We live in a pretty safe world. Or at least, where I am it is pretty safe. Despite the excessive portrayal of violence in the news, the chances of injury from either accident or crime has been on the decline for some time. Parents may become (needlessly?) overprotective, and students can develop a sense of complacent protection. That is, if there is possible danger, that Someone is Taking Care of It.
So yesterday we were talking about the flotsam and jetsam of the solar system – comets, asteroids, meteors etc, and we were discussing the recent bolide over Siberia, the close approach of 2012DA14 on the same day, and the Tunguska event of 1908 – when one of the students asked “So what do they do when they see that one of these is going to hit Earth?”
“Who is ‘they‘?”
“You know, astronomers and NASA and stuff”
“Well, there isn’t really a ‘they’. To look for these requires funding, and with tight budgets, few government bodies want to fund projects that do not have foreseeable, immediate benefits. So there aren’t many people looking.”
“Ya, but, if they do find one, what do they do? Like, just…” I think he was waiting for me to finish his sentence. Which I didn’t. “Just… just…”
“Crash a nuke into it?” another student suggested helpfully.
At this point I had to make their world a little bit less safe, and I explained that, at present, there is nothing we can do. Only if a potential impact is discovered years in advance is there any chance of altering the course of even a small asteroid, and even that requires technology we don’t actually possess. Not that it isn’t theoretically possible, but it would require a very rapid design and construction, and it could only be launched within a narrow window of opportunity. It’s not the movies, and it’s not off-the-shelf parts. In other words, at present, there is nothing we could do.
The take away message of the discussion was there is still plenty of opportunity for Science to save the world, and a need for people to step up and make it happen. Though maybe not a worldview change for most students, it was a chip in the safe bubble they see of the world, and a real, practical. and important application of what we have been learning.
And that’s all I can ask for.