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Thursday, May 23, 2024

What is the best way to inform the rest of the world that Doomsday has arrived?

In theory, one of the astronomer’s responsibilities is to alert the general public when something really large and terrible is going to occur: the sun is about to explode, a black hole has just strayed into Earth’s path, hostile aliens have formed an armada just behind the moon, and so on.

This is the duty that a couple of scientists, represented by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, take on when they find that a “planet-killing” comet is heading straight for Earth and must spread the word about it.

While I was watching it, it brought back memories of my own reporting experience with Really Bad News. In March of 1998, I was the new deputy scientific editor at The New York Times, and my apocalyptic audience was tiny but elite: the editors of the newspaper’s top division. I had barely been on the job for a month when this happened. Nobody truly knew who I was. My immediate supervisor, the scientific editor, had taken the week off, which meant I was in control of the department.

Brian Marsden, director of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, which serves as the International Astronomical Union’s clearinghouse for cosmic discoveries, as well as the director of the Minor Planet Center, which is in charge of keeping track of comets and asteroids, provided the information for this storey. Earlier that day, he had estimated that an asteroid newly found, a mile-wide rock designated 1997 XF11 (now known as asteroid 35396), would pass within 30,000 miles of Earth on Oct. 26, 2028 — and that it had a tiny but genuine possibility of impacting our planet.

The front-page gathering devolved into a deliberate state of confusion and disarray. In addition to responding to concerns and ideas from the senior editors, I spent the rest of the night fielding questions from newsroom colleagues who were wondering if they should continue to pay their mortgages. Photographs of the asteroid, which appeared as a hazy dot in the night, were sent in by astronomers. Having an adrenaline-fueled crash course on the vetting a front-page article through in the newsroom before it can be published was a great way to start my day.

I didn’t want to go home that night, but I had no choice but to do so in a tense tizzy. The next morning, everything had already been completed. Dr. Marsden had recalculated the asteroid’s trajectory and discovered that 1997 XF11 would miss the Earth by 600,000 miles, despite the fact that images of the asteroid from many years earlier had surfaced overnight. That was still dangerously near by cosmic standards, but it was safe for civilisation to survive.

Dr. Marsden was publicly admonished by his colleagues and the media in the following days, claiming that he was a “Chicken Little” who had done “cockamamie calculations” without consulting other astronomers who were well aware that the asteroid presented no threat. NASA warned the astronomers that they needed to get their act together before catching the agency and the public by surprise with news of the apocalypse in the sky.

In his apology, Dr. Marsden said that his actions had caused a false alarm, but that he had contributed to raising awareness about the dangers of asteroid impacts and extinction.

I felt sorry about Dr. Marsden, who had been a sardonic, cherubic presence in my life for the previous 20 years of astronomy reporting. (He passed away in 2010.) And I was feeling sorry for myself. In your first month on the job, how frequently do you have the opportunity to report on the looming end of the world? When the headline “Kiss Your Asteroid Goodbye!” appeared in The New York Post the next day, I took it personally and reacted negatively.

However, according to Amy Mainzer, an asteroid researcher at the University of Arizona who acted as a scientific adviser for the film “Don’t Look Up,” the occurrence was a watershed moment.

NASA presently spends around $150 million per year on the project. “There has been significant progress since 1997 XF11,” said Donald Yeomans, a comet specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena who publicly chastised Dr. Marsden in 1998.

These days, computers undertake the process of classifying asteroids and comets, automatically computing orbits from fresh observations, comparing them with existing objects, rating them for their hazard, and transmitting the findings to astronomers who then use the information. Anything that comes within five million miles of the Earth is referred to as a Potentially Hazardous Object, or PHO, for short.

While the film was filmed during the epidemic, it was done such with great care that it is difficult not to draw similarities with the current health problem.

A Boyle
A Boyle
I cover Science related topics for The National Era
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