The Sky Is Appalling, Or, Go to Sleep, Jeremy, An Asteroid Isn't Going to Land on Our House Tonight
I mean, to judge from the recent flurry of films, news reports, and documentaries, one should apparently expect the event to occur in a matter of years, if not weeks or days. Last March, a few astronomers made the electrifying announcement that a roving asteroid was going to come within 30,000 miles of Earth in the year 2002. However, even as television news directors were arguing about which title to employ for their special coverage of the impending catastrophe ("Death from the Sky"? "Lethal Impact"? "Disasteroid?"), other astronomers recalculated the orbit and quickly declared that the object would actually come only within 600,000 miles of Earth ‑‑ though we were warned that this was "still a near‑miss, by astronomical standards."
While that particular fear has subsided, asteroids and comets will remain highly visible in 1998, with two major films about calamitous collisions, Deep Impact and Armageddon, following on the heels of two television movies and innumerable documentaries with computer‑generated images of gigantic objects crashing into the Earth and unleashing firestorms, darkening clouds of debris, and devastating tidal waves. And this steady stream of ominous warnings is having some effect: a while ago, after my son Jeremy watched one of these documentaries, he had trouble sleeping that night, worried about a big rock falling from the sky and hitting our house.
Coincidentally, this all reminds me of a story that I often heard as a child: "Chicken Little," about some silly animals running around screaming "The sky is falling!" and working themselves into a panic for no reason.
Shall we consider the true dimensions of the horrifying threat we were recently presented with? The earth has a diameter of about 8000 miles. On a piece of paper, draw a small circle with a one‑inch diameter to represent the earth. Measure a distance of four inches from the circumference of the circle; at that point, draw the tiniest little dot you can possibly draw. Now you have a scale diagram of the posited close encounter that briefly panicked the world.
Are you terrified yet?
Next, to represent where this object will actually be in 2002, place your paper on the floor, measure 80 inches away from the circle, or over two yards, and place your tiniest dot there.
That's a scale drawing of a "near‑miss, by astronomical standards"—which is, as some may not realize, analogous to saying that ten million years is "a short time, by geological standards."
(By the way, despite governmental diktats, I trust that English readers can still understand and employ their own, user‑friendly units of measurements instead of the arbitrary standards foisted upon the world by eighteenth‑century French revolutionaries; but that is of course a topic for another column ....)
Well, if that one asteroid will, by some remarkable luck, avoid a ruinous rendezvous with the Earth, what about the thousands of other known and predicted "Earth‑orbit‑crossing" asteroids and comets out there? Even ignoring the fact that most of these objects have very eccentric orbits that only rarely bring them anywhere near Earth's orbit, we must recall that Earth's orbit is about 300,000,000 million miles long, and Earth's diameter is about 8000 miles, so the odds of an impact would seem comfortably minuscule.
Lacking proper credentials, though, I will defer to expert testimony regarding the actual odds of a devastating celestial visitor. One astronomer interviewed for a sleazy, sensational documentary entitled Impact: Could It Happen? interrupted his familiar doomsday rhetoric to mention in passing that, of course, the odds of a really large asteroid hitting the Earth, causing cataclysmic destruction and a possible end to life on Earth, were about one hundred million to one.
Stop. Pause. Rewind. Replay. One hundred million to one? These are the odds that we are panicking about?
Anyone with an elementary knowledge of statistics realizes that when the odds of something happening are one hundred million to one, you have nothing to worry about. It simply isn't going to happen, at least in your lifetime or your grandchildren's lifetime. And the people involved in these films, documentaries, and news reports know that very well.
Still, while readers may be anticipating fiery denunciation of these modern‑day prophets of doom, I discern no villains here. Filmmakers are in the business of providing entertainment, and as long as their stories do not incorporate, or do not arrive accompanied by, pious rhetoric about the significance and relevance of their films' messages, they cannot plausibly be charged with misrepresentation or deceit. In less obvious ways, broadcast journalists are also in the entertainment business, limited only by the stipulation that their reports have some slender basis in fact; and, if obsessively focusing on colorful but unlikely cosmic disasters at the expense of other, more meaningful problems does not seem like responsible journalism, we must remember that, at any given time, "responsible journalism" can be conveniently defined as the sort of journalism that purportedly flourished about thirty years prior to laments about its contemporary absence.
And I find it hard to condemn the astronomers who keep testifying on television about the likelihood of these events, even as they knowingly shade the truth in addressing an audience whose understanding of phrases like "it's possible" or "it could happen" is far different than a professional's. It's nice to be noticed; it's fun to appear on television. And astronomers interviewed for a documentary about asteroid impacts know the rules. If they say, "This is all nonsense—there are no killer asteroids heading for Earth," their footage will end up on the cutting‑room floor. If they cautiously concede, "It's very, very unlikely, but yes, it could happen," they may earn thirty seconds of air time. And if they ominously intone, "It's happened before, and it's going to happen again—and when it does, it could mean the end of life on Earth as we know it," they will be the stars of the show.
(I can relate to the desire to appear on television since I have succumbed to it. Devotees of sleazy, sensational documentaries may someday hear a certain has‑been actor reduced to narrating these travesties introducing "Professor Gary Westfahl" to discuss the imminent development of functional time machines. I can honestly say that I was not properly informed about the contents of this documentary, that I was prodded by inane questions, and that my statements were misleadingly edited to remove important qualifying language—but if the producer called me to do the talking‑head routine again, I probably would. Alas, appearing on national television is more impressive to family and friends than publishing in Interzone.)
Rather than indignation, then, watching noted astronomers pontificate on the impending extinction of humanity should inspire a feeling of sadness; for I remember the time when noted astronomers could attract the public's attention without having to tell scary stories to frighten children. That time, evidently, has passed.
Recently, while looking up page numbers for an essay I am editing, I read an undistinguished 1935 space opera from Amazing Stories, Leslie F. Stone's "The Fall of Mercury," filled with humanoid aliens of various sizes and colors befriending or fighting each other. And I recalled that outer space was once depicted as a familiar, even friendly place. The other planets in the Solar System were exotic and sometimes inhospitable, but they were not unlike good old Earth. The sentient beings encountered there may have been larger or smaller, or they may have resembled some terrestrial animal (like "Lizard Men from Pluto"), but they otherwise looked like us and acted like us to a remarkable extent. This was the space of Percival Lowell's Mars and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom—a Solar System that represented a picturesque new venue for re‑enactments of inspiring sagas of the past, a new frontier for America to conquer, a new empire for Great Britain to forge. And it was a craving for this outer space that animated the science fiction writers who dreamed about a manned space program and the scientists who made it happen; think of young Carl Sagan, standing under the stars at night, yearning that he too, like Burroughs's John Carter, could be instantly teleported to Barsoom.
Well, a century of research has persuasively demonstrated that this vision of space was only a fantasy. Except for Earth, there is no place in the Solar System where a human can survive for an instant without a bulky spacesuit; and, except perhaps for a few microorganisms buried deep in the Martian soil, or some fishlike creatures swimming in the icy oceans of Europa, there aren't any signs of life either. The young Sagan who longed for Barsoom lamentably became the old Sagan obliged to gibber excitedly about meager evidence suggesting the possible existence of planets that might engender life. The scientists who once hoped for photographs of sentient Martians could now only study Pathfinder pictures of Martian rocks, which were playfully named for popular cartoon characters like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo in a gesture both poignant and stupid.
And, despite the sounds of excitement in the astronomers' voices, the public has not failed to notice that the real outer space seems much less interesting, and much less attractive, than the phony outer space once featured in popular science and science fiction. Let's face it: compared to a Martian, a Martian rock is really, really boring, even if you call it Yogi Bear. (And especially if the rock turns out to be, to the astonishment of scientists, remarkable similar to an ordinary Earth rock.) No bizarre aliens, no landscapes of virgin land for farms or settlements, not much of anything at all except for rocks, vacuum, and freezing cold—who can possibly be surprised to find that public interest in space exploration is at an all‑time low?
As it happens, I personally find the austere beauty of the actual Solar System more interesting and attractive than the plastic playgrounds of space operas, and a documentary filled with photographs and computer graphics of its many wonders will always catch my attention. But this isn't exactly what Lowell, Burroughs, and Stone promised, is it? And this isn't the sort of display one would expect to attract widespread public admiration and support.
And so, when we see astronomical dramas and documentaries increasingly focus on the implausible scenario of a huge comet or asteroid striking the Earth, we confront a stark and unpleasant truth: today, the only way you can get people interested in space is to tell them that a big chunk of it is about to fall in their backyards.
Now, I am not entirely dismissive of the dangers of debris from the sky. I approve of the sorts of modest steps long advocated by Arthur C. Clarke, and now being undertaken, to thoroughly examine nearby space to locate and track every object that ever approaches our planet, though I support this work more because of the increased scientific knowledge we will incidentally gain than because of any genuine anxiety that an emissary of doom will be observed heading straight for Earth.
However, every new film and documentary on this topic does in fact fill me with fear—though not of a wayward asteroid. This is the scenario that frightens me: suppose a comet or asteroid is detected that will come perilously close to the planet Earth—perhaps, within 30,000 miles. Preconditioned to panic by years of bad movies and dubious documentaries, and ignoring the sedate astronomers who note that the chances of a collision are extraordinarily small, the American government decides to eliminate the threat by improvising a space mission, led by an heroic astronaut resembling Robert Duvall or Bruce Willis, to rendezvous with and either destroy or deflect the invader. And this mission disastrously fails, either splitting the object into several smaller objects—a few of which strike the Earth—or deflecting the asteroid in the direction of, say, New York City.
(The problem is, cosmic billiards is a lot more difficult than the tabletop variety. Suppose you have an approaching asteroid shaped like a big, lumpy peanut, of unknown composition and density, rotating head over heel at a 25‑degree angle to its axis of rotation; now, if you want to change its course in a certain way, exactly where do you plant the bomb, and when do you set it off? Put a team of physicists to work on the problem, and you'll still get an answer which begins, "Our best guess is ...." For now, I'll take my chances with the way nature runs the Solar System, but I get a bit nervous at the thought of human beings taking the controls.)
Even this, however, is a minor fear, compared to the genuine dangers that humanity currently faces. During the week I wrote this column, there were two starkly contrasting news events. First, NASA revealed that it was hard at work devising procedures for informing the world about impending asteroid collisions—an activity that seems just as vital as drafting protocols for our first meeting with alien visitors. (How should we address the first alien who steps out of the flying saucer? "Distinguished Emissary from Space"? "Your Exalted Alienness"?) Second, India exploded three atomic bombs as part of an accelerated program to build a nuclear arsenal, which inspired its neighbor Pakistan to announce its own plans for atomic weapons. Thus, for the first time in history, two nations which have hated each other for fifty years, which share a long common border, and which claim the same large territory will both be armed with nuclear weapons. Factor in the data that India is historically an ally of Russia, and Pakistan is historically an ally of the United States—the nations that lead the world in nuclear armaments ‑‑ and it's clear that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists needs to move its doomsday clock a bit closer to midnight again.
This worries me a great deal more than the slim prospect of an asteroid hitting the Earth.
And one cannot forget the ongoing threats of nuclear proliferation elsewhere in the world, the development and stockpiling of biological and chemical weapons, and eventually ruinous environmental changes due to massive deforestation, ozone‑layer depletion, and global warming—among other things.
In sum, it's foolish to worry about cosmic murder when the gravest danger facing humanity has been, and continues to be, suicide.
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