The Gadfly Bytes --
March 10, 2002
By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // email@example.com
Published in The
Online Journal, March 10, 2002
||We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship,
dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil: all committed for
our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by
the care, and the work, and I will say the love we give our fragile craft.
||If you are English and someone says to you: "The French
are your brothers," your first instinctive feeling will be:
"Nonsense, they shrug their shoulders and talk French. And I am even
told that they eat frogs." If he explains to you that we may have to
fight the Russians, that, if so, it will be desirable to defend the line
of the Rhine, and that, if the line of the Rhine is to be defended, the
help of the French is essential, you will begin to see what he means when
he says that the French are your brothers. But if some fellow-traveler
were to go on to say that the Russians also are your brothers, he would be
unable to persuade you, unless he could show that we are in danger from
Nobel Prize Speech, 1950.
NASA has assured us that we are in no danger from the Martians.
Even so, Planet Earth does face extra-terrestrial threats, sufficient to deserve our attention and to unite all industrial civilizations into a common effort. What remains a mystery is why so little is being done about it.
No, the ole' Gadfly has not succumbed to the saucer freaks, nor has he watched too many episodes of "The X Files." Quite the contrary,
I credit ET stories approximately as much as I credit Homer's accounts of the gods cavorting on Mount Olympus.
Still, I submit that there is abundant scientific evidence that our planet, the only abode of life that we know of, is in constant danger, in the face of which we are no longer helpless.
I refer, of course, to asteroid and comet impacts. We are told, on sound authority, that a cosmic rock the size of Staten Island could wipe out all life on Earth more complex than a field mouse. In fact, that is apparently what happened sixty-five million years ago, when an asteroid about six miles in diameter landed off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, abruptly ending the long-standing and biotically successful Age of the Dinosaurs. And we know full well, that there are numerous objects flying about in our solar system, quite capable of doing equal or more damage.
However, rather than respond to this proven and ultimate global threat, our appointed leader insists that we must squander our national treasure on a missile defense system, which will not work against any enemy, real, anticipated, or imagined. (See our
"Strategic Defense It's BAAACK").
Still not convinced of our collective asteroidal peril? Then consider:
First of all, just take a look at our near-neighbor, the moon. That old scarface is pockmarked with the evidence of countless impacts.
Closer to home, historical geologists are finding evidence of catastrophic impacts upon the Earth. In addition to the Big Bang that did in the dinosaurs, additional earlier impact sites have been located in northern Canada. Scientists have identified five prehistoric "extinction spasms," of which the fifth was the aforementioned Yucatan event. (The sixth is going on now, and we homo-saps are the culprits).
Within this century, in 1908, an object estimated at a mere 130 feet in diameter, exploded above the Tunguska region of Siberia, leveling more than 400 square miles of forests. Had this happened over an urban area, it would have been the greatest catastrophe in recorded history.
In March, 1998, a close-call fly-by was predicted by astronomers for year 2028. Later calculations put the trajectory a few thousand miles further out. But what if that error had been in our direction? Doomsday!
In early January, 2002, a thousand-foot asteroid zipped past the Earth at a distance just twice that which separates us from our moon. (New York Times, 1/8/02).
Astronomers at the Spacewatch Project of the University of Arizona have discovered 172 "Near Earth Objects" since the project began in 1983 about 1-4 objects each month.
Last, but by no means least, we've seen it happen! Had the Schoemaker-Levy 9 comet that slammed down on Jupiter
in 1994 targeted our planet instead, it would have brought down the final curtain on the human future, and upon all that we hold dear.
In short, we know that those things are out there, that they occasionally strike the planets (including our own), and that the results are devastating. (For authoritative scientific information about "Near Earth Objects," visit the excellent NASA site
"Asteroidal and Comet Impact Hazards").
So what are we doing about it? Essentially, nothing at all. As David Levy (of "Shoemaker-Levy 9") has pointed out, less than 100 astronomers (mostly amateurs) are on the lookout for killer asteroids. And what if they find that we are targeted? If the impact is in the near future, there is nothing to be done, except wait and pray. As astronomer Stephen Maran writes "no governments are currently taking serious action to develop a nuclear or other force to protect Earth from approaching asteroids and comets."
Compare this with the scientific research and technological investment that went into, and continues to go into, our "National Defense" budgets designed to "defend" us against essentially impossible "surprise" attacks from Russia, China, and (gawd
help us), North Korea and Cuba. (For an account of the "impossibility" of a
"nuclear Pearl Harbor," see
Thing Happened on the Way to Armageddon").
Of course, discovering the doomsday rock means nothing unless we are prepared to do something about it. But for the first time in history, this generation, unlike the final generation of the dinosaurs, may have the means to avoid catastrophe. We have launched space vehicles to explore the planets, so we know that we can get an "up close and personal" look at the asteroids. And so, "benign nudges" out of harm's way are not out of the question.
About those "nudges" there are more questions than answers. Do we nuke em? Some say that this would only multiply the impacts. Others suggest rockets on the surface, or even solar wind sails. Who knows? So let's find out! That's what scientific and technological research is for. On one point scientists agree: the sooner the identification and the further out the "nudging" the better the chances of success.
Once, within the memory of many of us, we didn't know whether one of our species could get to the moon and back alive. Many billions of dollars later, we found out that we could. Now the stakes are greater even ultimate. So what are we waiting for?
Suppose we spend those billions on "Global Asteroid Defense," and there turns out to be no need for it. (And this, after all, is the overwhelming likelihood, given that the annual probability of a catastrophic impact is one in tens of millions). Even so, we will "win" by this investment. The "spin-offs" of this enterprise will be well worth it.
Suppose, despite the determined efforts of the Apollo Program, there had been no "small step for a man" on the lunar surface. Even so, that effort would have accomplished a "giant leap for mankind." The "spin-offs" of that Program have been monumental:
Amazing new materials, such as teflon.
Micro-circuitry which is the heart of the hardware of the computer, with which I wrote this piece, and through which you are now reading it -- all this, thanks again to the miniaturization of processors and circuits, required for space flight .
Even more important than this marvelous technology, have been the photos from "out there," back upon that blue-green miracle that is our home, teaching us, as two millennia of Christian religion have failed to do, that we are indeed, all of us, of one family in one household.
And finally, the "space race" just may have helped us to acquire the tools required to save ourselves, should we discover, in time, that we are on a collision course with a Doomsday Rock.
As was the case with the space program, a scientifically enlightened and technologically productive "Global Defense System" against asteroidal Armageddon, will produce beneficial "spin-offs" that will vastly offset the costs. Of course, for the most part, these results are unpredictable, just as the computer/information revolution could not be foreseen by JFK, some thirty years ago, when he resolved that American science and technology would send a man to the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.
And so we will venture no predictions about the scientific and technical advances that are bound to result from an international planetary defense program. However, we might, in closing, suggest some political and moral advantages of such a program.
In the opening quotation of this piece, Bertrand Russell, with
characteristic wit, expressed a fundamental truth, noted by political
philosophers since Aristotle: traditional enemies can become instant allies
when faced with a common threat. Herodotus recorded such an alliance, when Athens and Sparta joined forces to defeat the Persians. History offers no better example than that which has occurred in the memory of many of us or at least of our parents. With the end of World War II, and the defeat of the common Axis threat, the "alliance of convenience" between "the West" and the Soviets collapsed, and a new rivalry emerged. Then, with an ease and dispatch that would credit the most saintly Christian, we forgave our erstwhile enemies, the Germans and the Japanese, and enlisted them in our struggle against "Godless Communism."
In Norman Jewison's sixties movie, "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming," the "armed and dangerous" crew of a grounded Soviet submarine,
desiring nothing more than to back off a sand bar and return home, faces a likewise armed Yankee militia. Neither side wants trouble, yet both are a flash-point away from disaster. Suddenly a child tumbles down a roof, and is caught by his belt on the rain gutter dangling four stories above the ground. The standoff is immediately forgotten, as both sides scramble to rescue the child. Beneath a squadron of menacing Air Force jet fighters, a fleet of fishing boats from the grateful village then escorts the "enemy" submarine to deep water and safety. A charming story. The allegorical message was generally understood and appreciated by the American audience.
With the fall of Communism, our leaders seemed perplexed and aimless, as they frantically searched for yet a new "enemy." Just in time, they arrived: "the terrists."
Is it just possible that some undiscovered asteroid is a greater threat to human life and civilization than any General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party or cave-bound band of homicidal fanatics ever were or ever could be? Could this be the common threat that, at long last, unites humanity into a single family?
And after all, didn't Bush tell us all that he is "a uniter, not a divider?"
Why then are we tearing up international treaties in quest of a technological "fix," endorsed by our own brand of home-grown political fanatics a "fix" that is almost universally rejected by authentic scientists and technologists?
The scientific evidence in support of a common global defense effort may be compelling. But given the capacity of our political leaders to ignore "inconvenient" scientific evidence, it will take much more than scientific research, development and education, to bring about an enlightened and appropriate international policy of "Global Defense." It will require moral insight, political initiative and public will.
Unfortunately, at this moment in our national history, these virtues are woefully inconspicuous.
Post Script: Of course, we need not look for asteroids and comets to find a
common global threat. In Pogos enduring words, "we have met the enemy
and he is us!" Our rapacious industrial civilization is plundering our
planet notably, the "common" atmosphere, the "common"
ocean, and the "common" global ecosystem. Surely, what Carl Sagan called
"planetary hygiene" is a cause sufficiently compelling to override
national and ethnic rivalries. But that is topic enough for another essay. In
fact, I presented such an essay in 1989 at a conference in Moscow, sponsored by
the Soviet Academy of Sciences: "Toward a Truce with the Earth....," at this site.
Copyright 2000 by Ernest Partridge
Stephen P. Maran, "Celestial Trespassers: Asteroids, Comets, and
Catastrophe," Microsoft Encarta, 2000.
"Shoemaker-Levy-9," JPL/NASA site: