Between a Rock and a Hard Place


“…Let’s go burn down the observatory so this will never happen again!” The Simpsons, SE06 E14, Bart’s Comet

Legend has it that the Greek playwright Aeschylus died after an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. It appears the not-so-eponymously-eyed predator mistook his shining pate for a rock. To compound his ill luck with irony the story goes that prior to his less-than tragic end Aeschylus resolved to stay outdoors after it was prophesied that he would die from the impact of a falling object.

Whether or not the story is true, strange and dangerous artefacts have long since fallen from the skies; animals, vegetables, and minerals – especially minerals. This past year much talk has been made of city-killer/extinction-level asteroids, of our lack of preparation for dealing with them, and of the very real threat they pose to our survival as a species.

And this week US televangelist Pat Robertson has been fanning these media flames by preaching the not-so-good news that an unforeseeable asteroid impact will wipe out human civilization in preparation for Judgement Day.

“It could be next week, it could be a 1000 years from now.” He said on CBN’s 700 Club during a plug for his latest book The End of the Age, which neatly coincided with recently released data suggesting the Earth has already been bombarded by 26 heavy-duty asteroids between 2000 and 2013.

Robertson’s eschatological ‘optimism’ springs from a statement made by Dr Ed Lu, one of the team of astronauts who presented the findings at a conference in Seattle’s Museum of Flight. Dr Lu offered the pessimistic observation that only 10,000 dangerous asteroids (dangerous on a citywide scale) out of a potential million have been tracked so far using Earthbound and space-stationed detectors. He went on to say:

“The only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid has been blind luck.”

Robertson has championed this element of chance as the medium through which God’s will is to be done:

“And as somebody said, it’s ‘blind luck’. Well, it’s the mercy of the Lord. But if that mercy ever got lifted, whew.”

The problem with Robertson’s claim is that it identifies probability solely with random behaviour. To clarify, the probability of any one of us stepping outside our homes and witnessing an asteroid impact within a square kilometre of our location, on any particular day, is, roughly, one six-hundredth of a percent.

This, however, does not mean that there is a one six-hundredth percent probability that an asteroid will suddenly appear out of thin air – complete with devastating momentum – and pound the neighbourhood into an arid crater.

Asteroid impacts may be unpredictable but nothing in their trajectories is left purely to chance. Mathematician Ian Stewart in Does God Play Dice describes how the orbital resonances of asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter obey dynamically chaotic laws. If an asteroid veers eccentrically into what is known as the Kirkwood gap, it crosses the orbit of Mars and gets flung in determinate but unpredictable directions: sometimes towards the sun, possibly towards us.

In other words the fate of the Earth has been sealed from the off with regard to interplanetary impacts; unless, of course, we research and implement adequate defensive strategies.

The newly established fact that we have been, and are being, struck by kiloton ‘city-killers’ should not worry us more for knowing it. In terms of its impact on our affairs and obligations, arguably nothing has changed. We may be hit by a meteorite tomorrow, or a tortoise, or maybe it will just rain.

The fundamentals haven’t changed. We have bills to pay, lives to lead, people to meet, work to be done. It brings to mind the Buddhist tale of the unfortunate man who, fleeing a tiger, slips halfway down a steep bank and is spared a fatal landing next to a second hungry tiger due to his fortuitously grasping at a vine.

When mice appear and nibble at the vine, thus hastening his imminent death, he spots some berries and his final moments are joyful as he eats them and revels in their sweetness.

The story captures the complexity of our relation to mortal catastrophe with a breathtaking brevity: we fear it, flee it, and yet even as it approaches we find we are indeed surprised by the sweetness of berries – though we are just as likely to complain about how sticky they leave our fingers, how the stones may have chipped a crown, or why there are no napkins around when we really need them.

Aeschylus certainly met an unfortunate end, but was his fate truly set in stone? If only he’d worn a hat.

First published in April 2014

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