Saturday, June 7, 2008

On Space Disasters and Disbelief

I had a rather strange experience today, and after reflecting on it for a few minutes, I realized that it was actually pretty frightening.

I was reading the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic, entitled "The Sky is Falling." The article addresses some of the recent concerns of various astronomers regarding the number of potentially hazardous space objects that are in Earth's vicinity. Some new considerations of evidence of past strikes by space objects, coupled with new methods of locating hard-to-see objects near the Earth have led some researchers to believe that we are in a lot more danger of getting hit by a careening asteroid or comet than we previously thought. After presenting the evidence, the article spends most of its length addressing the fact that NASA has no interest in diverting any funds into researching this risk, let alone to develop methods to better track space objects or attempt to divert them should they make a b-line straight for our planet.

Now, the frightening experience I had regarding all this is the fact that I caught myself scoffing in skepticism at the article. As I read it, I found I had a really hard time taking it seriously. Then suddenly it dawned on me: not only is all of this obviously very possible, but the very attitude I initially reacted with is the attitude most people seem to be displaying, including those in the best position to actually study and/or plan for such a disastrous event. Currently, the number of people on the planet that are concerned about the very real possibility of a decent sized object hitting the Earth or exploding in its atmosphere is very small, and these folks must be extremely frustrated. I'm not sure if movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact have had a negative cultural influence, if people just can't comprehend such a thing because it has never occurred in a historical context most people can grasp, or if humans in general have developed too much of a feeling of invincibility. Regardless, were scientists to discover tomorrow an asteroid that will likely hit Earth within the lifetime of most living people, it's doubtful that anything could be put in place in enough time to have any impact on the course of events. That's pretty frightening. But even in realizing that, it is still very difficult to grasp.

I think people in general avoid getting too deeply involved with things regarding the greater universe because they are so complex and humbling and nearly incomprehensible that people feel immensely uncomfortable. Space is too large a reminder of our finiteness and our insignificance, and space disasters are hard to take seriously because they've always be relegated to the realms of science fiction and big screen cinema, and almost always involve gross oversimplifications of astronomical concepts and objects. There is no way for a layperson to grasp the subtleties of our very solar system, the forces that are interacting within in it, and the objects with which we share a common space without investing a lot of time into research and contemplation. There's also little chance for the common man to gain an understanding of the diplomatic complexities involved with even orchestrating an effective defense against rogue space objects without accidentally spurring international disputes or even physical conflicts. The whole situation operates in a realm far above what the average person likes to consider in their day to day life, and so long as officials who are in a position to know and act are content with maintaining working relationships that only insure a constant money flow, the threat of an Earth impact will remain quite distant from the concerns of the public at large.

Or maybe it's a mistake to even assume that we have the capabilities to divert such a disaster. There are limits to our power, however immense we believe ourselves to be. But pessimism like that doesn't seem to fit right; it's not a garb our nature can wear convincingly. The result then is even more disturbing: we believe that we have the ability to control our own destinies and manipulate the universe, but we lack the willpower or interest or foresight to actually prove we're worth our salt. It seems feasible that we can divert disaster, but we don't want to think about how to do it until we have evidence that such a disaster is worth our consideration.

And sadly, we too often find this corroboration only after the disaster has already struck.

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