Look Up and Live

Commemorating the birthday of Walter Alvarez
who discovered what killed the dinosaurs.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In September 2021, a small earthquake struck my part of Australia, reminding millions of people that the forces of nature are mind-boggling. What can we learn from another natural disaster – the threat that asteroids and meteors pose to our world?

In April 2002, I wrote a letter to the Australian Minister for Science. I am still waiting for a satisfactory response:

Dear Minister….

As an Australian citizen who tries to keep abreast of scientific news, I am aware of the great danger posed to our planet by Earth-grazing asteroids. Scientists have revealed that a number of significant asteroids have skimmed past our plant in the last two months alone.

It seems likely that had any of these asteroids collided with our planet, the consequences may have been catastrophic. Had they fallen in Australia, they might have destroyed a major metropolitan area and devastated the majority of our continent. The loss of life and property could have been incalculable.

Even a cursory study of our nation’s geographic features proves that asteroids have crashed in Australia in the past, and will undoubtedly do so again.

I therefore seek your clarification as to what your government is doing to gather together our nation’s scientific opinion and expertise, to assess the actual risks associated with Earth-grazing asteroids, and to implement a “Skywatch” type program as part of an early warning system.

I understand that Australia stands virtually alone in the Southern Hemisphere as having the technological capacity to scan the southern skies for this danger. I feel it is therefore incumbent upon our government to accept its moral responsibility in this area and show leadership in protecting our nation and possibly the world.

Twenty years later, I assume that my letter was sparked by news of a similar letter being signed around that same time by many scientists imploring the Australian government to take similar steps for watch the skies. Such concerns are not simply the realm of science fiction. They have happened in the past, perhaps most famously a century ago at Tunguska, and in more ancient times when one may have impacted human society and Biblical mythology. Impacts and collisions with Earth happen all the time, including a scattering across Australia – but most are small and barely register on our attention spans, like the Chelyabinsk meteor over Russia in 2013:

It is bigger ones that are statistically less likely but frighteningly dangerous. Australia’s history in this regard may boast the largest impact ever found – but our contribution to the safety effort is paltry and erratic. Our country’s long-standing policy regarding a Minister of Science is to subsume this portfolio within other areas of responsibility, because we all know that the field of study that gave us electricity, antibiotics, COVID vaccines, aircraft, automobiles, mobile phones, computers, GPS, Siri, the Internet, and ‘Major Tom‘ in outer space, is not as important as our current Prime Minister’s obsession with digging up and burning rocks, chopping down trees, or promoting superstition.

When one ponders that the dinosaurs were likely killed by a massive asteroid strike, maybe we should hope that the dinosaurs in our Parliament do not create a similar fate for the rest of us.

There are many such existential threats that demand our world’s attention: meteors and microbes, pollution and poverty, climate change and corruption. The way our society ignores asteroids is symbolic of our attitudes towards other dangers.

Our distant Cretaceous–Paleogene cousins had limited intelligence and no way of predicting, understanding or preventing their fate, but humans have the comprehension and the capabilities. What fate do we choose? The sky is the limit.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn