TCS Daily


No More Near Misses

By James Pinkerton - February 22, 2002 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: This article is the third of three parts.

In the two parts of this series than ran in January, I considered, first, the continuing terrorist threat to America and, second, the prophetic value of science fiction as a tool for discerning future threats - threats not only to this country, but to the world itself. To be sure, apocalyptic science fiction is little in vogue these days, which is strange, because the real-world threats keep getting more threatening. It doesn't take a lot of foresight to foresee some serious planet-busting ahead, thanks to various flying objects, both man-made and natural.

Consider, for example, a February 17 report from United Press International: Pakistan has developed a new missile, Shaheen II. It has a range of more than 1500 miles - which puts every major city in India within range - and it is capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Big news? Fraught with frightful sub-continent-wide war potential? I think so. And yet the story wasn't picked up the Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post.

Taken by itself, of course, Pakistan's next step toward full-blown nuclear powerdom might be seen as a relatively small item; after all, the vital controversy over the Olympic pair-skaters needed lavish attention. And besides, the Pakistanis are our friends, right? But even if Shaheen II is just one more straw piled up on the camel's back, it's axiomatic that eventually that back will break, that some unlucky spot on the earth will suffer a nuclear attack. And after the nuclear genie is let loose, will the taboo against weapons of mass destruction of all kinds be lifted? Or will it be blown away? Of course, if Moore's Law holds true for another 15 years, the capacity of humans, or at least their machines, to engineer new tools, for good or for ill, will have multiplied another 512 times. What would the Shaheen missile be capable of then? And its payload?

But even if all our brains and cyber-brains behave, maybe nature itself won't. Although the Times wasn't interested in Pakistani missiles, it did take an interest in universal missiles - the kind that come hurtling toward us from somewhere in the universe. On that same day, February 17, it reported on the looming risk of a first-strike against the earth by a comet or asteroid - although of course, it won't be a first strike; it will be yet another strike, of the kind that wipes out most life on earth every eon or so.

As the Times observed, on January 7 Asteroid 2001 YB5 passed right by us, at a cosmically infinitesimal distance of some 500,000 miles. And while YB5 was small -- about two-thirds the height of the Empire State Building - it would have been a true death projectile. According to reporter Anthony Ramirez, "If it had hit the Pacific Ocean, the splash would have sent a tsunami 30 feet high crashing into San Francisco. If the asteroid had hit land, the impact would have equaled 350,0000 Hiroshima atomic bombs and caused incalculable destruction."

What's more, scientists spotted YB5 only two weeks before it near-missed. To be sure, NASA began its Near-Earth Object Program only in 1998, but even if it learns to spot NEO's well in advance, as with rogue missiles, the United States has no capacity for intercepting rogue rocks before they hit our homeland.

No wonder Stephen Hawking, the legendary physicist, was moved to say last October, "I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space... There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet." Hawking is much listened to when he discusses the history of time, but his commentary on the future of time - at least human-time - is mostly ignored.

Why is that? What makes us so confident - or complacent - about our safe passage on spaceship earth?

Historically, humans have relied upon faith. In his 1931 book, Philosophical Theology, the British academic F.R. Tennant wrapped such thinking into a phrase, the Anthropic Principle. People were a product of a "wider teleology" - a wider purpose, or design -- that began with God. Indeed, much of today's "Intelligent Design" movement, spearheaded by thinkers such as Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Michael Denton, is based on the Anthropic Principle - the presumption that we arrived to where we are now for a reason. A jokey version of this strain of thinking appears in a "Bloom County" cartoon strip from the early '80s, in which Oliver Wendell Jones -- the little kid with a big IQ -- declares, "The universe is just a little too darn orderly to be a big accident!" And man's continuing presence on earth is part of that presumed order.

The much more common non-philosophical, secular version of the Anthropic Principle is, "We'll muddle through, we always do." That is, because homo sapiens has been here a long time, we're likely to last here even longer. In other words, while evolutionists and existentialists reject Tennant's theology, they have an ironic tendency to end up in the same Anthropically Principled place - namely, that we don't need to do anything to guarantee our permanent place in geo-history.

So maybe the science fiction works cited in part two of this series represent a new kind of secular eschatology - the study of the end of things. And page-turning paperbacks are more fun to read than the heavy-bottomed, hard-covered philosophical tomes. But because the Anthropic Principle, in either its theistic or atheistic form, is so engrained in our souls and psyches, prophesies about planet smashing are read as engaging fantasies, not galvanizing action-plans.

Decades ago, the British scientist J.B.S. Haldane was asked by a bishop what his studies told him about the mind of God. He replied, "He has an inordinate fondness for beetles." Haldane had a point; some 350,000 species of beetles co-exist with us, and one kind or another of the six-legged critters has been around for 250 million years, surviving all the calamities that killed greater -- and smarter -- fauna. By that reckoning, we could posit an Arthopodic Principle, because over the ages, beetles have been big winners.

It doesn't have to be this way. We could think our way out of the ultimate death trap we call earth. But to do that -- to save ourselves -- we have to move beyond faith in design or faith in luck to a new kind of belief - a believing confidence in species-saving good works. If we could do that, if we go from fatalism to activism, we would prove, once and forever, that we are better than bugs.

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