This is point of inquiry from Monday, March 26, 2012.
Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Indre Viskontas point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. The year 2012 is upon us. And it’s a particularly popular year for doomsday prophecies, according to a review paper published in the journal Nature in 1994 by Clark Chapman and David Morrison. There is a one in 10000 chance that a large asteroid or comet will collide with Earth in the next century. But one by one. Every planet or large object claimed to be on a collision course with Earth has been shown to be a hoax by astronomers or physicists or both. So what’s the real risk? Would we have any advanced warning of a disaster of this magnitude?
It’s high time we asked an astrobiologist. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, David Morrison.
Hi, I’m glad to be here.
Well, we’re delighted to have you. And I wanted to start out the conversation by asking you about, of course, what everyone is worried about this planet X or Nibiru hitting that hitting our planet in 2012.
Is this something that you’re worried about?
I’m worried about the fact that so many people are worried about it. Yes. There’s nothing going to happen in December 2012. There’s nothing headed for the Earth. But it’s a fascinating phenomenon, primarily on the Internet, primarily on YouTube, that there are people who are genuinely afraid of the end of Earth, the end of the world. This is a weird concept. We’ve been here for more than four billion years, and yet there are a significant number of people who are afraid the earth is going to end this year.
And so you are considered one of the founders of the very field of astrobiology, which is the study of the living universe. So what was it that made you decide that we actually needed a whole field to study these? I mean, it’s clearly a very important question. What is the future? What is the past of the living universe? But how did you come to sort of devising the field itself?
What triggered the interest in actually defining this as a separate discipline was that it appeared in the 1990s that for the first time, science could answer what had previously been largely intangible questions about how did life arise? Are we alone because of the discoveries that were happening that were really cool? We we just found out that one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, has a greater liquid ocean than we have on Earth. We’ve found that evidence, possibly a fossil life on Mars. We were just on the threshold of this explosion of finding new planets around other stars. We had just decoded the human genome. It seemed like from a variety of directions, science was actually able to start addressing these fundamental questions that people have been asking for centuries.
And as you founded and led this field, have you noticed that people have become more and more concerned about the end of the universe? Or is this something that has always been part of our consciousness?
I don’t think astrobiology is very much related to being concerned about the end of the universe. This sort of man, that millennialism or eschatology, has been with us for at least a couple of thousand years. And it’s amazing how frequently somebody claims the world’s about to end. There were at least three times in 2011 that it was widely publicized that the world would end. Of course it didn’t. Least I didn’t notice it. And it seems to me that people would begin to get the idea that these kinds of prophecies just are not going to happen.
And, you know, I’ve I’ve heard even that ancient civilizations worried about, of course, the end of the world. And it’s been it’s a common theme and a lot of different religious texts. But it also seems to me and this might just be a function of the confirmation biases that I’m looking for it now, that in particular, 2012 has been a significant day. Is is that your impression or as there always been some date and 2012 just happens to be the date de jure?
I have never seen anything like it. And partly the difference is that there is nothing there. There is no there there. There is no ancient text that says the world will end in 2012. There’s no astronomical discovery of an object coming in. Compare it with Y2K, which a lot of us remember there. There was a legitimate issue. There really was a bug in the computer systems that had to be corrected, and it was. And so people may have greatly exaggerated the risk to them. But there was some sort of foundation.
2012 is just made up. It’s pure fantasy from beginning to end.
And yet, you know, it’s it’s generated so much discussion, especially, of course, on the Internet. And one of the things that I really love about your work is that you’ve decided to take on some of these questions head on on your site. Ask an astrobiologist. You’re one of the few astrophysicists who have actually agreed to address the public and address this issue. What led you to do to go in that direction?
I started being asked questions. The asking astrobiologist Web site of NASA is there to receive questions submitted by the public and answer some of them at least. So four years ago, I’d never heard of the 2012 rumor, but suddenly people started asking me. Today I get anywhere from five to 10 questions per day on email about it. Approximately once a week I get a letter from a young person identifying themselves as eleven or twelve years old who say they’re contemplating committing suicide. I’ve had a half a dozen letters, notes from young women who say they’re planning to cure or kill their children and themselves. I had one from somebody who asked me rather plaintively.
She said, my only friend is my little dog, Quinn. Should I put her to sleep so she won’t suffer in the 2012 cataclysm? So to me, you know, it pretty soon you begin to save. What the heck is going on here?
And so what do you do in those situations?
Well, in the worst situations I described, like like people saying they’re contemplating suicide. There’s really nothing I can do except Ellen. There’s nothing to worry about. You know, my my doctorate is not that kind of doctor. I can’t give psychological help. And incidentally, with a NASA Web site that people don’t identify themselves. So even if I wanted to to alert a suicide watch or something of that far, I don’t have any way to do it. But these questions keep coming in.
And it’s it’s amazing to me how how emotionally involved people get.
Many people write to me very angrily calling me names. So I wouldn’t repeat on a podcast because I have the temerity to stand up and say nothing will happen in December 2012.
And what about your colleagues? Have you gotten any backlash from your colleagues, perhaps suggesting that just by answering these questions, you’re somehow continuing to allow these these ideas to flourish?
I understand that perspective, but no, I have not been criticized by my colleagues. What’s been interesting to me that until about the last year, almost no colleague that I mentioned this to was even aware of the 2012 fear it. It’s a phenomenon that had grown on the Internet, on YouTube among young people, and my scientific colleagues had never heard of it. They said, what the heck are you talking about? That’s so silly. How could anyone believe that the people who do take it seriously are teachers, especially teachers of lower and middle school who say all their students are expressing fear of some sort or at least a great concern that it might be a problem?
Mm hmm. And do you think it’s because we now have so many different ways of communicating with people across countries and across sort of physical boundaries that these kinds of ideas can gain momentum? Or have there always been a fringe set of people who will believe, believe this and that even today it’s no more than just a small subset?
I don’t know the answer. I have become involved in this particular case. And to me, it seems widespread enough that it should be worried about, especially among young people. I think probably 90 percent of the students are aware of it. Even if most of their parents are not. But I don’t have a point of reference on on it. I do think that it’s it’s interesting to imagine what’s going to happen on December 21st or 22nd and 2012. What will all of these people say and do? Are they going to drop the subject? Are they just going to push a reset button and say, oh, well, we were wrong about 2012. It’s really going to happen in 2013? I don’t know.
Yeah, I mean, I think it’ll be interesting to watch. But given some of the way that that these kinds of sex have behaved in the in the past, often contradictory evidence just makes them believe more more fervently and in the idea.
And as you said, you know, push the reset button or, you know, just somehow figure out a way to. Take this new evidence that it didn’t happen. And, you know, make their theory sort of support, you know, continue to to allow that in.
Right. It’s it’s a phenomenon that I don’t begin to understand, but I’m certainly coming face to face with it every day. And also the extreme statements that are made on YouTube in the comments section from people that just say we’re liars, where shills. Those of us like me who do these videos that we should be killed even.
I mean, then that we’re actually threatened for the very fact of standing up and saying that there’s no problem.
With the answers that I really lobbed in your asking and astrobiologists sort of frequently asked questions about planet X or any bureau. Is your statement that, in fact, there there’s no reason for the government to cover up something of this magnitude and that, you know, it’s sometimes even the government is more likely to talk about a particular fear for fear of of missing it. Can you talk a little bit about that point?
Well, there are two points. First is the is the one that that you’re touching on that simply trying to cover something up is, I think, universally understood to not work. You can cover up a bad, bad news for a while. And then when it comes out, there are a lot worse off. And often the things that people are criticized for is not the original crime, but the cover up. I mean, it’s stupid to try to cover up something. But the other thing that I think’s very interesting is the number of people who think the government, the U.S. government in this case could cover up an incoming object like a planet, Nibiru. I don’t know if they assume that that all the scientists work for the government or that the government is you know, it’s it’s it’s a real paranoia sort of thing. I pointed out to them that there are at least a hundred thousand amateur astronomers, at least 10000 professional astronomers with access to good telescopes. There in every country in the world. And the idea that that NASA could discover an incoming object and then keep it secret from all that. Hundred thousand astronomers is simply absurd. Heck, I don’t know of any five astronomers that can keep a secret if they were told to.
It’s just not the way scientists think.
And that brings me to my next question, which is how how good are we at seeing the universe around us or the galaxy around us? Well, what is the resolution that we have in terms of how we are able to observe the night sky? That’s a really good question.
And there’s there’s no simple answer. Obviously, the whole sky is available to us. There’s no part of the universe that we can’t see. But our ability to to to see things depends on how bright they are, how close they are. If we’re talking about stellar astronomy, we can see billions and billions of galaxies. But if we’re talking about an incoming object that might threaten the Earth, then it’s a whole different system of doing a sky survey and trying to see things like asteroids and comets. When they come close to the earth, we can see them. Certainly we can if they’re big. But heck, there’s there’s a there’s some kind of rock going between the moon and the earth every day, for instance, that we don’t see.
And why is that?
We can’t see things that are faint. And until we looked, we had no idea what was up there.
It’s only in the last 20, 25 years that astronomers, a very small group of astronomers, have decided specifically search for near Earth asteroids for four or the space rocks that come close to our planet and could ultimately hit us. And the motivation is to protect our planet. There’s no way we could think about any sort of defense system unless we discover the object. So the very first thing to do was to set up a survey. But we’re talking about looking for objects a kilometer or two across or even a few tens of meters across. And until we specifically built a survey system and looked, those just came by the Earth all the time and we were unable to see them. We weren’t interested in them and we really weren’t aware of what was there.
And so with what frequency did this kind of space debris or asteroids actually hit our earth?
It all depends on the size. There is a whole lot more small objects than big ones.
So if we think of something the size of the impact 65 million years ago that killed the dinosaurs and 90 percent of the other species on Earth. That only happens every few hundred million years. If we ask about an object like the well-known nineteen oh eight impact in Russia, the 10 Gasca impact that happens every. Couple of hundred years and there’s a whole range in between, if you get down to just meteorites.
Rocks that that fall from the sky. That happens every day. So you pick the size, you pick the hazard. And you can then ask the question scientifically how often that happens.
But I have been involved in is trying, first of all, to estimate fire. The greatest hazard is what size impact and what frequency of impact is most likely to kill you. What is that most likely to be on your tombstone, that you were killed by an asteroid? And the answer is four objects, one or two kilometers in diameter. Because at that size and impact has a global effect, mostly by putting a lot of dust into the atmosphere.
Smaller ones are less dangerous and bigger ones are much less frequent. So there’s a point there where we’ve concentrated the survey and that four objects, one, two, three kilometers in diameter.
And so how much notice now would we have if there was an object one, two or three kilometers in diameter coming towards us?
Certainly we would have decades of notice.
In fact, right now, we’re pretty sure we’ve seen all the objects larger than two kilometers. And I’m happy to tell you, not one of them is going to hit the earth, at least not in the next few centuries. At the other end, there are a million objects the size of that, some Juska impactor. And we have not found most of them. And one of them could hit without any warning, whatever.
And the impact of that, I think the one in Russia leveled something like 50 kilometers of forest, is that correct or is that complete? Yes.
It was the the approximate equivalence of a of a large nuclear bomb. The sort of five or 10 megaton bombs that are on the war of our missiles. And so if that landed on the middle of a city, it could kill millions of people in the 10 Gasca wilderness. It didn’t kill anybody. And if it land in the ocean, it wouldn’t have killed anyone.
So here again, its its size, its frequency, its where you are. And and that’s a problem that science can deal with.
It seems very scary to think that potentially out of nowhere an impact like that could, could come with no notice and level a city. But of course the vast majority of the earth is not populated, it’s its water. So do you do those kind of calculations of of the likelihood of that kind of an impact hitting a really populous part of the world?
Yes. Yes. And one can go through the statistical arguments. But think about it, do you as as a as a citizen. Do you worry about knowing what the statistics are? Or would you rather we actually find the next object and give you a warning? If you’re in the point of contact, that’s the way we’ve shifted. We started as a a scientific question, the way astronomers work.
They do statistical samples. And then we realized that’s not the public policy issue. The public policy issue is when and where is the next impact going to take place. So that’s what we focus on now.
And so how has that shifted your research? What do you do now to give us that answer?
You have to do a much more thorough and careful survey. If you’re going to find every single object and determine one at a time whether they’re a danger, then if you’re just trying to do a statistical analysis. So the goal of our Spaceguard survey now is not statistics. It’s defined every object, one at a time and calculate there are bits and see if any individual object is going to hit us.
Hmm, that seems like a incredibly important work, and it makes me wonder if you’ve been able to attract more scientists to that kind of research than to sort of the theoretical statistics field.
It’s limited less by number of scientists than it is by by cost, of course. When we started the Spaceguard survey, I estimated the number of scientists in the whole world who were involved in this. Protecting our planet was about equivalent to two one shift at a McDonald’s restaurant.
That’s amazing. And I would say by now it’s up to three chefs. There are probably a couple of dozen scientists in the world who are involved in these surveys directly.
Is that enough or should we be allocating more resources to this kind of work?
That’s not a fair question to ask me, of course. I would like to have more resources to do it.
But there are many competing interests. If we ever decide as a nation or as all the people of the Earth that we want warning for the next fungus, good size impact, then we would have to spend at least 10 times as much per year as we spend now.
Mm hmm. I mean, if you compare the sort of impact of that an earthquake has and we have earthquakes all the time, I’m particularly sensitive because, of course, I live in a fault zone. But there’s a lot of research that’s being done to sort of predict the next earthquake. And so I guess if you think about the likelihood of the next sort of major head, should should we titrate our money? And in terms of those probabilities, the fact that earthquakes of a magnitude that really level a city happened with more frequency than this kind of an impact? Or is that just that? You know, a little bit of money goes a longer way at the Spaceguard survey in the sense that if you could just double your funding, that would make it, you know, completely unlikely that we would have no warning of that kind of assize impact.
I think that the Spaceguard survey is highly cost effective and that if we had more money, we could use it. I’m not going to say that it’s it’s it’s more important than earthquakes, for instance. But think about how much money is spent not just on predicting earthquakes, but on all of these requirements and on building codes and then and so forth. That’s a very big enterprise. The amount of attention that we spend on worrying about asteroid impacts is very much less. And perhaps the proportionality is not exactly right.
What makes the prediction of an asteroid impact different from any other kind of natural answered is you can do something about it. There is no way to imagine that we could ever stop an earthquake from happening because earthquakes are caused by the motion of the Earth’s crust and it’s simply inevitable. If you live near a major fault zone, you know that every day the strain in the rocks beneath you is building up. It will eventually break and you simply don’t know when and when. But you can’t imagine ever stopping it. If we predicted an asteroid that was going to hit us in a few years, then at least in principle, we have the technology to go out and deflect it into a different orbit. So it misses. So this is the only major natural hazard that we could stop from happening. We are ultimately at the mercy of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and hurricanes and typhoons. We do not need to be subject in the future to any disastrous asteroid impacts because of the space faring civilization.
We could protect ourselves. How would we do that?
Well, there is. The techniques are there in principle that we’ve never worked them out in practice for an asteroid a few hundred meters across. Which is the sort of thing we might expect if we simply impact it with two or three spacecraft rockets. The change in momentum is enough to cause it’s ah but the shift and misses. Some people think we could do the same thing with nuclear explosives, and that’s probably true too. But it’s also not necessary for most of the cases we can imagine. Just the simple mechanical hitting it with another rocket and and transferring farming momentum to it would be sufficient.
Now, I’m a really big one, came along. I’m afraid we have have no technology to deal with that. If someone had told you that there were one or two kilometer asteroid going to hit within the next few years, I’d say just have fun and drink all your wine and understand that there’s nothing you can do about it.
So is it just because it’s so big? And if you tried to shoot something at it, it would just create more smaller, you know, bits of matter.
But that’s a good question. And a lot of discussion has gone into that, although no experiments. The main problem is just there’s so much mass that a big one that would be very hard to change is momentum enough to shift its orbit. There’s always the question of do you want to blow it apart? And that’s what Hollywood loves. Hmm. If you disintegrated at the last minute, then you’re absolutely right. All of those pieces would still hit the earth and we’d be at least as badly off. Disintegrated very far away.
Then it will disperse the fragments full spread out in space that you would largely protect us.
So. It’s not a simple yes or no answer as to how you would go about it.
But as per your previous comments, we’d have a couple of decades to sort it out. That right.
Given a couple of decades warning, I am confident that we have the technology and then we would have the motivation to do something about it in the real world. It’s almost surely going to be more complicated. We are surveying and every so often we find an asteroid HUSAR, but of course a little bit uncertain. And that looks like it might hit the earth. Now the asteroid knows whether it’s going to hit the earth. But we astronomers on the ground don’t have enough information to figure that out. At what point would you start worrying about deflection or taking some other other response? If we thought that was a one percent chance of hitting 10 percent and 80 percent.
But there are there are a whole series of sort of public policy questions that would arise if we really were serious about defending our planet against the next impact.
And so I’m getting the impression then that you feel that those policies aren’t in place.
I guess I always just assumed there was a protocol for if that information hit us, that there would be a way. You know, there’s sort of going to be a set of rules to follow for NASA to let us know. But that’s not the case.
Well, NASA would certainly let you know the results of these the survey, this kind of amazing a process, the data within a day. So if an asteroid is discovered by a telescope in Tucson, Arizona, one night by the next day, it’s at the central place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for our calculations are made by 4:00 the next afternoon. The new data and whatever information there is about orbits will be published on the Internet. And in fact, you can look up every known near Earth asteroid and see the current orbit for it very easily. So there’s no no secret about it. The question is, is what would you do? And at least in the United States, we would identify that NASA is the organization that that would be responsible initially.
But there is no process in place for how you would go about actually defending against an asteroid.
Mm hmm. And on your watch, what’s the closest we’ve come to potentially something that needs to be warned about the asteroid us?
Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was it was discovered a few years ago and it was found that it will come extremely close to Earth in on April 13th, 2029. Close enough that it’s well inside the ring of geosynchronous satellites would be visible to the naked eye. Going fast, huh?
At first we thought it actually had a chance of hitting.
But as the orbit was refined, we found out. No, it will certainly miss us. But when it comes so close to the earth, the gravity of the Earth changes its orbit quite dramatically. And we don’t really know what its orbit is going to be after it passes the Earth. And there’s the problem. There is a potential that it could end up on a orbit that will come back and get us seven years later. So that’s an issue that that has that a lot of discussion. Can we be sure enough when it comes by in 2029 that it won’t come back seven years later? And we spend a lot of effort observing that object to make sure we we are confident that we’re safe.
And so how will you how will you know? I mean, you know, is there a way that that you can model different alternatives in terms of what happens to its orbit after it comes close to the Earth?
Exactly. The way we tend to think about this as we’ve invented the word keyhole as it goes past the Earth in 2029, there is one spot at a certain distance from the earth which we call a keyhole. If it goes through that spot, it will come back and get us. So the issue is of all the possible places it could go as it comes past the Earth and we be sure it’s going to miss that keyhole that is potentially disastrous and will instead go to some other place and go into a different orbit and not be a problem.
Mm hmm. And do you think that by the time 2029 comes around, we’ll have a much more accurate view of of this likelihood?
Yeah, I hope before that there is an opportunity to. Observed this asteroid next year, both with optical telescopes and with radar. Which is more precise and we think that data will be sufficient to answer the question once and for all. Is there any possibility of it hitting the keyhole? And if not, then it’s still an interesting object to scientists because it seems come so close and we can study it. But it’s no longer a potential threat.
Well, that’s a big relief to say, oh, wait, wait, another year.
And now, assuming, of course, that you survive December 22nd, 2012. Then in 2013, we should have the answer on the office.
And I also notice that, you know, people are talking about this solar max phenomenon that some people thought would happen in 2012, but that it’s going to, you know, now predicted to happen in 2013. I think one of the consequences that I’ve read about on the Internet, of course, is that in these solar max times, you do see brighter northern and southern lights. And so, of course, one of my fears is that as people observe these lights, they might see it as confirming their beliefs that there really is something happening in 2012. Is there a way to sort of educate people that this is something that is going to lead to a lot of beautiful skies, but not going to be at all threatening to us?
Well, you should tell him that. I mean, how you how do you educate people?
There is such a noise level because of the Internet is wonderful, good things on the Internet. But my impression is the majority of what’s out there is not true. Whether it’s in politics or science. And it’s simply there is no lie, no law against lying on the Internet. There’s no law against lying on the Internet. And most people don’t know that. And a lot of young people think it’s on the Internet. It must be true. So we can try to speak for the voice of reason and talk about what science thinks, but it’s going to be very hard to overcome this background level of people who don’t understand reality, nevertheless make comments and YouTube videos and so forth that are out there.
Well, hopefully, as people become better and better consumers of the Internet and their Bollani detectors are honed properly. You know, people will become more and more skeptical of what they read on any given site.
But to that end, is there any reading that you can recommend for our listeners if they want to get further information about the cosmic impacts or just in general, this this topic of near earth objects?
There is a Web site at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab at the NASA and the old program office, which gives all the information you could possibly want about impacts, impact frequency statistics with all the known nearest asteroids and so forth. So that’s where I would recommend people go.
OK. And we’ll put that link up on our Web site. So is there anything else you’d like to add to our conversation before we sign off?
I think that it is a serious problem we have with young people who are afraid of things, what I call Kosma phobia.
They’re afraid of everything that they read about in the universe. If somebody discovers a distant galaxy and people write to me and say, is it going to kill me? Mm hmm. They hear about a planet around a star 20 light years away. Is that planet. And they come and destroy the earth. And I think this is very sad.
When I grew up, I was interested in astronomy. I was fascinated by new discoveries. If I read about a new comet being discovered, I’d say, cool. I’d think about going out with my telescope and looking at it.
There are now a significant number of young people who, when they hear about a new comet, say, is it going to kill me? And I think that’s very sad. Mm hmm.
Well, I know you’ve you’ve created an entire field devoted to answering the existential questions of the universe. So I guess of everyone you’re perhaps the most qualified to talk to. Talk to us about these existential questions. Does it ever has it has it changed the way you view our place and in this universe?
No, I don’t think it has. I am fascinated by our planet and our species and our life here. And I think it’s it’s wonderful to live on this planet. It’s wonderful to think about the things we think about.
I appreciate this vast universe beyond us. It is in some ways beyond our comprehension. And I just don’t get into issues of religion and philosophy and so forth, because that that stretches my mind too far.
I prefer to look at the science. I think science is beautiful.
Well, I have to agree with you on that note. So thank you very much for being on point of inquiry. It’s my pleasure.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show on the cosmic impact hazard visit point of inquiry dot org. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry, dot org on Twitter, at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations.
Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro feature, Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Indre Viskontas.