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Giant pebbles from outer space
June 27, 2009 12:00 AM   Subscribe

Stephen Hawking: "Asteroid Impacts Biggest Threat to Intelligent Life in the Galaxy" Dare I say... there's more outside.

In a world distracted by global warming, struggles in Iran, and the death of Michael Jackson, it's hard to focus on the very long-term. But it's more than likely that the Earth will experience another event like Tunguska eventually. We're really at the infancy of deflecting a hazardous near-Earth object.
posted by twoleftfeet (44 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
73 million points for introducing the shithitsfan tag. Long may it prosper!
posted by mhjb at 12:09 AM on June 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


I cannot live my life at that level of paranoia. I have reached the end of my capacity for imagining worst case scenarios.
posted by SinisterPurpose at 12:25 AM on June 27, 2009


Uncle Bill: What are we here for? We're all here to go.

Hawking is right, in a sense the best way to ensure species survival is to occupy as many niches as possible. We've just about filled them up viz a viz land wise on earth. Bottom of the ocean and/or out to space is the next step, else we inevitably go the way of the dinos... which may not necessarily be a bad thing in its way, just not a very species orientated mode of thought.
posted by edgeways at 12:34 AM on June 27, 2009


Actually, if it's a lot like the Tunguska event we'll be lucky. If it's a few times bigger and doesn't blow up before actually making contact, that will be a much bigger explosion. And well be very lucky if it lands in the middle of nowhere again, and really lucky if doesn't land in the ocean (tidal waves, lots of cloud cover, huge storms, cats and dogs living together, etc).
As for deflecting it, thats a good idea, but we'd have to get our collective shit together awfully fast to do anything in time, and humans are so good at cooperating.
posted by doctor_negative at 12:36 AM on June 27, 2009


My initial thought on contemplation of complete and total obliteration of the surface of the planet as we know it, scoured clean but for a few microbes by the ensuing firewave: we'd better do what we can to preserve the legacy of our achievements for any potential survivors or new life forms that arise on this planet or encounter it long after our own extinction.

My second thought: any record we'd make would probably be looked at the same as we view the paintings at the caves at Lascaux: impressive, almost lifelike, primitive art, serving some unknown, primitive purpose.

As a species, we tend to like to think we'd be comprehensible to other species, but context can be a real bitch.
posted by Graygorey at 12:39 AM on June 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


I live as a floating drifting being in the the upper-level atmosphere of Jupiter, six layers from the squishy, poorly defined core. We did not even notice those comet fireballs, except for the television broadcasts. (Thanks, by the way.) There's a reason they call this massive conglomeration of matter a gas giant.

The planet you call Saturn is kind of nasty but a couple of those moons are really something special.
posted by longsleeves at 1:13 AM on June 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Dinosaur killer? Meh, wake me in another 65 million years.

Tunguska-style event? We don't know how common they are. We haven't had the ability to monitor the whole planet for very long. They might happen every 100 years on average, every 500, who knows? Even today, such an airburst is only a major disaster if it happens in a place where people actually live, which is a surprisingly small proportion of the planet's surface, once you take away open ocean, deserts, Siberia, Antarctica, big chunks of the Amazon, northern Canada, and so on. Compare this unconfirmed report from a few decades ago.

If you want something to be paranoid about, think about something like this. It didn't cover a huge area, but if it happened over your neighborhood, instead of some Siberian forest, you'd be pretty unhappy about it.
posted by gimonca at 1:16 AM on June 27, 2009


If you wish, you can read the original 2007 press release by Nick Bailey, a first or second year PhD candidate at Southampton who now has just finished binding his thesis this month.
posted by honest knave at 1:22 AM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


The chance of an asteroid impact is 100%.

This isn't paranoia, this is fact. The reality is that impacts follow a decreasing scale; really small things hit us frequently, really big things hit us rarely. Hawking's assertion is that our little part of this galaxy has been lucky enough to avoid the really big things long enough to go through multiple stages of evolution. So we've been able to develop to the point where we can sit around in our underwear and bitch about the planet.

But we haven't as yet developed an ability to protect the planet.

It's an odd idea... that this level of development may have occurred many times throughout the universe. That planets grow life, perhaps with internets and so on, and then get wiped out by some stupid little (in a galactic sense) piece of rock.

We might think we are the center of the universe, that we are invincible. But maybe countless civilizations elsewhere in the universe have made the same mistake.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:33 AM on June 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


This seems like a good place to post this personal anecdote about Henry Rollins.

I went to see him in St. Louis around the time of the Spirit and Opportunity happenings, and I loved most of what he said, but there was a part where he harped on about our Mars expeditions, like we shouldn't be doing it because we have too many problems on our own planet to take care of first.
After the show, we waited for him out back with a small crowd, and I got a few signatures, and then I got my chance, so I said, "Man, I really loved your show, and I agreed with most everything you said, except for one thing.. The Mars thing.. We need NASA.. If the human species is to survive in the long term, it's best not to keep all our eggs in one basket; colonizing our solar system should be our highest priority, because it's not a question of if, but when..." (or something very similar about short term vs. long term thinking)
and he cut me off to say:
"Wow, ok, why don't you go get in your Pinto, drive home, and wait for
your meteor, Spaceboy."
All of the other fanboys laughed, and I said, well, um, and I went and got into my Ford (but a Mustang) and drove home (ok, still a spaceboy).

I bet he tore me a new asshole on his next stop in Kansas City, just like we heard about idiot fanboys on his previous stops.

I tell myself at least I might have made him think.
posted by hypersloth at 2:00 AM on June 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


well crap, memory's a bitch. I already posted that anecdote. Obviously still upset.

/derail
posted by hypersloth at 2:07 AM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this. There was an article in June 2008's Atlantic, "The Sky Is Falling", which I enjoy linking to in threads on this subject. What I took away from the article is essentially the same as Hawking's point - a devastatingly large object making a collision course with Earth is inevitable, and our ability to stop it is just at the planning stages. With NASA trying its hardest to justify funding by offering cool whiz-bang projects related to exploring Mars or the moon, I could understand a reluctance to say, "We need more money to be able to prevent an asteroid slamming into the earth." Fortunately, I think our current president would be more open to the idea than the previous, who might have suggested calling Bruce Willis and Aerosmith.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:33 AM on June 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


We just need to make sure there's always at least one man and one woman on the ISS.
posted by lucidium at 2:40 AM on June 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


It might seem hopeless to worry about this, so maybe all we can do is laugh about it (via).

But it's not hopeless. Really, at some point we should think about avoiding this.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:02 AM on June 27, 2009


Hogwash. Just buy a sturdy helmet.
posted by hypersloth at 4:08 AM on June 27, 2009


one man and one woman on the ISS

Correction: 2 women and a sperm bank.
posted by Trochanter at 4:55 AM on June 27, 2009 [10 favorites]


I'm enjoying the post, but please...

In a world distracted by global warming, struggles in Iran, and the death of Michael Jackson, it's hard to focus on the very long-term

The world I inhabit is not distracted by Iran nor Michael Jackson, and global warming, well it's not as pressing as next month's mortgage payment coinciding with car registration. Asteroid impact very well be a solution.
posted by mattoxic at 5:09 AM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm known for bad links, but at least I don't Hawk stuff.
Oops.
posted by Mblue at 5:47 AM on June 27, 2009



Correction: 2 women and a sperm bank.

I nominate the cupchicks as saviours of humanity.
posted by the cuban at 6:37 AM on June 27, 2009


And I was worried about nukes
posted by Flood at 6:47 AM on June 27, 2009


Pfft. Just hide under your desk and you'll be fine.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:12 AM on June 27, 2009


"Wow, ok, why don't you go get in your Pinto, drive home, and wait for your meteor, Spaceboy."

Heh. I have a superior understanding of existential risk, planetary science, and public policy than Henry Rollins. I now feel so fucking badass.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:31 AM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


What about shooting a bunch of the DNA of Earth's creatures into space on a vehicle set to land on a planet with an Earth like atmosphere. Upon landing the DNA would be turned into life forms and viola...new Earth!
posted by PHINC at 8:25 AM on June 27, 2009


Rollins is a dumb ass frat boy with a good stylist.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:43 AM on June 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Finally. A reason to not quit smoking.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:01 AM on June 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


I don't see how a manned mission to Mars will help with asteroids or comets. To stop them, we'd need to see them early ---so we'd need automated observations of the full sky with high sensitivity and resolution. Then we'd need to be able to send some sort of spacecraft to alter the course of whatever was going to hit us. I don't think we'd be sending Bruce Willis, it would almost certainly be better to send a robot (or maybe several, in case one or more failed).

The difficulty with a manned mission to Mars is all about keeping people alive in environments where they can't live naturally. Those are really difficult problems to solve, but I think they're completely orthogonal to protecting Earth. The nice thing about funding increased observation of the sky and development of robot spacecraft is that, in addition to potentially protecting Earth from asteroids and comets, it also happens to be the best way to learn about our solar system.
posted by Humanzee at 9:01 AM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was very glad to learn about Jupiter's role as a gravitational force field concerning Earth's survival.

Take that, God!
posted by captainsohler at 9:17 AM on June 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


We just need to make sure there's always at least one man and one woman on the ISS.

Certainly they would have no problem returning safely to earth without the guidance of ground control.
posted by notreally at 9:47 AM on June 27, 2009


The Cloud That Proved The 1908 Tunguska Explosion Was A Comet
posted by homunculus at 9:48 AM on June 27, 2009


Graygorey, whatever we leave behind of our civilization will only have been put their by their Cephalopodic Creator to test them.
posted by tigrrrlily at 9:59 AM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


there. **facepalm**
posted by tigrrrlily at 10:00 AM on June 27, 2009


Sustainable settlements on Mars are a pretty long way off. For that matter, it's debatable how sustainable human settlement on Earth is.

I think it'd be more productive to work on long-(loooooong)-term storage for data, and get as much culture off the planet as possible. If we feel lucky include a few frozen mammals (maybe a volunteer or two, or two million) and some genetic data. If it gets picked up by intelligent, interested people, our civilisation outlives us. If it lands on a planet where it can be discovered by sentient beings at any level of development, our civilisation outlives us - and maybe helps someone else's. If it gets picked up by weird godlike aliens, maybe they can get the "human surprise" to work again. Joke's on them, as far as I can see.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 10:10 AM on June 27, 2009


Rollins is a dumb ass frat boy with a good stylist.

You need to WAKE UP and FACE REALITY, man! Rollins is gonna step on your back while you do push-ups! He's IN YOUR FACE and wants you to DEAL WITH IT.

Seriously, Rollins' nonsense is the only thing that's made me capable of thinking, "Ann Coulter doesn't deserve that kind of talk."
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:57 AM on June 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


"As for deflecting it, thats a good idea, but we'd have to get our collective shit together awfully fast to do anything in time, and humans are so good at cooperating.
posted by doctor_negative at 12:36 AM"
We watched Dr. Strangelove last night...
posted by Cranberry at 12:06 PM on June 27, 2009


Pfft. Just hide under your desk and you'll be fine.

"Oooh... We can duck and cover!"
posted by weston at 2:11 PM on June 27, 2009


... get as much culture off the planet as possible. ... our civilisation outlives us.

I can't fully comprehend this sentiment, though I know it's a popular one and was prevalent in a lot of the older science fiction I read in my youth. I just can't imagine other entities having any great interest, being either so far beyond our level to be bored with it, or being so interconnected and already aware of the variety of instances of life in the universe that we'd be simply another data point in a vast library. And wouldn't they conceivably have their own culture which would be far more relevant to their particular modes of consciousness and lifestyle? The question is obviously limited by our capacity to imagine beings completely other than ourselves, but ultimately I have to feel that our culture and supposed accomplishments are really only ever of interest and relevance to ourselves.

For that matter, it's debatable how sustainable human settlement on Earth is.

This is the far more pressing issue to me, and while I absolutely concur with Hawking's quite reasonable argument that this is both inevitable and solvable, it's not really worth worrying about if we're already all dead, no? I think it's insulting to say that the world is "distracted" by global warming, and to conflate this concern with Michael Jackson's death. Did we forget that no one cares about actually addressing climate change and CO2 emissions, and that any politician who dares make a move to do so is promptly laughed out of power? By all means let's get serious about dealing with threats to the earth and human civilization, but we have to prioritize that appropriately, and asteroid impact is serious but not the most urgent.
posted by kaspen at 2:16 PM on June 27, 2009



"Wow, ok, why don't you go get in your Pinto, drive home, and wait for your meteor, Spaceboy."

'Why, so you can crash into me from behind in your Comet and burn me to death?'
posted by jamjam at 2:39 PM on June 27, 2009


Man considering the media frenzy this week when Michael Jackson died, can you imagine the coverage the network would extended to the total annihilation of all human life? They wouldn't talk about anything else for weeks.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:58 PM on June 27, 2009


The Comet taketh away and the Comet giveth:

Did a comet kick-start Earth's plate tectonics?

Geologists estimate that plate tectonics began during the Archean period, between 2.5 and 3.8 billion years ago - but they don't know what triggered it. Ancient Earth was too hot for the crust to solidify completely, and the lightest minerals would have floated to the surface over the entire planet, making the subduction of denser plate material unlikely.

Not to mention that a rain of icy comets after the Earth cooled down enough so that it wasn't all boiled away into space is the probable origin of the oceans.
posted by jamjam at 3:08 PM on June 27, 2009


"I just can't imagine other entities having any great interest, being either so far beyond our level to be bored with it, or being so interconnected and already aware of the variety of instances of life in the universe that we'd be simply another data point in a vast library. And wouldn't they conceivably have their own culture which would be far more relevant to their particular modes of consciousness and lifestyle?"

I don't see that at all. First it assumes a multitude of intelligent civilizations, something we have no data on yet (ignoring that all available evidence points to us apparently being unique). If space faring civilizations in the galaxy can be counted on one hand then the addition of another one would be a pretty significant event, at least if they think anything like us which of course is unlikely. I know I'd be immensely interested especially if the aliens were radically different like say the bugs in Starship Troopers.

Heck for all we know the only reason we are here is a Heechee like meddling in the distant past by long lived or time travelling aliens.
posted by Mitheral at 8:32 PM on June 27, 2009


I think we're overestimating the odds of human extinction. Lots of disasters could kill 99.999% of us, but killing the last ~50 000 of us would be very hard. Something very fast and species-wide could do it (e.g. a nearby gamma ray burst), as could something that rendered the earth's surface permanently uninhabitable (e.g. gray goo). An asteroid/comet with kinetic energy on the order of the Yucatan dinosaur-killer wouldn't do the job. Too many people would survive the initial impact, and some tiny subset of them would succeed in rigging greenhouses with nuclear generators. Somewhere someone would be reading Shakespeare -- our culture survives. Mind you, a sufficiently large/fast pebble could kill us all, but the bigger the collision the less likely it will happen anytime soon.

Still, I want the odds that a comet will kill 99.999% of the people I know to be as low as possible. Go Spaceguard.


I think it'd be more productive to work on long-(loooooong)-term storage for data...if it gets picked up by intelligent, interested people, our civilization outlives us.

This plan is in trouble even assuming that ET would be able to interpret our data as being something meaningful. It's widely known that the odds of getting picked up by a passing spacecraft in thirty seconds or less are two to the power of two hundred and sixty-seven thousand seven hundred and nine to one against. If that's correct (it is) you'll need to build your hypothetical hard drive out of adamantium. Hey, maybe it'll be noticed prior to the heat death of the universe...

It'd be easier to just bury an obelisk on the moon. Shielding would be less of a problem. All you have to do is wait for earth's surviving amoebas to evolve a descendant that can read.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:41 AM on June 29, 2009


While humans might survive such an event our cizilization probably wouldn't. Lose enough knowledge in the destruction, mass die off, and decades of turmoil and we're stuck in the bronze age forever because all the low tech resource extraction resources have already been exploited.
posted by Mitheral at 12:51 AM on June 29, 2009


I just can't imagine other entities having any great interest, being either so far beyond our level to be bored with it, or being so interconnected and already aware of the variety of instances of life in the universe that we'd be simply another data point in a vast library. And wouldn't they conceivably have their own culture which would be far more relevant to their particular modes of consciousness and lifestyle?

They'd probably post a dot on some hastily thrown together obit. Although since they are presumably more advanced I like to imagine they'd quietly flag us and move on.
posted by cairnish at 9:04 AM on June 29, 2009


Mitheral, counterargument:
(assumption: we're talking about an event on the order of the Chicxulub impact, maybe a bit worse)

- Science Textbooks
As far as books and other data storage media go, there's just too much out there to lose it all. Even assuming that the survivors don't take books into their bomb shelters, any disaster which did not annihilate humanity entirely would leave some relics behind (e.g. the basements and concrete libraries half a world away from ground zero). A Canticle for Leibowitz is a good guide here; two surviving first year university textbooks (math, physics) would be enough to recover Maxwell's equations. That alone would save hundreds of years of research. We'd likely be unable to build laptops for a couple of generations, but at least the idea of semiconductor transistors would likely be preserved.

- Experts
Having some surviving scientists and engineers would be even more important (you need people who can read the textbooks if civilization is to recover quickly). Some post-apocalyptic fiction argues that survivors would be leading such a hardscrabble existence that their grandchildren might not even be literate. I think that's unlikely. Experts of any kind would be more likely to survive than average people both because governments would prioritize getting them to the bunkers and because groups with experts are much more likely to survive the aftermath. In a comet-induced nuclear winter scenario, survivors need technology to live, the more the better. Forget peasant agriculture -- farmers would likely need to know how to run an underground climate controlled greenhouse (suggesting that British Columbians will have the highest survival rate on earth).

- Natural resources: Metal
They'd have it easy. Yes, we've exhausted a lot of the easily accessible iron ore (say), but in doing that we've left giant heaps of scrap iron just lying around on the surface. Melting down a wrecked car is easier and cheaper than mining. Likewise, copper wire would be lying around everywhere in whatever gauge was needed.

- Natural Resources: Energy
Having little accessible oil is bad, but having no trees is much worse, especially since a big comet strike would apparently cause a massive firestorm. Forget the bronze age -- the danger is losing the use of fire. Having scrap metal lying around does you no good if you don't have enough accessible fuel with which to smelt. That's not to mention immediate survival needs; cold would kill off many unsophisticated survivor groups even before they ran out of canned goods. On the bright side, there's still lots of surface coal and uranium if you know where to look. Given that the earth's crust just took a hammering in this scenario, geothermal power might be more of an option than ever before. Groups with the numbers, organization and expertise necessary to exploit those resources would be doing fine (e.g. a couple thousand survivors under Cheyenne Mountain).

- Natural resources: Biosphere
Massive fires followed by darkness is a bad combination. It's not the end of the world, but it's bad. If the internet does not mislead me, we'd be looking at something on the order of a few months/years of low temperatures, not centuries. At least there's no fallout; it's the balthorium-G that makes a nuclear war scenario so much more grim. On land, we'd probably be OK. Most fauna are wiped out, but some seeds would survive long enough to germinate. We'd get a mass extinction, not a wasteland.

As in the case of science textbooks, you don't need that much surviving seed corn to get crude agriculture restarted (though the first post-apocalyptic group to reach the Svalbard Seed Vault gets to be an instant superpower). The oceans are what really worry me -- would the algae survive and recover? If not, does oxygen become a problem? That would be much more grim than the scenario I'm postulating.

- Mass die-off
Yep. Let's say that 99.5% of the human population does not survive the initial impact and immediate aftermath. Let's say that the nuclear winter plus lack of assume a second die-off where an additional 99.5% of the initial survivors die. That leaves a post-apocalyptic population of 15 million worldwide. Let's suppose that a further 99.5% of those survivor groups are living hand to mouth. That leaves ~70 000 people in a few communities scattered around the globe who would have the ability to do early 20th century engineering. The question is whether these communities would be overwhelmed by refugees or whether they could form the core of a new civilization. Eh, these numbers are science fictional. If the event is less bad than that, our odds look all the better.

I don't think a perma-bronze age is an option. Either one or more 20th century-tech civilizations come together very quickly, or we get back to that level from textbooks within a few centuries, or we go extinct (no food, no fuel, maybe no oxygen (!) and no knowledge of how to find/make what we lack).

- Our culture - the arts
It would be so much easier to save something of our culture than to save technology. Copies of the complete works of Shakespeare are everywhere, and you don't need to know calculus to appreciate them. At the very least we could try to leave behind a small flute, Picard style.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:35 PM on June 29, 2009


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