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When Worlds Collide

Week of March 16, 1998

My, the amount of email I have received this past week!

It started with the official announcement, emailed to me without comment by a fellow astronomer, that an asteroid named 1997 XF11 would pass some 40,000 or so kilometers away from the Earth in the year 2028. I must have made some noise aloud, because my officemate immediately asked what was up. Before I could forward the email to him, my mailbox was starting to fill up with messages from what I call my Bad Readers, people that read my Bad Astronomy web pages. Some were simply telling me the news, others wanted to know what my take on the whole thing was.

painting of XF11 by Dan Durda This artwork was painted by my old friend Dan Durda, an astronomer who calculates asteroid orbits and is working on determining their origins. He has quite a few more space art works on his web page.

My initial reaction was of foreboding. I knew right away that the media would take advantage of this (little did I know that the Family Channel was about to re-air their wretched piece of Bad Astronomy called Doomsday Rock again). My next reaction was of a different and perhaps deeper foreboding. 40,000 kilometers is close. How good were those predictions?

The next day my phone rang. I was expecting my wife, but was surprised to find it was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, a local (though large circulation) newspaper. The reporter was doing a piece on the asteroid, and had stumbled upon my website. Being a newsman, I'm surprised he didn't want my head on a pike (after all, he must have seen my Bad News pages!). Actually, he wanted to interview me for a light article about the asteroid. We chatted for a while about my opinion on asteroid research, how I think it's a crime that we are not spending more money on observatories to watch for them, and how the media had already botched up the reporting of it (one radio disk jockey said the asteroid, if it hit us, would explode with the force of "a thousand atomic bombs". I told the reporter it was more like a million). I was excited at the prospect of being in a newspaper, and looked forward to seeing the article.

Then the real bombshell hit. After the orbit was initially announced, some folks at JPL backtracked the asteroid's position and found it on some older images. Using those data, they recalculated the orbit and were able to get better numbers. They found the rock would miss us by almost a million kilometers. To astronomers, this is still a close call, but a larger margin is nice to hear. I don't think any of us desire to join the dinosaurs (science fiction author Larry Niven is fond of saying that the reason the dinosaurs became extinct is that they didn't have a space program. I agree).

I'll have you note that this is science at its best. Jim Scotti, an astronomer who looks for asteroids with the Spacewatch program, made a discovery, and did the correct thing: he sent the data and his best orbit calculation to Brian Marsden, another astronomer who runs a sort of astronomy clearing house. He collects such things and releases them to the astronomy community for further analysis. That's what the JPL people did, and were able to make a more accurate (hopefully!) prediction for XF11. This is what science does, and for science, it works.

Unfortunately, that's not the way it works when the public and the media get involved. The media, as they should, get the information out quickly to the public. This can lead to confusion, since sometimes they must release a story that may not have had enough time to develop, and facts discovered later may contradict the earlier story release. In this case, they ran with the best data they had, which was the first (erroneous, but best at the time) calculation showing a very near passage. It wasn't until a day later when the better calculation was made, but by that time XF11 was global headline news. Worse, during a press conference, astronomers were confused when asked about the new data, which they had not even heard of! Ironically, they were too busy being swamped by the press and had not gotten the new data yet.

Let me say here that I do not blame the press for blowing this out of proportion, nor do I want to give anyone the impression that any astronomer blew it either. Everyone did the right thing, and in the right order. It just seems to me that occasionally good science and good journalism take different, sometimes incompatible, routes. As I have said in these pages before, getting the good science is only part of the scientific process. Relating it to the public is also part of the goal, and should always be given its due. I don't want to slow down the pursuit of science, and I do not want to stand in the way of the press. To be honest, I don't know exactly what astronomers should do when faced with this situation; the news will certainly leak out if it has such dramatic potential. I'm sorry to leave this on such an open note, but I honestly don't know what to do, and I think this deserves thought. If I hear of anything, I'll be sure to write up a page about it.

Oh, and about the newspaper article: the reporter called me back the next day, asking me how I felt now that XF11 would certainly miss the Earth. I told him I was disappointed, not because I wanted it to hit (I sometimes have vivid nightmares about such an event), but because we'd miss a great show; the near pass would have made it a naked eye object, but it missing by more than twice the distance to the Moon would make it about 600 times fainter. I think a passing bullet a mile wide, seen by the unaided eyes of several million people, would make a pretty clear point. Anyway, the article came out last Saturday, and I liked it. He quoted me a lot, and of course I love to see my name in print. He even put a quote by me above one by Einstein! Now that's Bad Astronomy.



©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

This page last modified Saturday, 05-Mar-2011 18:03:22 UTC
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