Sunday, September 29, 2013

Asteroids, Comets, and Doing Our Job

(Image © Don Davis; from PAINTINGS at

The last I heard, scientists were still debating what killed about three quarters of Earth's plant and animal species in what used to be called the Cretaceous–Tertiary (K–T) extinction. It's got a new name now, which won't bring the dinosaurs back: and that's another topic.

It's starting to look like the mass extinction happened after near-simultaneous impacts left craters in the Yucat√°n Peninsula, Ukraine, and North Sea.

Meanwhile, massive volcanic eruptions were dumping unhealthy stuff into the atmosphere. Those eruptions may have been caused by a fourth impact. 66,000,000 years ago was a really bad time to be on Earth.

The good news is that impacts like the one at Chicxulub don't happen often.

We think something the size of the Chicxulub object fall every 100,000,000 years, on average. That's an average, though. They don't come at regular intervals, so the next Chicxulub-size event might happen exactly 100,000,000 years after the last, 35,000,000 years from now; or after a longer interval.

Or something six miles across may fall out of the sky before the Summer Olympics in Tokyo: we don't know, but we're learning more every year.

Getting Ready: Or Not

What if astronomers noticed that an asteroid or comet would collide with Earth in 2019, and at least one nation had the technology necessary to push the asteroid or comet into an orbit that wouldn't cross Earth's.

Would using that technology be the right thing to do?

The question isn't as silly as it may seem.

Fate, God, and Fashions

Folks who assume that future events can't be changed might argue that trying to change our "fate" would bring even greater disasters. "Fatalism," by the way, doesn't necessarily mean "an attitude of resignation in the face of some future event or events which are thought to be inevitable:"
  • "Fatalism"
    Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (December 18, 2002)
It's even possible that someone would decide that God sent the asteroid or comet, and that trying to deflect it would offend the Almighty.

I didn't think 'God kills people' made sense when a high-profile Christian said that God killed Haitians as revenge for something he thought their remote ancestors did. (January 16, 2010)

I don't think it would make sense in this hypothetical case, either.

Science and Silliness

(from Non Sequitur, Wiley Miller (March 5, 2013), used w/o permission)

Science and technology aren't as popular, or fashionable, as they were a half-century back. My memory's too good to yearn for the 'good old days,' though. Human nature, good and bad, hasn't changed much:
"Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared to the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good."
Abraham Lincoln, Response to a serenade (November 10, 1864)

"For mischief comes not out of the earth, nor does trouble spring out of the ground;
"2 But man himself begets mischief, as sparks fly upward."
(Job 5:6-7)

"God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them."
(Genesis 1:27)
Science and technology aren't good or bad by themselves. Learning about this creation and developing new ways to use it are part of being human. What matters is how we use what we have. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2292-2296)

Getting back to that hypothetical incoming comet or asteroid.

Using Our Brains

Robotic explorers started visiting comets in 1985, and asteroids in 1991. NASA has another asteroid mission scheduled for launch in 2016. That mission has a catchy name: OSIRIS-Rex, short for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security -- Regolith Explorer.

Bringing a two ounce sample back from an asteroid isn't the same as mounting engines on the rock and moving it. But I think asteroid mining is decades, not centuries, away.

With avoiding a replay of the Crectaceous-Paleogene extinction event's opening act as incentive, my guess is that at least one national government would decide that asteroid missions should be hurried along.

We might even see the sort of cooperation that's maintaining the International Space Station. Then again, maybe not.

The question isn't whether or not we have the knowledge and at least the beginnings of the technology needed to move asteroids and comets. It's a matter of having the good sense to use that knowledge.

Getting a Grip About God

"If God cares, why do bad things happen?" It's not a daft question, particularly since bad things happen to good people, and vice versa.

The problem isn't that human beings deserve punishment because we're all bad, or that God goofed and made a world that doesn't work right. Genesis is quite clear about that:
"God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed - the sixth day."
(Genesis 1:31)
Trouble started when the first of us made a monumentally bad decision: and humanity has been living with the consequences ever since.

We're still basically good creatures, living in a world that's basically good: but we have free will. God won't interfere with our power to make decisions, and hasn't fired us as stewards.

Looks like we're stuck with free will, and the responsibility of taking care of this creation. (Catechism, 299, 309-314, 2402, 2404, 2417)

Related posts:

Getting a grip about sin, God, and all that:
  • God is in control
    (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 303)
  • Sacred Scripture often doesn't mention secondary causes
    • That's not "primitive"
    • It's recognizing that God is in control
      • And that we should trust Him
    (Catechism, 304)
  • Jesus says
    • God
      • Knows our needs
      • Will give us what we need
    • We should trust God to give us what we need
      • The way a child trusts parents
    (Catechism, 305, Matthew 6:31-33)
  • The physical world is
    • Basically good
    • Not perfect
    • "In a state of journeying" towards its ultimate perfection
    (Catechism, 299, 309-310, 385)
  • Sin is
    • Real
    • A misuse of free will
    (Catechism, 386-412)
  • Humans are
    • Animals
      • A special sort of animal
        • Endowed with reason
        • Capable of
          • Understanding
          • Discernment
        (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1951)
    • People
      • Rational and therefore like God
        • Made in the image and likeness of God
        (Catechism, 1700-1706)
      • Created with free will
      • Master over our actions
        (Catechism, 1730)
    • Stewards of the physical world
      • Responsible for its
        • Use
        • Maintenance
      (Catechism, 373, 2402-2406)
There's a great deal more to know about 'all of the above,' of course: yet more topics.

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.