Saturday, September 06, 2003

Asteroid rage

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For years, I’ve been walking around with a sense of baseless dread, chewing my nails when there’s no obvious reason for me to chew them. Finally, my paranoia has a name: “2003 QQ47.”

That’s the name of an asteroid two-thirds of a mile wide that, earlier this week, British astronomers said is rocketing straight toward Earth with human extinction on its mind. Worse, the predicted date of this catastrophe is March 21, 2014. If you’ve made a dentist appointment for that day, astronomers said, you should probably reschedule.

Of course, British astronomers were also saying that, according to calculations, the chances of 2003 QQ47 hitting Earth is 1 in 909,000.

A Sept. 2 Associated Press story about 2003 QQ47 — headlined “ASTEROID DUE TO COLLIDE WITH EARTH” — said that the asteroid had only been tracked for a week. The reporter seemed rather calm for somebody staring extinction in the face: “The risk of a collision could fall as its movements are further tracked.”

“I would say there’s no cause for concern at all,” said Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the time looking tragically shortsighted.

This next tidbit of information warmed the cockles of my heart. If 2003 QQ47 collides with Earth, according to the AP story, “the rock would have the force of 350,000 megatons, or eight million times more powerful than the nuclear bomb that U.S. forces dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II.”

If you held a gun to my head and asked me to describe my outlook on life, I would first try to wrestle the gun away from you — barring success, I would call myself “optimistically pessimistic.” I always think the worst will happen, but I really hope it won’t.

To make this condition worse, I’m drowning in news. I edit news for a living, and most news is, sadly, about atrocities: people blowing each other to bits, others getting decapitated by elevator doors, incurable viruses, environmental plagues, the cancer-causing effects of margarine, the perils of not washing one’s hands, or of washing them too much — you name it.

To an optimistic pessimist who wallows in news like me, a 1 in 909,000 chance that an asteroid will collide with Earth in the near future is practically even odds. An asteroid collision would fit in very nicely with all the other horrible news happening every day, and it’s more possible than my hitting the Powerball, particularly since I don’t buy tickets. You see why I’m climbing the walls?

So I was all set to stock up on D batteries and tinned meat and crawl into my bunker located deep below the earth’s crust when I read on Space.com that 2003 QQ47 will not hit Earth. Somebody goofed — probably that Fitzsimmons clown. He seemed a little too calm, if you ask me.

I look like a mellow character. A friend from college once described me as “jolly” (he was drunk at the time). It’s a façade to hide that I’m a compulsive worrier.

I often worry about the wrong things. I eat too much junk food, but I don’t worry about that excessively — not nearly as much as I worry if the mail doesn’t arrive by 1:30. I can barely remember the name of my car insurance company, and I don’t much care. But every time I leave the bathroom I’ll spend 40 minutes checking and rechecking to see if my fly is down. I’ll wait 8,000 miles to change the oil in my car, but if the dog gives me a sad look I’ll start worrying that she’s secretly mad at me.

I also spend time worrying that I worry too much.

So naturally, when I read cockamamie headlines about enormous space rocks screaming down from the heavens to annihilate the human race in the next 10 years, I worry about it, even though I’ve read the odds and I know it’s not really going to happen.

By then, I’ve already spent too much time reading the news story and staring at advertisements, which is the whole reason why some jerk wrote the hyped-up headline in the first place.

Now that I’ve started worrying, I’m too pessimistic to believe that an asteroid won’t collide with Earth at some point.

Dig this: NASA has catalogued a list of near-Earth objects like comets and asteroids that it considers “potentially hazardous,” meaning sometime in the future one of them could slam into our planet. It’s an interstellar rogues’ gallery. According to a NASA Web site, there are 524 of these objects. No kidding. I may find a use for my batteries and Spam after all.

The site is maddeningly vague when it comes to details about these celestial deathtraps. I have too many questions that the Alan Fitzsimmonses of the world have no answers for:

-- If we’re all doomed, why the hell did I bother taking four semesters of Spanish?

-- If an asteroid heads toward Earth, is there some way we can minimize human deaths — possibly by diverting it to land on a Republican convention?

-- Let’s say we find some way to blast incoming asteroids to smithereens with a laser-beam-equipped spaceship. Will I, with my superior skill at the Atari 2600 video game “Asteroids,” be drafted?

-- Even though 2003 QQ47 isn’t scheduled to collide with the planet, will City Councilor Leo Pelletier still want to cancel the 2014 Holy Ghost feast?

-- How, if at all, would a catastrophic asteroid disaster affect the performance of my mutual funds? I keep hoping they’ll take off one of these days — but I’m not holding my breath.

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