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Techsploits

Destroy All Planets

By Annalee Newitz

NOT LONG after news about the Asian tsunamis broke all over the world, science nerds who could tear themselves away from stories about kinetic energy and tidal waves were reading about another massive threat to the Earth. An errant asteroid, sighted by astronomers earlier this year, was given a tentative 2.7 percent chance of hitting Earth and totally demolishing it in 2029. These odds, the highest ever assigned an asteroid on a possible collision course with the planet, were announced on Dec. 27, just a day after huge chunks of coastal and island Asia were destroyed by water.

It doesn't take a genius or a cultural critic to tell you why such puny and unconfirmed odds made headlines in the days following the most terrifying natural disaster of this generation. In the wake of calamity, we always wonder what's next—whether something else huge and unstoppable is waiting to crush us, something completely out of our control from outer space.

The asteroid threat, which has in days since been re-evaluated and declared no threat at all, provided a perfect fantasy counterpoint to very real fears aroused by the tsunamis. In part, it was just another scary natural disaster on which we could train our attention—nothing like diverting yourself from one kind of pain with another. But the phantom asteroid threat also touched on a more profound anxiety. Even when we can measure impending danger with scientific instruments, we still do not have a human system in place to deal with what we're seeing.

What the hell would we do if an asteroid really were on a collision course with the Earth? Like any good pop-culture consumer, the first thing I imagined when I heard about the asteroid was that stupid but great movie Armageddon, where Bruce Willis and his crew race against time to blow up an asteroid before it hits Earth.

I also thought about some of our current strategic defense programs, which include generally fruitless attempts to shoot missiles out of the sky before they hit their targets. Although we are prepared with more than movie scripts to deal with military strikes, most civilians are taught to respond to impending fiery doom using the same old "duck and cover" routine that was supposed to save us from atomic blasts in the 1950s. The kinds of emergency measures we have in place to deal with nuclear war, in other words, are about as helpful as clinging to a tree while the city is being washed away under your feet.

Why, if we can detect population-gutting disasters in advance, do we not have a simple way of raising an alert? Seismologists knew that the tsunamis were coming, but there's no special red telephone you can pick up to call "coastal Asia and assorted Pacific Islands." Obviously, there could be—not the red telephone, of course, although that would be kind of neat. What I mean is that we have a pretty kick-ass global telecommunications infrastructure. We could easily use it for an emergency broadcast service.

I wonder if the lack of such an emergency system isn't a darker and more socially crippling version of that fantasy about an asteroid snuffing out the planet. It's a fantasy of human helplessness in the face of horror; a fantasy where there is nothing we can do to stop ourselves from digging mass graves and taking pictures of screaming victims.

And yet there is something we can do to dispel this nightmare. We can use existing resources to create simple methods for alerting people who are in danger. We can set up emergency-alert systems for scientists who monitor weather, earthquakes and our local volume of space. We don't have to be helpless.

But taking these simple steps to protect the world is more frightening than facing the asteroid head-on: it means taking responsibility for ourselves. It means offering more than President Bush's toothless prayers for people who need material assistance. More challenging than that, it means connecting the dots and figuring out that unpreventable catastrophes are hideous enough that to cause them on purpose, with our nation-obliterating weapons of war, is not just foolhardy. It's wrong.


Annalee Newitz (unnaturaldisaster@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who is glad that Jasper was able to get off the beach and up the mountain.


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From the January 5-11, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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