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Phil-osophically Speaking

Meteors And Madmen 

Recently, we received the glad tidings that an insane asylum called North Korea may have developed a missile capable of hitting the west coast of the United States. Meanwhile, the Democrats and the Republicans are about as far apart from a budget deal as Hoboken, New Jersey is from the next galaxy.  If that isn’t bad enough, five weeks ago a funny thing happened on our planet’s revolution around the Sun: a meteor collided with our planet. 

This scary encounter generated talk about the prospect of one of these rocks hitting a populated area. It’s not so far-fetched when you consider that the one that paid an unexpected visit to Russia just 5 weeks ago injured more than 1,000 people. It was the biggest bull’s-eye in more than 100 years.  On June 30, 1908 (9 years too soon, said columnist George Will, looking ahead to the Russian Revolution) a flaming wrecking ball from outer space, much larger than the latest sojourner, flattened and scorched a vast swath of Russia’s Siberian Forest.

If you subscribe, as I do, to the catastrophic school of planetary development and evolution, such a scenario is plausible. The early 19th-entury French anatomist and paleontologist George Cuvier formulated this theory, but it quickly ran afoul for being too radical and extreme. Cuvier believed that the contours and configurations of the Earth had been affected and shaped by sudden, short-lived and violent events that were worldwide in scope. This view contrasted with Cuvier’s contemporary, the geologist Charles Lyell, who believed that the Earth’s features were the result of gradual geological processes. Over eons of time these processes formed such things as mountains, continents and the oceans.  For more than a century, it was Lyell’s thesis that held suasion with most scientists. Cuvier’s worldview was often rejected because of its uncomfortable verisimilitude to what was seen as religious mythology: Biblical descriptions of Noah’s ark and the “Great Flood,” droughts and pillars of fire and other supernatural phenomena. Such events were considered miraculous rather than natural and hence were intellectually verboten.

Indeed, it was from Lyell’s ideations that an explanation for the dinosaurs’ disappearance during the Cretaceous period was forged. With the exception of some avian dinosaurs, most of the creatures were thought to have died due to climate change and other natural phenomena that provoked a slow and protracted demise. Then, as occasionally happens, a thunderbolt from out of the blue conflagrated into a revolutionary change of mind, one whose lineage could be traced back to Cuvier and catastrophism. In 1980, physicist Luis Alvarez, and his son, geologist Walter Alvarez, along with their tiny band of researchers discovered sedimentary layers dating back 66 million years that contained a concentration of iridium in much greater quantities than all the other layers in that sedimentary deposit.  Metal iridium is rarely found in the Earth’s crust, but is quite abundant in asteroids. That such aggregates were found at the exact time of the extinction of the dinosaurs was a coincidence that could not be neatly, much less categorically, dismissed.

I remember reading the first accounts of this extraordinary discovery with mounting enthusiasm and excitement. During grade school, like many boys, these giants that walked the earth fascinated me. I would read about them in the school library; at home I meticulously built a model of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and on a memorable class trip was mesmerized by the massive skeletal remains exhibited at the Museum of Natural History. Neither the books nor the curator at the museum spoke of any meteor as being the death blow to these monsters. Nor, for that matter, did anyone else.  By the time I had reached Junior High School my interest regarding dinosaurs had waned considerably, but the unearthing of this new evidence set my mind aflame with curiosity.

Ten years later, and subsequent to Luis Alvarez’s death, the giant Chicxulub crater on the coast of Yucatán Mexico was discovered. The date of the impact was 66 million years ago. This virtually ended any doubt that a giant meteor had crashed into our world causing a massive dust cloud that blocked the sun and was mostly responsible for killing off the dinosaurs. It was a cataclysmic and fateful event and one that eventually allowed mammals, specifically us, to evolve and dominate the world. From our chauvinistic perspective, there could not have been a more fortuitous stroke of luck than that extraterrestrial ball of fire.

But not all of these encounters are advantageous. There is a hypothesis that every 26 million years a death star that orbits in tandem with the Sun pummels the Earth with a shower of meteorites causing massive death and havoc among its inhabitants. Fortunately Homo Sapiens were still a gleam in eye of their Creator during its last stopover. Nevertheless, it pays to be aware that from such episodes worlds are destroyed. The point is self-defense against such would-be intruders of our solar system are perfectly legal, not to mention sensible. I am hardly an alarmist; I’ve counseled concern, not panic, for such things as global warming. We’re all familiar with the adage that begins “an ounce of prevention.” It’s time our planet takes out an insurance policy against the vicissitudes of our volatile Universe.     

Readers of this column know I have long advocated a missile defense shield against the likes of that cherubic thug Kim Jong Un and his nuclear toys. I have continually lamented that our defenses should be more advanced than they presently are. The same is true for those big rocks shaving past our little blue and green orb. Even that meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in mid- February was followed a few hours later by an object that if it hadn’t missed would have hit us with a force 180 times more powerful than the atomic blast that leveled Hiroshima. Science now possesses the tools we need to protect ourselves from the fate of the dinosaurs. Former astronaut Ed Lu has proposed launching a telescope into space near the sun that could map the trajectory of those large objects haphazardly flying around the neighborhood. Once identified, says Lu, it would be easy to deflect with a defensive space shield.

The prospect of constructing such a technological apparatus is not only plausible but feasible in terms of its cost —- especially when shared with a coalition of the interested.  The real question is can we afford not to do it? It’s the kind of indemnification that is well worth the investment; a defense shield will induce us to sleep more peacefully at night even when dreaming of meteors and madmen.