Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beware of Falling Space Rocks!

Earlier this week, I read that a Tunguska-sized meteorite is hurtling in our direction at great speed and immediately felt quite excited at the apocalyptic potential of this space-rock. For those not in the know, “Tunguska” refers to an earlier piece of cosmic debris that exploded above the Krasnoyarsk region in 1908, with a force 1000 times as powerful as that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The funny thing about this explosion is that nobody paid it much attention. Sure, some reindeer-herding Evenk tribesmen spotted lights in the sky, while the force of the blast shattered the windows of houses located hundreds of miles away, and the sky glowed for days afterwards; but it had happened in the middle of nowhere and the Russians were kinda busy… for the next two decades, apparently. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1927 that the mineralogist Leonid Kulik persuaded the Soviet government to fund an expedition to find out what had happened, and even then he had to promise them he’d return with non-existent SPACE IRON for industrial use.

There is thus something mysterious about the Tunguska event, and as a result it has inspired many works of fiction, including my favorite work of contemporary Russian literature, Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy. In those books, the meteor is a chunk of cosmic ice that alerts one of Kulik’s explorers to the fact that he is actually a sentient beam of light from space. He then embarks upon a quest to awaken the hearts of his 23, 000 brothers and sisters sleeping on earth by beating on the chests of lots of blue-eyed blonds with cosmic ice hammers. Eventually, he hopes, the world will end and all the light will be liberated. It’s a pleasingly bizarre read, and might even be meaningful.

When I think about the Tunguska event however I’m mainly interested in the “what-ifs”. What if it had landed a few thousand kilometers to the West? On Saint Petersburg, say? The blast would have destroyed the city, wiping out the royal family, Russia’s aristocracy and intelligentsia and the course of history would have been very different. There would have been no revolution and possibly no World War I. Our world would look very different today- and all because of a random chunk of junk from space. It shows how contingent our existence is, the extent to which our destinies are at the mercy of entirely meaningless outside factors.

Take the dinosaurs for instance. They were just wandering about; sleeping, eating and defecating when WHAM! A piece of space junk fell out of the sky and killed them all. The hole where it landed is not far from where I live, just across the border, in Mexico.

Or at least that’s the story I was told as a kid. I’m not sure it rings true. One asteroid killed them ALL? That must have been a pretty big asteroid. And indeed, some scientists have posited that it was actually a lot of asteroids, which just happened to land around the same time. Then again, it might not have been asteroids at all but rather erupting super volcanoes which spat enough filth into the atmosphere to blot out the sun and cause all the big lizards to starve and freeze to death. I read somewhere that the last time a super volcano erupted it left only 30 breeding female humans alive on the planet. Our species was very nearly rendered extinct before it had achieved anything worthwhile- and that would have been a real bummer, because without us this planet would be an utterly pointless rock, spinning in space.

I’m not sure I like super volcanoes- from an aesthetic point of view, I mean. Asteroids and meteorites are better. They come from the sky, relentless and unstoppable, descending upon us like the Wrath of God. It is easy to project secularized variants of ancient dreads upon them; you will recall that as the year 2000 approached Hollywood knocked out several cheesy end-of-the-world comet movies.

In the early 2000s however apocalyptic meteors became passé- replaced by terror of Global Warming/Climate Change. This is a more meaningful and optimistic apocalypse. We caused it, so it appeals to our narcissism and guilt, while we fantasize that by eating organic carrots and wearing hemp underwear we can avert doomsday. Space rocks, by contrast must be nuked, which opens up a whole new can of catastrophe.

As for super volcanoes they just explode and kill everything. We probably won’t be seeing many movies about them.

Anyway, the good news is that Tunguska II is going to miss the earth, or at least that’s what the scientists tell us. But who knows, it might bump into another rock and change course, or the aliens piloting it might decide to crash land on top of the White House. You never know. I mean, eventually one of these things is going to hit us. I just hope it’s a bit later. The refined contemplation of apocalypse becomes a lot less appealing when you think there’s a chance it might actually happen to you. 

Originally published 29th Feb 2012