The following is a short critical essay written by Reuben Carl Johnson about the threat NEOs (Earth-crossing asteroids and comets grouped as "Near Earth Objects") pose to our planet. It details the public's shocking indifference, and offers a proactive response to the problem. Read it, and decide for yourself. Feel free to make a comment via e-mail at the bottom of this page.
For the first time in the history of this planet, a species has the capability to maintain some small measure of influence over its destiny. Our response to this wonderful opportunity will be testament to our wisdom or folly.
As a university student studying Geology and Geophysics in addition to Earth and Space Science, I often have the opportunity to discuss the issue of comet and asteroid impacts on the Earth with my colleagues. To my astonishment, I have discovered not only a nearly undivided yawning indifference, but also a persistent disbelief as to this threat on the part of those who should understand the issue better than most, yet fail to do so.
Because of this, I am inclined to think that for the majority of our planet’s population (even those with the highest of educations), such objects are at most marginally interesting villains in poorly written sci-fi movies. One need not be a sociologist to realize that without public understanding and interest, there will be little or no public support for finding and tracking threatening asteroids and comets. With insufficient public support, one may expect there will be little government support. Consequently, those relatively few who fully grasp the issue’s ramifications shoulder the tremendous burden of sifting through a volume of space so large as to render the task impossible.
Consider this: millions of people are afraid to fly. Nonetheless, those who take to the skies do so for the same reasons everyone else does. They take the risk because (many) governments cooperatively oversee and enforce countless safety regulations as a response to the public’s insistence on taking every reasonable precaution before an aircraft leaves the ground. Without a doubt, most people would not dare fly if such measures were abandoned, or were so minor as to be ineffectual.
Why then do we as a society continue to ignore the threat of comet and asteroid impacts? Given that the probability of dying in a plane crash is essentially equal to that of being killed by an asteroid or comet striking our planet, where is the public outcry for governments to cooperatively oversee and enforce countless safety regulations? Where is the public’s insistence on taking every reasonable precaution? Why have we not implemented a vigorously watchful battery of instruments and personnel to search the sky for this threat? Sadly, the answers are at once simple and complex, timeworn and recent, but most of all, divesting and without excuse.
In essence, we have a Stone Age brain in spite of our wonderful technology. We are slow to realize we have had a gun pointed at our head for the last 65 million years. Though statisticians, astronomers, and geologists may point out that the "trigger finger" of probability is not exactly itchy because we are not due for another major impact for several million years, they forget (or dismiss) the reality that probability has no memory whatsoever. Perhaps worst of all, we have a dismally small search program in the northern hemisphere, and an all but nonexistent program in the southern making our efforts so minor as to be ineffectual. We might as well be standing in a World War I trench with our unprotected head poking out and our back to the enemy as we look through one half-shut eye for bullets that have already whizzed past; and though we see clear proof that our neighbors are getting hit, we still fail to don a helmet. Our negligible search and tracking program amounts to nothing less than a violation of the public trust on the part of the world’s governing bodies. However, some responsibility also lies in academia and its inexcusable failure to make clear this danger at a comprehensible level.
Currently, millions of people use a simple screen saver called SETI@home. This could be transformed into a similar program to process data for a NEOs@home search. Humanity desperately needs a strategy to both educate us as well as protect us from the disturbing ignorance I have been witness to in what should be some of the brightest young minds now standing on the cusp of intellectual prowess. For the first time in the history of this planet, a species has the capability to maintain some small measure of influence over its destiny. Our response to this wonderful opportunity will be testament to our wisdom or folly.
This page was last updated on 07/22/01
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