It's Closer Than You Think

I've been thinking a lot about the end of the world lately. Got your attention? Good.

I am not a fatalist, never have been. Even when I changed the thrust of this blog into the whole “Environmilitant” vibe, I still maintained my deep-set belief in the human ability to correct our errors and save our way of life from self-annihilation. I still believe that to this day. I think that with the proper education and shifting of priorities, we can still rectify the damage we've done and make this planet the paradise it's meant to be. The power is in our hands, blah blah.

But then I went home on the Easter weekend to visit my parents, and as we are wont to do, we wound up sitting around drinking and watching bad movies on TV. First on the docket was a little flick from around the turn of the millennium called Deep Impact. Those of you who paid attention to that year in movies will remember it as “the asteroid movie that didn't star John McClane”. Released at the same time as Armageddon, Deep Impact is, in my opinion, a slightly more believable take on the whole “huge rock headed for Earth that's going to kill everything” movie genre that took over Hollywood for a short period of time (typified by other natural disaster movies in and around the same era).

Why more believable? Well, for one thing it stars Morgan Freeman as the U.S. President, and I have yet to see that man in any role where he isn't fantastic – as opposed to Ben “Gigli” Affleck who stars as the other film's hero. Joking aside, though, Armageddon was just too...I don't know, slick? Yeah, I think that's the right word. Everything looked too pat, from the design of the new space shuttle (looked like something out of Star Trek) to the silly equipment they use on the rock (remember, they had to dig a hole in an asteroid to put nukes inside it, and the only man for the job was Hudson Hawk), to the awful saccharine soundtrack (remember when Aerosmith used to make records you wanted to hear?)...all of it just rang Hollywood Hollow to me.

Deep Impact , on the other hand, treated the concept of an “extinction level event” with significantly more gravity than the popcorn-munching false suspense of Armageddon. For one thing, the production staff on Deep Impact actually did their research and constructed a space shuttle that (gasp) looks and acts like a space shuttle and not an X-wing fighter. For another, one of the big rocks actually hits Earth, causing widespread destruction. Finally – and perhaps the most important part for the purposes of this post – the film deals realistically with contingency plans to ensure the survival of the human race in the event of a world-ending catastrophe.

Here's where I stop trying to be Roger Ebert and get back to the point. Deep Impact suggested that the major governments of the world would have advance knowledge of an “ELE” were one to be imminent, which doesn't surprise me – because let's face it, they know everything before we do. The idea in the film would be to build vast underground cities that would supposedly be protected from the effects of a big-ass rock laying waste to the planet surface. Government officials choose the “important” people to be saved (i.e. doctors, scientists, whatever is needed to build our civilization back up) and then open the rest of the spots up to a lottery (excluding anyone over 50 years of age). To me this sounds like a pretty reasonable system, but it got me to thinking – that's Hollywood's idea. What would happen in reality?

There's been a lot of talk circulating in the last few years about the End Of The World – the most recent estimate is that something terrible is supposed to happen in 2012 (the last one being the infamous Y2K debacle when the clocks turned over to 2000 – and nothing happened), so if we take that to be true and assume that a dinosaur-killing rock is going to puddle-jump into the Earth in three years' time, what do we do?

I did a little research into this issue, and the first site I found was this one – essentially a calculator for what would happen to the planet if a projectile of x dimensions traveling at y speed hit the earth at z location. Really fascinating formulas, but a little bit dark, don't you think? I plugged in some numbers and suffice it to say I don't really want to talk about it. Go yourself if you want.

There are several “asteroid defense” ideas being bandied about that are kind of cool. The most obvious of these is, of course, nukes. Interesting idea – and it would be nice to use those huge stockpiles of horrifyingly destructive weapons for the betterment of humanity. But according to many scientists, this plan would be doomed to failure (apparently Armageddon got that part right, at least). Either the resulting force wouldn't be enough to destroy the big rock, or else it might only serve to smash the planetoid into fragments which, if larger than 30 meters in diameter, would not burn up in our atmosphere but instead crash into whatever happened to be in their way. Trade one big meteor for thousands of potentially dangerous ones? Fantastic.

Kinetic impact acts similarly – launching a spacecraft or other large object at an asteroid to attempt to blow it off-course or destroy it entirely, but the same problems exist with this possibility as with the nukes, so it's kind of pointless.

The really interesting theories almost delve into the realm of science fiction – things like using the gravitational pull of another large object to divert the asteroid gradually (that's a great idea if we have years to prepare for a possible impact, as with the impact postulated to take place in 2880), or my personal favourite – using an enormous tether attached on one end to the Earth and to the asteroid on the other to literally swing the rock around us. Of course, the logistics of a plan like that are staggering – honestly it sounds like an idea formulated during some kind of frat party weed-smoking session. “Dude, all we need is, like, some big string or something, you know? Like, like, a tether ball or something, and we could totally dodge that big rock!” Come on.

The bottom line is as far as the public is aware, we're woefully underprepared for a cataclysmic event that could wipe us all out and make all our efforts to “save the planet” completely moot. I know the chances of an event like this occurring in our lifetimes is slim, and I'm certainly not advocating spending a lot of money coming up with doomsday contingency plans, but it kind of bugs me. We spend all this time thinking about our petty problems, our silly wars, our minor hatreds, and somewhere out in the great deep of space there's a big damn rock with our names all over it. Kind of puts things in perspective, at least for me.

Man, the big picture is depressing.

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