Astronomical Angst

MY FRIEND ETHAN, a Ph.D. candidate, is practiced in the sort of skepticism that makes folks avoid grad students at parties: Give him an argument and he will seek the flaw in it. But when he read in a recent New Yorker article ("Is This the End?," Jan. 27) that a massive asteroid might collide with the earth at any time and destroy human civilization in a rain of fire, ash, and floods, his habitual skepticism turned to reverence. That the anxiety over asteroids--which reached a fever pitch with last week's made-for-TV blockbuster, Asteroid!--owes as much to Sunday school as science was lost on my pal, whose faith in science runs deep.

But how sound is the science? "No astronomer would condone the kind of science that went into the asteroid movie," one local astronomer asserts (okay, so he's my brother, but he's a really smart guy). The editor of the Bad Astronomy Page (http://www.astro.virginia.edu/~pcp2g/bad/asteroid.html) on the World Wide Web appears to agree. He dedicated five pages to the scientific inaccuracies in the NBC flick alone. And while The New Yorker piece appears factual, it also relies on innuendo: The fictive opening inspires a sense of danger without establishing a specific threat, and the author suggests that because Jupiter recently got hit by a comet, earth may be next--although Jupiter's greater size and gravity make it about a thousand times more attractive to asteroids than earth.

If the asteroid scare isn't entirely driven by science, what else is behind it? Toward the close of his New Yorker piece, Timothy Ferris notes that funding cuts for military R&D may be spurring an interest in asteroids, by providing a justification for continued Strategic Defense Initiative research, which might be used to deflect a comet. But it's also likely that the flurry of interest owes a lot to religion and the coming millennium.

The word "apocalypse," commonly used to refer to the world's end, actually applies to the genre of literature dedicated to describing that event. Like any pop genre, it has its conventions. Asteroid! fit the bill to a T, with its sudden revelation of danger, its rain of fire, and literal birth out of death (remember the baby born at the end?). Timothy Ferris openly acknowledges the similarity between his claims and Biblical prophecy.

The real danger, however, is that hail from the heavens and our hope for rebirth born of a fiery death will only distract us from more pressing threats: like the ongoing environmental degradation that's far more likely than any asteroid to "turn the waters to wormwood and the sky to ash."

 
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