Thursday, February 26, 2004

We're overdue for a good old-fashioned meteor impact.

I'm not saying it will be a huge one, like the one that ejected the dinosaurs from the evolutionary stage, but it will be significant. When you have a chunk of metal plunging into a planet's gravity well, it doesn't have to be all that big to pack a hell of a punch.

Earth has been narrowly missing these things for decades. The last time we got hit was in 1908 -- really not that long ago at all, when you think about it. Fortunately it exploded over Siberia instead of, say, Paris or New York City, in which case the history of the world would be quite different.

So let's get morbid. Say we get hit by a 40-meter rock, and we're unlucky enough for it to land in an industrialized country instead of the middle of the ocean or Antarctica. There's a lot more industrialized territory than there was in 1908, so the odds of a catastrophic strike have risen. Yet despite our expansion, we're woefully unprepared to divert -- or even detect -- incoming meteors. One of our only prospects for advance warning, the Hubble Space Telescope, is probably going to be scrapped -- apparently so Dubya can invest more skull-sweat into the pressing issue of steroid-use in professional sports.

So if we get hit, it's likely no one will know what's happening. And remember that many of us live in a culture trained to be perpetually afraid. Yellow alerts. Orange alerts. We've been conditioned, with ruthless efficiency, to attribute Western society's ills to terrorists and "Evil Doers."

By now you probably see where I'm going with this.

A nickel-iron meteorite obliterates a major city. Before the cause of the blast can be determined, some foreign power has been targeted by what's left of the afflicted nation's nuclear arsenal. The beleaguered nation fires in a white-hot rage. The recipient state collapses in a "shock and awe" thermonuclear inferno. Sympathizers immediately retaliate in whatever way they can. Dirty nukes, poison gas, hijacked planes, you-name-it.

Suddenly, while the dust settles around the epicenter of what will later be revealed to be a chance collision with an unallied celestial body, the world is wracked by spasms of self-inflicted mass destruction. Like a forest fire, the spread of retaliation may be too swift to stomp out. And even if we do manage to get a positive ID on the original culprit within the first few hours of conflict, who's going to believe it?

Even more ominously, who's going to care? By then, we will have reached critical mass. Mob mentality takes over, fueled by fear, devastation, and millennia of self-fulfilling Armageddon stories.

Surely I'm not the only one who's thought of this. I'd like to think that somewhere in the halls of power, contingency plans have been drafted to deal with such an event, in which case we might make it out of a collision-retaliation event not wholly incapacitated.

Or the truth might be even darker: Someone indeed realizes the danger, but has chosen not to educate us. The idea of being exterminated from above has a powerful mythical resonance; perhaps we collectively long to be sterilized. Given the option of mere oblivion or dreadful knowing, will may well elect to die in ignorance.

"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

-- Albert Einstein


Anonymous said...

No, you're not the only one who's thought of it.