Apocalypse, Not!

May 25, 2011

Life on Earth might end in 200 years, but it won’t be because of the Apocalypse, says China’s most high-profile “popular science” writer Fang Zhouzi.

For those who still haven’t heard, the world was supposed to have ended on Saturday (May 21). Well, the Apocalypse never struck (apparently it was supposed to be through a series of earthquakes, according to some ultra-devout Christians), and the day passed, uneventful.

While most of us are probably still glad to be around, the End-of-the-World theory too will continue to linger and make its rounds. In an interview posted on his blog (in Chinese), China’s most high-profile “popular science” writer Fang Zhouzi (方舟子) explains our fascination with the Apocalypse, and why it should not be confused with the destruction of Earth by mankind.

881 An artist’s impression of a city in ruins, post-Apocalypse

Q:     Mr Fang, last year’s movie blockbuster “2012” generated a lot of interest in the Apocalypse, and this year there have emerged even more theories on the subject. Do you think the Apocalypse really exists?

A:    When the life of the sun reaches its end, the earth too will cease living; or perhaps one day the Universe will reach its end, that too could be said to be the end of the world. But all that is something very, very faraway in the future, in hundreds of millions of years or more. Thus to say that the world is ending soon, has absolutely no scientific basis. The movie “2012” is just art and imagination. People shouldn’t confuse that with reality or believe (in its vision).

    In the Western tradition, because of the influence of Christianity, there has always been talk of the world ending soon. That led many to research the subject – even Isaac Newton, who spent his last years studying the Apocalypse. But till now, there remains no scientific proof behind these theories.

Q:    Speaking of Newton, I am reminded of another scientist, Stephen Hawking. He has also once said that Earth could be destroyed in the next 200 years. Do you think then that there is any scientific basis to his prediction?

A:     What he said is not entirely without basis. If mankind destroys the entire ecology and environment of this planet and he is left with no resources to live on; if there is severe pollution or nuclear wars, or overpopulation; Earth will not survive; then we’ll have no choice but to move to another planet. All these possibilities exist. But they arise from a scientific point of view and have nothing to do the Apocalypse. It’s just a reminder that we should protect our planet.

Q:     There’ve always been many people who believe in the Apocalypse. Why is that so?

A:    There are more people in the West who believe in it because of their Christian tradition. Some others are just very pessimistic about the world and get obsessed with the theories of Doomsday. In any case, it’s been shown throughout history that even the most absurd of prophecies will have their believers.    

    That’s where science plays an important role, especially in this age where news and ideas spread even more quickly with the media/Internet. For example, when the movie “2012” was showing, NASA did stage a huge public outcry to debunk the movie’s vision of doomsday arriving in the year 2012. That, I think, was necessary.

Fang Zhouzi, in his own words:

His name is Fang Shimin (方是民), but very few would recognise that name. His Internet name, Fang Zhouzi, is however familiar, and very controversial, to thousands and perhaps millions of Chinese readers.

Fang Zhouzi (方舟子) literally means a man who sails with an ark. But it was not Noah's Ark, as he would often painfully point out. It came from ancient Chinese literature, a kind of boat design that connects two separate boats together, in parallel. The boater would stand in between, with one foot on each boat. It is certainly not an easy way to sail. In fact, there is a Chinese idiom describing such people as who could not make up their mind (脚踏两只船).

However, Fang Zhouzi took up this name not to indicate he is a man who hesitates or wavers. He gives a new meaning to the phrase as someone who could master two distinct careers and life goals at the same time: one is science and the other, literature.

At about the turn of the century, Fang Zhouzi wrote a self-introduction which characterized himself as a biochemist, a poet, and a netizen. Times have changed. Today he is hardly a biochemist anymore, and it has been a long time since he wrote his last poem. But his pursuit of both science and literature has not stopped. Above else, though, he had acquired yet another title which made him most (in)famous: China's self-appointed science cop, or fraud buster – he claims to have exposed more than 900 cases of academic fraud in China.

(Source: China’s Scientific & Academic Integrity Watch)


The above interview first appeared in 方舟子的 Blog in May 2011.