The second most important story this week

Fabius Maximus has outdone himself this week in his post “The Most Important Story in This Week’s Newspapers.”  To summarize:  If we don’t get our economic house in order, it won’t make much difference whether the F-35 meets requirements because we won’t be buying any of them. All right — it’s a loose summary, but a fair one.  Anyway, read it, if you haven’t already.

I have the second most important story — the end not merely of the USA but of the human race.  Let me ask you this:  When was the last meteor or asteroid strike on earth that would have caused millions of casualties and possibly the end of civilization were it to happen in the right place today?

a)  65 million years ago (the Chicxulub Event at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary)?

b)  50,000 years ago (Meteor Crater in Arizona)?

c)  1,500 years ago (Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia)?

The answer, of course, is c.  What’s worse, a much larger object hit near Madagascar only 3,000 years earlier (about when the Pyramids were under construction).  So why aren’t we doing anything about it???

Science writer Gregg Easterbrook tries to figure it out in the current edition of The Atlantic.   I raised this subject — to the general derision of my copy editors — in If We Can Keep It, so I’m happy to recommend Easterbrook’s article.

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Filed in Uncategorized | 13 responses so far

13 Responses to “The second most important story this week”

  1. Maxon 22 May 2008 at 8:27 pm 1


    Those concerned about global warming are
    accused of being “reactionary !”

    Latest data suggests the earth might actually be cooling,
    as cited by deniers, but the same who lecture believers
    that you cannot accept short term climatic measurements
    as evidence of meaning trends.

    As for the asteroids, I’ll take my chances, but carry and umbrealla,
    like the coyote in the roadrunner cartoons.


  2. Fabius Maximuson 23 May 2008 at 12:35 am 2

    I am confident that we will do something to defend the earth from asteroid or comet impacts. That is, I believe there will be no second large impact.

    [CR: Heartening. Would you like to share the source of this revelation?]

  3. Fabius Maximuson 23 May 2008 at 1:33 am 3

    What Easterbook does not do – what few advocates for immediate action to save the world do – is put his cause in a wider context. What are the odds of his danger vs others?
    At hand I have a 1983 article that does so by the mathematician, physicist and science fiction author Charles Sheffield: “Unclear Winter.” What are the odds of natural disaster with a sudden energy release like that of a nuclear war? He uses the definition of nuke war from the 1983 “Nuclear Winter” article by Sagan et al: the equivalent of 25,000 megatons of TNT. A big war, but whose blast and climate effects are probably not enough to end civilization (the radiation is another story). His rough cut estimates:
    Volcanic Eruption (1): every 1,000 years
    Meteorite/comet impact (2): every two million years
    Supernova (3): every two+ billion years
    Instability of our sun: every three+ billion years.
    (1) Like that of Thera (circa 1500 – 1600 BC). Bad news for folks in the Med, but life went on elsewhere.
    (2) Per Easterbook, new data shows these are more frequent.
    (3) Defined as a supernova within 100 light years.

    Perhaps we reallocate NASA’s budget to building food stockpiles, which will help mitigate a wide range of disasters. Global grain stockpiles (in tons) are now near 40 year lows, and much much worse in per capita terms.

    [CR: Gee Fabius, you could find downsides to the Second Coming.

    As you note, new data indicate that Sheffield was wrong about the frequency of meteorite/asteroid impacts. This is a very real threat that, unlike supernova mitigation or volcano eradication, we have the technology to address. So you’re saying we shouldn’t? And stockpile food, too, if that’s what we need to do and can figure out where to store it and who gets it (“terrorists” and their supporters need not apply) and when.]

    [CR: Fabius has a post today on the food crisis.]

  4. Maxon 23 May 2008 at 7:27 am 4

    Germain to this discussion.
    Put worries and threats into perspective.


  5. Fabius Maximuson 23 May 2008 at 10:55 am 5

    I think the danger of impacts from space is a bit low to justify large scale funding. The odds of a civilization-ending impact are microscopic vs. serious needs here and now. IMO, in a thousand years pushing an asteroid off course will be a service project for your local Boy Scout Troop.

    Space exploration and development is imo easily justified for more immediate and practical reasons. Research often has high long-term payoffs for a society, as does opening new frontiers.

    [CR — There’s no cosmic clock, far as we know, issuing these things one per millennium. “Once every thousand years” means that the probability of one in any given year is .1% As Easterbrook notes, that means we shouldn’t be terribly shocked if one shows up tomorrow.

    There seems to be a fair amount of research involved in this project. What research benefits do you envision from building (to use Easterbrook’s term) a Motel 6 on the moon?]

  6. Dr_Vomacton 23 May 2008 at 1:22 pm 6

    Good news: it is eminently feasible to develop the capability of deflecting large space rocks from hitting the Earth; what’s more, we could have done so in the 1970s, and the cost would have been considerably less than NASA has spent on its Shuttle program. In fact, we could have thousands of people working and living in space by now, with productive mining and manufacturing colonies on the moon and in the Asteroid belt. But we (the United States) decided not to do so for political reasons.
    I am talking about Project Orion. If you haven’t heard of it, take a look at the Wikipedia page, or just google for it.
    Project Orion was an engineering design study begun in the late 1950s, and headed by Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson. Its purpose was to determine the feasibility of building a nuclear-propelled spacecraft capable of taking off from the Earth’s surface and traveling anywhere within the Solar System. The project’s motto, according to Dyson, was “Saturn by 1970!”.
    The design they produced is breathtaking in its brutally simple technical audacity: the ship worked by ejecting small (sub-kiloton) nuclear bombs out the back at a rate of about one per second. Each bomb was detonated a short distance away, giving a rather hefty shove to the appropriately named “pusher plate” at the back of the rocket. To keep these impulses from killing the crew, the pusher plate was connected to the vehicle by huge shock absorbers.
    What it lacks in subtlety, Orion makes up in terms of raw power: in fact, the bigger the ship, the more efficient it becomes; putting tens or hundreds of thousands of tons into orbit—and beyond—would be well within Orion’s capability. Orion was feasible with 1960s technology; it could be done even better today. In particular, we’ve learned a lot about making nuclear bombs small and clean since then…and the clean part is very important, for the chief drawback of Orion is that it produces radioactive “fallout”.
    As I said, the reasons why Orion was never built were political: even back in the 60s, people were nervous about fallout—and then too, launching an Orion would be a breach of the international accord forbidding open-air nuclear detonations (a.k.a. the “Test Ban Treaty”).
    Dyson claimed that there would be a statistical probability of something between one-tenth and one additional case of cancer for each Orion launch. Maybe that would be unacceptable just to send some people on a joy ride to the Moon—but what about saving human civilization from death by the next space rock to come along? Surely, it would be justified to risk a statistical possibility of a couple of extra cases of illness in return for establishing a human space presence dedicated to warding off disaster.
    It wouldn’t take a fleet of Orions to get humanity started into space—just a few. If it was big enough, one would do it. All we have to do is loft the people to locate the needed raw materials, and the machinery (the tools to build the tools) to start up large-scale production of more Orions in space. Then, if a space rock threatens New York…we’ll strip-mine it to death.

  7. Dr_Vomacton 23 May 2008 at 5:30 pm 7

    quoth our esteemed moderator:

    There seems to be a fair amount of research involved in this project. What research benefits do you envision from building (to use Easterbrook’s term) a Motel 6 on the moon?]

    Better: old people’s homes on the moon! Think about it: one sixth of the Earth’s gravity…how easy on the bones! A little (or a lot of) extra rotundity about the middle? No problem in low gravity. Yeah…I’m ready for that.

    [CR: The creativity on this site is inspiring. If only we could harness this power to serve truth, beauty, and virtue.]

  8. Fabius Maximuson 23 May 2008 at 6:47 pm 8

    How shattering to see Chet’s lack of imagination, blind to the benefits of a lunar colony. In a previous life Chet was at the docks as the Santa Maria sailed away, saying “Nothing will come of it. His calculations of the Earth’s size are wrong, and they will all die before reaching land.”
    Let’s take up a collection to buy Chet the collected works of Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. Q.E.D.
    I will however vote against the Orion “nuke your way to orbit system.” Unless we are invaded by star-traveling elephants, as in “Footfall.” Now that would be 5GW!

    [CR: Yeah, Fab, you’re right. Let’s give it a go – it’s only $120 Billion (NASA promises!) Something might come of it — don’t have a clue what, but you can’t rule out that the interior of the moon is filled with petroleum and in any case, there appear to be relatively few jihadis in the place.]

  9. Stratioteson 24 May 2008 at 5:39 am 9

    I bet somebody could figure out that the Bill of Rights is not relevant on the moon as well – and we’d have another place to detain suspected terrorists for “questioning.”

    The cost of such benefits would be minimal compared to the cost of war in Iraq or Iran or Ir-after. A few billion more would never be noticed. For the “evil-doers” (would that be politicians or al-queda, sometimes its hard to tell) the Moon truly could be a harsh mistress (to second the Heinlein suggestion).

    [CR: Sounds reasonable, but wouldn’t an asteroid hurtling towards the earth work just as well???]

  10. Cheton 25 May 2008 at 7:16 pm 10

    Much as I thing it’s a big boondoggle, I couldn’t help watching NASA TV coverage of the Phoenix mission and cheering along with the team as it touched down. I also watch (and cross my fingers for) every Shuttle mission.

    Congratulations to NASA and Lockheed Martin (my old employer — 1983 – 1999) on a spectacular technological feat!

  11. Fabius Maximuson 25 May 2008 at 9:03 pm 11

    Chet is unfortunately correct that the majority of NASA’s funding has done nothing for America. The return on Apollo was near zero (the spin-offs are to a large extent urban legends, except for Tang).
    I believe this resulted from poor execution rather then something inherent in space exploration. NASA used the wrong metaphor — a race rather than opening a frontier.
    This low return looks worse when compared with that of the age of exploration.
    * Portugal’s circumnavigation of Africa and conquest of the Spice Islands.
    * Spainish and Britain’s colonies in the western hemisphere.
    Even more amazing, NASA is doubling down on its failures. Instead of exploiting near-earth space — research, medical science of low-gravity, industrial use — they are going for a visit to Mars, which is unlikely to generate anything other than headlines.


    Chet is unfortunately correct …

    You all have no idea how hard it was for Fabius to write that.]

  12. Maxon 26 May 2008 at 5:32 pm 12

    With humility and absolute respect to both.

    On the other hand, Well, there has been an impact. In large scale data and imagery processing, and compression. Also artificial intelligence.

    Mostly coming out of JPL. Very early in my career I worked with some applications and pepole who were originaly involved in the later Apollo missions where the TV imagery improved dramticaly. I recognise
    those earlier developments and techniques everywhere these days.

    Cable TV, sattelite, broadcast, telco, ISP, videotape and disc recording, surveillance, remote sensing, transmission, digital photography even the formats employed on your ipod, and the progress in video across the internet, and now HDTV can be traced back to all that.

    I’m not saying it wouldn’t all have happened otherwize, but just as
    high tech developments in for instance military aircraft and weaponry find thier way to first autromobile and motorcycle racing, then trickle down to the general automotive sector, it’s never the less
    a reality. It simply works that way, I’ve seen it, and participated
    in it.

    So, it’s not entirely fair to say we recieve nothing, or trivialise
    it to Tang.

    Now, if you want to talk about the relative merits of investment
    and research on THAT trickle down basis, and in either case,
    space or the military, then, I agree wholeheartedly, it’s not particularly efficient, or senseable way to go about it.

    So yes, the money spent on the last 4 Apollo missions, or Pioneer, Voyager, and Viking, just to get color TV, and still pictures at good quality, in a digital format, wasn’t a particuarly smart investment or way to go about it, in the larger sense, and if that’s all you expected
    ‘to get out of it.

    We’re also talking about the US of A, and make work projects,
    and yes vast subsidies to our socalled High-tech industrial base.

    It would be far more efficient to have made those investments directly.

    And especially for the kind of money (hundereds of billions and even trillions) being thrown around.

    For example,
    Just imagine if the USA donated the money being squandered the last
    5 years and counting just on the Iraq mis-adventure, to research in
    new technology, in say the automotive and alternative energy feilds.

    Not to mention just fixing the roads, bridges, pipes, electric
    and telephone infrastructure.

    Priorities, and sensable stratigies, Huston, we do indeed
    have a problem,,,,.


  13. Maxon 04 Jun 2008 at 8:11 am 13

    Fabius Maximuson 25 May 2008 at 9:03 pm 11

    “Chet is unfortunately correct that the majority of NASA’s funding has done nothing for America.”
    How can you say that !
    When thier doing stuff as momentous as THIS,
    (toung’n cheek, Hyperbolic sarcasim)

    Space station residents to fix toilet

    By JUAN A. LOZANO, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 6 minutes ago

    HOUSTON – Residents aboard the international space station were getting ready to take on a new task Wednesday: plumbing.

    The space station’s toilet broke two weeks ago. The problem — confined to the urine side of the commode — has forced the orbiting outpost’s crew of an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts to flush manually with extra water several times a day.