daunted by the technical aspects: Space at the Speed of Light: The History of 14 Billion Years for People Short on Time by Oxford University astrophysicist Becky Smethurst.
A whirlwind tour of the most recent discoveries from the depths of space -- and I do mean recent, because it was only released a couple of weeks ago -- Smethurst's book is a delightful voyage into the workings of some of the strangest objects we know of -- quasars, black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, blazars, gamma-ray bursters, and many others. Presented in a way that's scientifically accurate but still accessible to the layperson, it will give you an understanding of what we know about the events of the last 13.8 billion years, and the ultimate fate of the universe in the next few billions. If you have a fascination for what's up there in the night sky, this book is for you!
[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]