Sixteenth-century “father of mineralogy” Georgius Agricola critiqued “these attacks, which are so annoying,” made by those protesting how mining exterminated animals and poisoned brooks and streams. “With the metals that are melted from the ore,” he explained, “birds without number, edible beasts, and fish can be purchased elsewhere and brought to these mountainous regions.”
Opening night of Henry James’ Guy Domville, on January 5, 1895, was “an unmitigated disaster,” James wrote in a letter, “hooted at, as I was hooted at myself, by a brutal mob, and fruitless of any of the consequences for which I have striven.” The play’s reception, he wrote, “has completely sickened me with the theater and made me feel, at any rate for the present, like washing my hands of it forever.”
The opening of a particle accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 2000 inspired fears that high-speed collisions might launch a chain reaction that could turn the earth into a hyperdense sphere about one hundred meters across. A risk calculation determined this to be unlikely; if the collider were to run for ten years, the chance was no greater than 1 in 50 million. “The word unlikely, however many times it is repeated,” wrote concerned scientists, “just isn’t enough to assuage our fears of this total disaster.”
The first mass extinction on earth occurred around 2.5 billion years ago, when a photosynthesizing bacterium appeared and released so much oxygen into the atmosphere that anaerobic life was largely wiped out. This is often called the Great Oxygenation Event, the Oxygen Catastrophe, or the Oxygen Holocaust.
Astrologers of the Ayyubid Empire predicted in 1186 that the world would end September 16 of that year; a dust storm, stirred up by planetary alignment, would scour the earth of life. Sultan Saladin criticized the “feeble minds” of believers and planned an open-air, candlelit party for that evening. “We never saw a night as calm as that,” an attendee later remarked.
According to sixth-century-bc Greek poet Hipponax of Colophon, in times of drought, famine, or plague an ugly or deformed person was chosen by the community to be pharmakós, or scapegoat. After being fed figs, barley cake, and cheese, he would be struck on the genitals with the bulbs and twigs of wild plants, led on a procession accompanied by flute, and burned on a pyre. His ashes were thrown into the sea. It is believed that Hipponax, whom Pliny the Elder once called “notoriously ugly,” may have been exaggerating the ritual.
When Albert Einstein visited Beno Gutenberg, a seismologist at Caltech, in 1933, the two strolled around the Pasadena campus while Gutenberg explained earthquake science. Suddenly their wives arrived to inform them there had been a massive earthquake. “We had become so involved in seismology,” recalled Gutenberg later, “that we hadn’t noticed.”
In 1919 a steel storage tank burst in Boston and spilled 2.3 million gallons of molasses, creating a twenty-five-foot-high wave that killed twenty-one people and tore buildings from foundations. The tank had leaked since its installation, but the company had, in response to complaints, merely painted it a concealing brown.
Accounts varied of the Great Famine of 1315–22, during which more than 10 percent of Europe’s population died. In Flanders: “Parents killed their children and children killed parents, and the bodies of executed criminals were eagerly snatched from the gallows.” In France: “There was no wine in the whole kingdom.”
The first known legal use of the phrase act of God was in a 1581 English case concerning property inheritance. It referred, in that instance, to death, declared by the judge to be among “those things which are inevitable by the act of God, which no industry can avoid, nor policy prevent.”