If you read my last post–which I think of as "yesterday’s" but is really more like "two days ago’s"–you know that some very smart, observant, and well-spoken individuals think that the Era of American Participatory Democracy is either on the ropes or gone for good, depending on your reading of their arguments. That, if true, would suck. At the very least we’d have to deal with the fact that we’ve sold out our collective ability to make stuff, do stuff, and solve real problems in real time for cheap toys and doodads, which break if you play too roughly with them.
But as if that were not enough, now comes this. There is a decent chance (estimated at 10%, which is significant but not something to really lose sleep over on a nightly basis) that something big enough to punch a hole in our planet will hit us some time this century. That’s not really news to people who have any interest in astronomy or geology–it’s a big planet, and the solar system is crowded, and pieces of space junk are always hitting us or coming close to hitting us. Less often and to lesser effect now than, say, 1 billion years ago, when the solar system was getting the last kinks worked out and mountains routinely punched holes big enough swallow Ontario in the planets and their moons. Until now this has not been that big a problem. Mostly because, well, we’ve only been here a short time, nearly all of which (until just recently) has been spent dealing with more immediate concerns like hunting, gathering, and growing food and sheltering ourselves from the elements.
Think of it this way. We at some point all do the same thing, which is sit on our beds, and watch as the sunbeams stream in through the window, illuminating every speck of dust in the air before splashing down on to the bedspread and floor. I’m still fascinated by that. It’s possible to stare at this display of the sheer thickness of the air just in our bedrooms–air filled with tiny particles shed by anything and everything around us, including dust, pollen, bits of skin, hair (both from us and our pets), plaster and insulation from the ceiling–for hours. Now, these things are all tiny compared to our heads, or even our eyes, yet the space around us is filled with them, but since they don’t bother us, we don’t even think about them. Then one day, some speck of God knows what hits your eyeball at exactly the right speed and angle and you feel a shooting pain in your eye, so you blink, then you stagger, maybe you fall down, and the only thing on your mind is how the hell did that happen?
Well, it happened because your luck ran out. It’s the odds. Ten billion billion trillion specks of dust whizz past you or smack into a part of you that’s not sensitive enough to notice, but eventually, your luck runs out, then owie!!
The solar system isn’t that different. The biggest difference is that the Earth is an eyeball that’s roughly 8,000 miles wide, and the last real owie that hit is was about 65 million years ago. The result was a massive underwater crater near the Yucatan Peninsula and a change in environment that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. It’s estimated that the rock which caused that was something like a mile wide which is pretty tiny compared to a lot of the stuff that’s out there now. But out there these falling rocks remain, just waiting for that ever so elusive gravity nudge that sends it on a course towards another major owie.
The thing we have going for us is that fact that we are here. We actually have the tools and knowledge we’d need to see something like a mile-wide rock from space while it’s still far enough away to do something about it. We aren’t doing much at the moment, which is disappointing because movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon aside, it really is just a matter of time and the chance of any given event happening is 100% if your time horizon is long enough. Clearly the editors of The Atlantic though it was worth a cover story.
Anyway, read the article. Enjoy!