Asteroid day was almost three weeks ago, and although I wore my B612 T-shirt to work, and probably made some social media observation about the day, I never wrote something longer. Mostly because I, like almost everyone else were slightly worried about everyday stuff. Not much, but enough for me to focus on other things than writing a blog post. Problems like if the latest batch of simulations were going to turn out alright, the fact that I had eaten ice-cream three days in a row, and whether my morning bicycle commute across the busy and somewhat polluted Second Narrows was a net gain or loss for my health. Personal problems, some significant, others not; some real, others imagined.
It is natural for us to worry about personal things. Climbing up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs doesn’t really stop us, we simply invent new things to be concerned about. It has probably served us well for thousands of years this trait of concern for our personal safety and well-being. It probably still does in many ways, though we are not trained to put things into proportion.
As most of us know, there is a whole other set of problems that threaten not (only) our personal bodies, but the body of humanity. Of its societies, legacy, and of civilization (if we can agree that we live in one).
Climate Change is one of those problems, and likely the most pressing. This is a process that we’ve gotten moving over the last century or so, and now is progressing steadily towards a state where we might not be able to survive, still driven by a economical and social inertia. Climate Change is a danger we need to work on every day to control if we want our civilization survive… but it is not the threat I’d like to write about now. This is about Asteroid Day.
Asteroid impacts on earth is another world-level threat. Unlike climate change it is not something we have created, but just like that other threat it is a very real one, and something we can address. We know space rocks hit the earth from time to time. One or more most likely was the end of the dinosaurs. We can see the geological evidence from prehistoric events such as the Sudbury Basin in Ontario, CA, or Siljansringen in Sweden. In modern times we have been lucky not to have had an even of such size, but the Tunguska impact in 1908, or the Chebyalinsk meteor in 2013 are well known examples of smaller rocks.
Now, I write we are lucky, not to have had an impact by a larger object not only because if we had, well there wouldn’t be any ‘modern times’, but more precisely because it is just luck! There an immense number of Near-Earth Asteroids out there. Space is big, even the solar system is immense. But it is not empty. The B612 Foundation estimates that
The probability of a 100 megaton impact somewhere on Earth each and every year is the same as the probability of an individual being killed in an automobile accident each year – about .01%.
This is a rather a significant number. To be honest, they do not reference their calculations, and I have not checked the number, but I will let them have the benefit of doubt because the probability clearly is non-zero and thus too large.
I’ve embedded a video from B612 below visualizing asteroids in the solar system below. Simply to give some perspective.
So there’s a real chance that something big enough to reset us as bad as the dinosaurs. The difference between humans and dinosaurs however (teeth and feathers aside) is that we are aware of the chance, and we have the ability to do something about it.
It is at this stage I guess “do something about” doesn’t (necessarily) involve sending a nuke, or even a nuke with a Bruce Willis strapped to it. There are several proposed solution on how to hinder an asteroid from hitting the earth. Some of the surely advocates blowing it up, but other solutions include simply towing it away by affecting its gravity. The Aikido options. I prefer those. Perhaps we could even park asteroids in an orbit where we can mine them?
In any case, avoidance is the second problem. The first one, is finding and tracking Near-Earth space rocks, and what Asteroid Day is about. Because, if we can track them, we can also attempt to predict if, where, and when it’ll hit. This will give humanity time to come up with a plan to avoid the impact. Finding the money and effort to handle imminent danger is always easier than a potential one.
(Though of course, the cynic in me would like to point out that this is exactly the situation we see with man-made climate change – proof that it is an imminent danger to all of us and yet there is an almost unbelievable resistance to deal with the problem. I guess that even if we were to identify a concrete asteroid threat there would still be those who could not deal with the fact, and continue to deny it.)
So, that is Asteroid Day – introduce the idea of tracking asteroids in our public consciousness – and I think it is worthy of attention. Climate Change is the threat on our doorstep that we must do something about now, but an asteroid impact is the looming threat that we must not forget. Yet,I’ve arguments on the form “Oh, but that chance has always been there.” or “That’s, too big, I have to worry about tomorrow’s PowerPoint slides!”
At first I thought both of these views naive. Truly, if there’s a decent chance that or society will be wiped out then tomorrow’s presentation fades into obscurity? Well, actually not quite actually, the idea is not that we’ll all offer our lives to the great cause; life must go on, and the PP slide-worries are part of that. Heck, I bet we are many who sometimes thinks that modern industry is built of little else than projectors and presentations. Meh. In reality of course, it is again about planting the concept. Sure, worry about your slides, but know what is out there. Some of us continue to live in earth quake zones after all, and yet our issues are the same from day to day as those who do not.
Then we have those who say that the chance has always been there. And it is true! Has it changed? Perhaps a little (the moon, is further away these days, and I guess it does shield us a bit), but well… over all, it is the same as ever the last millions of years. So, asteroids has been raining down on us all through history – some big some small. But the big one (or the big ones) that hit the Dinosaurs we’ve been lucky enough to avoid. Then again, they were around for much longer than us. Sooner or later it happens. Again: we are the first civilization with the technology to do something about it! To protect ourselves.
Think about that, because that is something truly amazing to me. First, we have the means to protect ourselves, and the rest of the planet. Second, we are aware of the existence of asteroids. We have not only formed a theory that they exist, we have tested it, and we have equations to predict and model physical systems. Such awareness is due to a series of insights over many centuries, and the fact that the idea of preparing ourselves for asteroids are being floated in society and taken serious is that self preservation is happening on the scale of society. We are protecting that awareness.
In other words: Humanity might be ready to Level Up!