Yesterday was an interesting day for space rocks: Not only was there an asteroid that passed by the Earth at close range, but there was also a meteorite that blasted down in Russia. (Asteroids and meteors are both chunks of space rock, but asteroids are in orbit around the Sun whereas meteors have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. If a meteor hits the Earth’s surface, we call it a meteorite.)
Scientists were expecting Asteroid 2012 DA14 to make a close pass-by the Earth yesterday, but the meteorite took everyone by surprise. While the asteroid posed no harm to humans, the meteorite created a sonic boom that shattered windows which injured over a thousand people and carved out large craters on the Earth’s surface.
I’m not going to retell the hows and whys of these two events since there are lots of existing websites that do a great job of explaining the asteroid and meteorite. But in case you missed it, check out this video of Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicst from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, explaining why scientists could predict the asteroid but not the meteorite:
With all this drama, mayhem, destruction and told-you-so aspects of the asteroid-meteorite events, it’s no surprise that yesterday’s events were the lead segment on many TV news stations. I had to groan and roll my eyes when, at the end of the story on my local news, the anchor ended with a statement that, “The Solar System is a dangerous place.” This comment frustrates and angers me because it encourages people to be afraid of the Universe.
David Morrison from NASA’s Lunar Science Institute coined the term cosmophobia – an “unreasoning fear of the cosmos”. Personally, I don’t really like that term because it tends to be associated with doomsday fears. While I’m sure there are plenty of people using yesterday’s asteroid-meteorite events to justify prepping their doomsday bunkers, most people don’t go so far down that end-of-the-world road.
Instead, there seems to be a generalized fear of the Universe, a feeling of powerlessness in the face of cosmic forces that are presumed to be out to get us. The root of this fear is obvious – human beings cannot control the forces of the Universe. From a scientific perspective, we can observe and learn about these forces and motions, and sometimes we can use that information to protect ourselves, but ultimately we are not in control. And that freaks a lot of people out.
I totally get that. But while we may not be in control of the Universe, we are in control of our individual responses to the Universe. The reason why the newscasters comment pisses me off is because it encourages people to respond with fear when that is not necessary. Instead of feeling that the Universe is a dangerous place that is “out to get us”, why not respond with gratitude for all the ways that the Universe is on our side?
If you stop to think about it, the Universe helps us out all the time. For starters, when the Solar System was forming, the Earth ended up at just the right distance from the Sun to make the development of life possible. That worked out pretty well for us. Gravity is a Universal force that we are not in control of that works to our advantage. While it might be cool to think about living in a world where everything floats, the practical reality of day-to-day life without gravity would be problematic. Even those dreaded meteorites can be viewed as our friends since they were likely instrumental in depositing the elements for water on Earth during the planet’s formation. Think about that the next time you have a drink of water and say a word of thanks to the Solar System for providing it.