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What is a Doomsday Device?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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A doomsday device is something which theoretically has the potential to destroy the world, or at least to put an end to human life as it is currently known. The concept of doomsday devices began to enter the popular imagination in the 20th century, when significant advances in the sciences led people to realize that such a device would be possible. Numerous scientific inventions from nuclear bombs to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland has been accused of being a doomsday device, in arguments with varying degrees of validity.

This term references the concept of “doomsday” as in a catastrophic event which fundamentally reshapes the Earth. Some religious faiths incorporate a concept of doomsday into their belief systems, and people have also theorized that a doomsday could be brought about by natural causes, such as a catastrophic meteor collision. The idea of a scientific doomsday has been a popular theme in apocalyptic fiction, often with the goal of frightening readers with concepts from the boundaries of science.

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The atom bomb was treated as a doomsday device when it was first used publicly, with people fearing that the widespread development and use of atomic bombs could lead to a doomsday situation. This was in fact the underlying argument behind the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, in which nations stockpiled nuclear weapons with the understanding that a release of nuclear weapons by one side would result in a full-scale nuclear war which would probably end only after both sides had been annihilated.

In addition to deliberately constructed doomsday devices, some people have raised concerns about doomsday devices created by accident. Scientific experiments designed to recreate the conditions at the beginning of the universe, for example, were feared by members of the public who thought that these experiments could trigger a chain reaction which would destroy the Earth. Attempts to create small-scale replicas of black holes in the laboratory were also feared for the same reason.

The concept of the doomsday device has played a major role in many works of apocalyptic fiction, along with films and television shows. The films Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) both famously feature atomic weapons as a key part of their plots, for example. Writers and filmmakers often play with the doomsday device as a goal of creating a work with a sobering lesson about the dangerous side of scientific advancement.

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