Friday, March 13, 2009

On the Fast Track to Apathy

In the early hours of March 2, an asteroid between 70 and 150 feet in diameter missed Earth by a paltry 49,000 miles. That's a near-miss. Scientists estimate that it was large enough to have caused damage on par with the Tunguska event that obliterated 800 square miles of Siberian forest in 1908.

Among the flurry of reports peppering Internet news sites in the wake of Earth's near-miss was the link to an article published in Geophysical Journal International in 2003. This article reports that a 1.1-kilometer-diameter asteroid named 1950 DA has a 0.0% to 0.3% chance of impacting Earth on March 16, 2880. Sure, an impactor that size would cause catastrophic regional damage and result in a massive death toll for whatever is roaming the planet in the 29th century—long after even Duck Dodgers is dust. But as can be seen in the article's top left corner, this was a "fast track paper," which means that its importance and timeliness were great enough that the journal bumped it ahead of other articles so that its information could be disseminated as quickly as possible.

What fascinates Mount Drinkmore is not the possibility of a cosmic collision with the earth, but the fact that this article was fast-tracked 877 years before it's expected to become a relevant topic. Yes, the editors' confidence that their journal will still be publishing in 2880 is admirable, especially considering that the last tree on Earth is scheduled to be cut down in May 2017, effectively ending the age of print media. And it's always crucial that scientific journals remain on the cutting edge.

But to publish something nearly nine centuries in advance? Scores of generations will pass without panicking. Our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will dust off yellowed copies of this article, see that the asteroid is still 400 years away from possible impact, and return unconcerned to their hover-beds or astro-juice. Continuous complacency across unaffected generations could genetically predispose our remote descendants toward apathy for the asteroid—similar to how the interminable delay of Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy album permanently deadened the public's interest in Axl Rose. (Imagine if Chinese Democracy wasn't released until 2880—the Chinese might actually have democracy by then and be able to listen to the album...but who among their recently liberated populace would care after nine centuries of jading from the wait?)

I can understand Geophysical Journal International's desire to sell issues with such articles—and let's face it: an issue that includes news of a potential Earth-impacting asteroid essentially is a science journal's annual swimsuit issue—but an Editor-in-Chief has got to have a cutoff...say, a maximum of 100 years in advance.

Otherwise, a journal's impact factor goes right to hell.

The entire article can be accessed here:

...but don't forget to return to Mount Drinkmore!

(Title page of article copyright Royal Astronomical Society.)