Saturday, January 23, 2010

waiting for the asteroid

A near-Earth object hurtled past us on Wednesday, with 80,000 miles to spare—this is only about a third of the way between us and the moon. The news reports about this were uniformly reassuring, in that we were told that if it had hit us it wouldn’t have done a huge amount of damage, but I admit I’m just a hair jittery about it—the object was discovered only two days before it came a little too close for comfort.

Space in general gives me the heebie-jeebies—it's big and it does things with physics that I don't understand. I still remember how, in 1994, all sort of things started crashing into Jupiter. Back then, many of us watched this spectacle on the evening news—the comet in question, Shoemaker-Levy 9, disassembled itself into 21 fragments before plummeting into the substantial flank of our largest neighbor, and the explosions spread across the planet like a ghastly string of pearls. The largest piece sent up a plume of crud 1500 miles high and left behind a dark discoloration, a planetary bruise that the newscasters assured us was larger than the Earth. The pummeling went on for six days and became a kind of astronomical TV miniseries—it was hard to tell whether the spectacle was amusing or horrible, but we all wanted to see how it was going to end.

But apparently it hasn’t ended, and won't, and among our many other worries we should probably include a fresh worry about whether something is going to crash into us. If it can happen on Jupiter it can certainly happen here, and the only real question is whether worrying about it will change anything. Probably not: After learning about Wednesday’s near miss, I had a curious impulse to start baking pies, which is lame, but it’s what I’m going to do--if I’m going to get vaporized, I apparently want to do it with flour dribbled down my front.