End of the World

99942 apophis
An apartment building-sized asteroid may impact the Earth in 2029 or 2036. With an atmospheric entry of 750 megatons of kinetic energy (compared to the 10 megaton release in Meteor Crater) 99942 Apophis could be a big deal.

I was clicking through the channels the other night and stumbled upon an episode ofUniversity Place Presents on PBS entitled “The History of the End of the World”.

At first I suspected it would be all about astronomy; meteorites and asteroids, solar flares and rogue planets. Juicy cataclysmic stuff hurtling towards us from the unknown reaches of our galaxy.

But it turns out that demise by space debris is a relatively new concept in human history. Before Copernicus, people believed that the end of the world would come about as an upheaval in social order, or perhaps by the hand of God or an expanding and contracting universe.

Copernicus discovered that we’re not alone in a sphere, but rather, we’re vulnerable and out in open space with a lot of company. That’s when our stories of destruction changed. The universe became a whole lot scarier.

Just two years ago some of us went to bed on December 11 wondering if the sun would rise the next day. Would there be a flip of the Earth’s magnetic axis or its rotational axis? Would the alignment between the Earth, the Sun, and the center of the galaxy somehow be disastrous? Would we be struck by the rogue Planet X? And how scary was it to have a near-Earth miss and the Chelyabinsk meteor entering the Earth’s atmosphere over Russia only six weeks later?

The possibility of space debris falling on us frightens a lot of people, so many that the term Cosmophobia has been coined to define people who fear outer space and all the things it has to throw at us. Perhaps it’s time to get our aluminum hats out and wear them outdoors all the time.

Lynn